“We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own future.”
Winter, 1969. Two young actors take a trip to the country to escape from London. Their careers are going nowhere and they’re broke. Getting away might relieve the boredom of hanging around their freezing Camden digs so they answer an ad in the Times offering a cottage in the Lake District for £8 a week. When they get there they find it’s a mess. Water pours through the roof when it rains and it never stops raining. There’s no fuel. They didn’t bring food with them either. It’s a nightmare. Now the city seems comfortable. They can’t wait to return. When they do get back one of them has an acting job waiting for him and leaves. Now 24- year old Bruce Robinson finds himself alone in a big house he once shared with other bright young things. So he begins to write a screenplay based on his experiences as a struggling actor and the bittersweet result forms what many years later would become Withnail & I.
Robinson sets aside his writing though when he finally starts working again. Sure he’d been in a big movie before playing Benvolio in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo & Juliet (68) but most of his time on that film was spent dodging the sexual advances of the film’s flamboyant director. Safer ground then working with Ken Russell on his Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970). Russell may be an eccentric but he has little interest in buggering his cast. Robinson’s beauty leads to his biggest role in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele (75) as the emotionally cold army officer who becomes the object of Adele’s (Isabelle Adjani) infatuation. Though he cuts a dash in his officer’s uniform it becomes clear to Robinson and audiences that he is a terrible actor.
So Robinson starts writing again. The success of his screenplay for The Killing Fields (84, Roland Joffe) allows him to pitch Withnail to Handmade Films. A film company set up by musician George Harrison and American businessman Denis O’Brien initially to distribute Monty Python’s controversial Life of Brian (79, Terry Jones), but which would become one of the most successful production companies of the 80’s financing among others The Long Good Friday (80, John Mackenzie), and Time Bandits (81, Terry Gilliam). There’s trouble though with O’Brien who can’t see the subtle humour in the screenplay and hates its end of an era melancholy. He wants uncle Monty be more monstrously comic in his predatory pursuit of Paul McGann’s narrator, whereas Robinson and actor Richard Griffiths affecting performance create a sympathetic if slightly mad figure trying to alleviate his own loneliness. Robinson has to fight to film key scenes and spends his own money obtaining the rights to certain songs in the film.
Withnail & I did decent enough if unspectacular business on its initial release. Reviews were mixed Handmade even let Robinson and star Richard E. Grant make another film, the anti-Thatcherite satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (89). The experience of directing a Hollywood serial killer movie called Jennifer 8 (92) caused Robinson to retreat from the film industry altogether. Yet the cult of Withnail & I was growing steadily and by the mid-90’s the film found a new lease of life with the ‘Cool Britannia’ generation. Robinson became bankable again selling screenplays for US studio films Return to Paradise (98, Joseph Ruben) and In Dreams (98, Neil Jordan). However he hated both films so much he gave up on the movie business again and quit to write a novel. It’s doubtful he would have directed again had Johnny Depp not personally sought out Robinson to adapt Hunter S. Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary. No studio interference this time. Everything went well during shooting film came out in 2011 to undeservedly poor reviews and died at the box-office. Shame. Maybe in twenty years people will learn to like it. Until then as Withnail would say, “chin chin."