With Withnail and I, he made the funniest British film of all time. Since then, Bruce Robinson’s career has been as much tragedy as comedy. Now, after two decades in the wilderness, he’s back with The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp. In this exclusive interview, Will Self celebrates the invincible mojo of one of our greatest living Englishmen.
I first met Bruce Robinson in the mid-Nineties — it was a vague decade for both of us, so I feel no need to hammer down the year. We were lunching with mutual friends, whose house in the vegetable underbelly of Birmingham is a curious Arts and Crafts repro of a Tudor mansion. So, picture the scene: side tables strewn with well-carved beef bones, a long dining table scattered with dirtied plates and smeary glasses, silvery winter-afternoon light falling from high, diamond-mullioned windows and oily ancestral gentry peering down from the wood-panelled walls.
Bruce, as I recall it, sat at the head of the table. He had then — and still does — one of those rare faces that combine great beauty and fierce intelligence: hazel-green eyes, high cheekbones, pale olive skin, dark brown hair stranded in the stylish appendix of the late-Sixties (think Mick Jagger in that white dress at the Hyde Park concert for Brian Jones, but without the nauseatingly self-satisfied pout). Robinson is slight and languorous — and although he has given up several times over the years, in my mind’s eye his face is always wreathed in cigarette or cigar smoke. On that occasion — I’m fairly certain — fine wines had been consumed.
I had a riff going at the time that I thought a pretty amusing and outré subversion of male braggadocio: “My penis,” I would ease into the appropriate conversational sheath, “is so small that I am incapable of sexual penetration — all my children were conceived by artificial insemination.” I’m not going to deny that I believed this satiric sally might possibly appeal to the man who I considered then — and still consider to be — one of the finest satiric artists this country has ever fostered, nor will I disallow that I wanted to impress him — I still want to impress him — but what I in fact succeeded in doing was setting Bruce up for a slam-dunk. Without any hesitation he replied in his curiously hybrid accent — gusting nasally out of the Isle of Thanet, but lilting with warm southern Californian breezes — “My penis is so large…” a three-beat pause to seize the graphic imagination of everyone in the room “… that I fear my erections.”
I don’t think I’ve ever quite so enjoyed being upstaged by anyone, and I still recount this anecdote as an example of perfect comic timing. But on setting it down here certain new things occur to me: it isn’t just that Bruce’s line neatly capped my own satiric trope — for, after all, what can be more absurd than a well-endowed man in a state of anxiety about his very engorgement? Nor is it that he came up with it on the hoof — it’s that the line is a near-perfect encapsulation of his strange and wilful oeuvre, which, like Robinson himself, seems always to be teetering between exaggeration and anxiety.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, I have seen Bruce regularly if not often. Usually, if I have an event at the Hay Festival — that Nuremberg rally of the English bourgeoisie — my family will go and stay with Bruce’s for a night or two in their 16th-century farmhouse, which sits in a slumberous valley beneath the Black Mountains. What I’m trying to declare here is an interest: I’m interested in Bruce Robinson — extremely interested, possibly even a little obsessed, and knowing him personally hasn’t diminished that interest. Some creative artists seem rather lesser than their works — Robinson’s works are indubitably large, but his mojo is unquestionably larger still.
It all began for me — as it probably did for most of you reading this — with Withnail and I, the beyond-cultish cult movie with which Robinson will forever be associated. “At times I’ve felt it’s like a colostomy bag,” he told me when we met at my London home for the purposes of this article, “wherever I go it comes bobbing along behind. I can’t do anything without people referencing Withnail, and it’s like 24 years ago — still, kids going to university seem to discover it anew every year, or so my correspondence tells me.” This is a fair sampling of Bruce’s spoken style: the mixture of demotic and oddly recondite vocabulary, the laconic delivery — the sense of barely contained taedium vitae in constant battle with wry amusement.
It must be infuriating to have people, time and again, tell you how much they loved your first film — because it would tend to make all the rest seem like an irrelevance. And there have been others: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), and Jennifer 8 (1992), and now after a 19-year layover comes the much-heralded The Rum Diary, an adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s first — and only — novel that stars Thompson and Bruce’s mutual friend Johnny Depp.
These are Robinson’s sole credits as both director and screenwriter, but in the intervening years he’s been far from idle — there’s been an autobiographical novel — the scabrous yet moving The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman; a gem of a short story, “Paranoia in the Launderette”; a brace of beautiful children’s books with his second wife, the illustrator Sophie Windham; and then there’s the small matter of the screenplays — not only The Killing Fields, which he penned for producer David Putnam, but the other, um, 36, including adaptations of everything from Emile Zola’s epic souterrain gloomfest, Germinal, to JG Ballard’s psychodrama of the built environment, High-Rise.
Oh, and lest we forget, Bruce has also spent a fair proportion of the past 11 years seeking out — and definitively establishing — the identity of the world’s most famously unknown serial killer. But we’ll rip into that one later. Now: back to the screenwriting.
Uma Thurman and Andy Garcia in Jennifer 8 (1992)
It’s a familiar plaint, hearing Bruce — in his cavernous stone-flagged kitchen, where he coils in a chair beside the smoking fireplace — refer to himself as “a prostitute”, and then comparing his lot unfavourably with those of us who troll Grubb Street rather than Sunset Boulevard: “At least your words and your currency is out there, whereas if you’re a screenwriter… well, you may as well not exist once the script has been delivered, unless, that is, they actually make the movie.” In his darker moments — and, unsurprisingly, there are quite a few of these — Bruce feels that he has sent his muse out streetwalking on the dirty boulevard, but to me he also acknowledged: “Acting, writing, direction, I see them all as aspects of the same thing — essentially I’m a dramatist, and I act it out when I write it — being the characters, they’ll say a line to me and from that line I grow a scene.”
Robinson behind the camera also cleaves to this approach: “I’m not a technical expert — I don’t know all about lenses, I couldn’t tell a 35mm from a 70 —” he pauses. “Um, well, actually I could — but what I’m trying to say is that I’m an actor’s director. Mostly in movies an actor has to come to a mark, an X, and deliver his line — but that’s so artificial, that’s not how people really behave. I remember myself as an actor and how I would think: how does he know what I want to do as a character? So I work with the actors to find that out and when I have the scene I set up the shot.”
It would seem a method almost purpose-made for the man who many regard as the most consummate film actor of his generation — and Robinson was effusive about Depp’s abilities: “He’s very fast — by take two he’s probably got it. He’s also amazingly generous, there’s no hanging about in his trailer — when we were shooting he’d always come and stand behind the camera reading lines off [to the other actors] when required, normally this is something a star will get a script girl to do.”
The relationship with Depp goes back a decade to when they were introduced in Los Angeles — predictably, Depp, like anyone worth knowing, was a paid-up Withnail fan: “He asked me if I wanted to direct Fear and Loathing,” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s gonzo masterpiece, eventually brought to the screen by Terry Gilliam) “but I declined it — it just wasn’t my kind of humour.” But Depp wouldn’t let Robinson go, and when he acquired the rights to Thompson’s novel based on his experiences as a newspaper reporter in Fifties Puerto Rico, he sent it to Robinson: “It’s a young man’s book,” Bruce told me, “and I just couldn’t find a way into it. It took weeks, but eventually I realised that what Hunter had done was to split himself into two characters, so once I’d got rid of one of them it all went pretty fast.”
I read The Rum Diary script about three years ago. At that time the prospect of it getting made — with Bruce in the canvas chair — was looking increasingly likely. I recall lying in a high overstuffed bed in an upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, gripped late into the summer night by the raciness of Robinson’s attack, the dialogue zinging off the page in staccato couplets while a crazed moth batted around in the lampshade. This, I thought, was surely a shotgun literary marriage made in heaven — or hell — Thompson and Robinson, such prosaic names coupled in such wild, slapstick imaginings.
And yet… and yet… the beginnings for Robinson seemed ordinary enough, born in 1946 in Kent, and brought up in the seaside town of Broadstairs. On the face of it his background was stolid, conventional, English petit-bourgeois. But the picture painted in The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is of an upholstery of repressed lies, coiled like springs ready to rip apart unsuspecting buttocks.
1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising, AKA “The Boil”
The rear-end image isn’t gratuitous. In the book, the Penman/Robinson character is compelled by a strange obsession: he shits himself and leaves his soiled underpants lying about in odd corners of the house. His father is a furious ex-rugby player who runs a wholesale newspaper business, while his mother is a mute termagant, a past mistress of passive aggression. The only love in the boy’s life comes from his maternal grandfather, a whimsical, poetic figure, who throughout the main action of the novel lies dying, while Thomas plots to steal his fabled pornography collection. To what extent, I asked Bruce, was Penman an accurate portrayal of his childhood?
“Oh, pretty accurate,” he drawled. “I mean, I mucked around with the grandfather’s age — mine was quite a bit younger when he died, but beyond that it’s faithful. To my memory, at least.” The dirty protest the young Penman/Robinson was engaged in was, in Freudian terms, a classic response to being unloved: healthy development involves praise for the infant that moves its bowels on cue, deprived of this the child indulges in extempore shitting — shit terrorism, if you will. And the reason for this neglect? The bigoted, blond brute was, of course, not the dark slight child’s father at all — Robinson has a hunch that his real father was a US Army soldier, stationed in Britain prior to the D-Day landings, and possibly, given his own demi-Mediterranean looks, an Italian American. However, in conformity with the rules of classical tragedy; his mother would never, ever tell.
“I remember going down to stay with her when she was dying,” Bruce told me, “and it was terrifying: in the middle of the night I heard this dreadful sound, this eurrrrrgh — and I got up to see what it was, and she wanted, y’know, to be put on the commode, and I was helping her on and she was yellow man, yellow — and she felt like a Kentucky Fried Chicken. I mean, I thought her arm was going to come off in my hand…” But even when it could no longer matter to her, she wouldn’t tell her son who his own father had been.
It was the culmination of a relationship scarred by such chronic withholding. Bruce remembered, “Being with her and Sophie in a video rental place in Broadstairs and both my first films were there — Withnail and The Boil,” (How to Get Ahead in Advertising, which Robinson almost always refers to as “The Boil film”) “and I pointed them out to her, but instead she rented a documentary of footage of the Queen Mother’s birthday celebrations, and we had to sit there watching this stuff getting pissed on sherry.” When Thomas Penman was published, “she told me on the phone, ‘I’m going to go out and buy your book tomorrow — so I can burn it!’”
Given such an upbringing anyone might’ve grown into a traumatised adult, but as Bruce put it to me: “When I wrote the book and looked back at it all, it seemed obvious that that child would have to end up an alcoholic or a drug addict.” But before the shadows massed, the prodigiously talented young Robinson — who had begun bashing out play scripts on an old Olivetti typewriter given him by his grandfather — escaped Thanet for drama school in London. Straight from the Central School of Speech and Drama he scored a plum role as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet.
I remember being taken to see this by my own father — remember, even, the young Robinson’s extraordinary good looks, although I confess I was more transfixed by the split-second glimpse we got of the teenage Juliet’s nipples as she (the adorable Olivia Hussey) rolled over in bed after her first night of love.
But the big-screen experience was eclipsed for Robinson by the attentions paid to him by the predatory Zeffirelli, an abuse of power that he repaid — or so it’s said — by modelling the egregious Uncle Monty in Withnail on the Italian director. Although a few more acting roles followed, Bruce’s career soon settled down into the doldrums — a five-year period of forlorn auditioning and notebook-scribbling that he condensed, in Withnail, into a scant few weeks.
The movie has been much anatomised over the years — and it’s never far from the top of any “Best of British…” list, whatever the genre — and I’m not sure I want to contribute too much to this hagiography here, no matter how justified. To Bruce himself I simply observed how astonishingly well-written the descriptive passages are. When I came to write a film script of my own I bought the published version of his Withnail script and used it as a kind of tutorial guide, so impressed was I.
Robinson wrote the screenplay for 1984’s the killing fields
“Well,” Bruce said, “I’ve always felt that in a comedy script the stage directions should also have a comedic value.” I persisted though, “You know, I think some of the descriptive passages are as evocative of decay and anomie as anything in Dostoevsky — ” and Bruce laughed with unfeigned joy: “Well, you better keep that one in!” But I meant it: “Dostoevsky described hell as perhaps nothing more than a room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs.” This is the very first gag in the script — and it occurs in the directions, not the dialogue. Still, if Withnail on the page is deliriously good, Withnail on the screen is still better: a film that is all about the passage of time that yet remains absolutely timeless. Needless to say, its actual filming was almost as dark and disordered as its subject matter.
The night before the first day’s photography, Bruce found himself “horrified, I mean I’d never done it before — and there I was up a hill with 60 people”. Sitting in a Holiday Inn somewhere near the Lake District location, he inveigled a bottle of vodka from the barman and sat drinking it into the small hours together with the line producer, a philosophic man who had seen all the business had to throw at tyro directors and told Bruce: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a good script, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got good actors or a good crew — none of it’s worth a fuck unless you’ve got good luck.” Bruce paused for dramatic effect: “… Which was a laugh, because in the event we had fucking dreadful luck!” The first scenes were shot in the darkness of Uncle Monty’s country cottage, and when the higher-ups at Handmade Films back in London saw the rushes they descended on Bruce to tell him to: “Make Uncle Monty a flamboyantly camp homosexual — which would’ve ruined it.”
In the event, a showdown on set led to some very good luck: “They washed their hands of it — the producers; they just figured it was a write-off, went back to London and let me get on with it in my own way.” It’s a recurrent theme in Bruce’s tales of his self-admittedly “very ad hoc career”: the rapacious and manipulative Money Men versus the ingenuous and pathetically insecure-cum-vain Broadstairs Boy. We didn’t speak of The Boil film — and indeed, many of Bruce’s interviewers seem to skate over it, perhaps because its dramatic arc so exactly describes the parabola of a collapsing psyche parasitised upon by the pus-ball of Mammon.
“After The Boil film,” Bruce said, “I just couldn’t get a job.” And I suspect this was as much due to the film’s uncompromisingly bleak take on capitalism as it was to the unavailability of the kind of funding he sought: “I wanted to make another smallish British comedy film — like Withnail or The Boil. I even had the script for it and I still think it’s good — it’s called The Block — but Handmade had gone bust and there just wasn’t that kind of finance around…”
Which is how he ended up pitching to Universal and MGM in the classic The Player style, and the Hollywood period of his ad hoc career began, or so Bruce says. But the mounting success of Withnail must’ve helped him get his foot in the door, especially since after a flatlining release in Britain, it was in the States that the cult began to snowball. Unfortunately, the film he successfully pitched in Hollywood was an idea he had no great confidence in — and it turned out later that the studio only green-lit it as a favour to the producer, Scott Rudin.
The McGuffin in Jennifer 8 is the blindness of the character played by Uma Thurman. “The audience were meant to think that the detective who wanted her as a witness was also just hitting on her because she couldn’t see how old and raddled he was…” Robinson had wanted Pacino for the role, but he wasn’t available and the studio forced Andy Garcia on him: “Which was ridiculous, I mean he’s a sweet guy and a good actor, but he and Uma made a very handsome couple.”
The studio massacred the cut — as is their way — losing the entire reel so that it ends sloppily and schlockily, but still, there’s much to admire in the film, which has a believable noirish atmosphere. However, to Bruce the entire story is one of his own hubris. After his first conflicts with the studio, “Sophie told me we should pack our bags and go home — that it was only going to get worse, and she was so right about that.” Whether the debacle was down to Bruce’s character defects or not, it’s true that the inner man hadn’t been silent all this time. Like the boil on the Richard E Grant character’s neck in The Boil film, the neglected boy who creatively shat himself had swelled into a man who, while he confined himself — mostly — to fine wines, nevertheless drank a very great deal of them.
His “colostomy bag” cult favourite Withnail and I
In the late-Seventies, Bruce had found himself plagued by terrible depression: “It was like that Dylan song, y’know the one: ‘I put my fingers against the glass and bowed my head and cried’ — that was my song, that’s the only thing I could listen to.” The song is called “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” and comes from the album John Wesley Harding. To me, Bruce actually misquoted the line before the one set down here — the real line, I think most significantly, is: “I awoke in anger so alone and terrified.”
Bruce’s anger and terror had puddled into a vinous despair, but the psychiatrist he went to adopted a radical approach: “He was a brilliant guy, a psychoanalyst, but what he actually did was to shoot me up with sodium pentothal — have you ever had it? It’s an amazing drug, like a head full of joyous bubbles.” Ensconced on the couch and lubricated with the Nazis’ favoured truth serum, at the shrink’s prompting Bruce disgorged himself of the nightmare of his childhood. “I enjoyed it, but of course I couldn’t remember a thing I’d told him. Then, after about six weeks of sessions, I came in one day and he said: ‘No more sodium pentothal.’ After that he used what he’d learned to analyse me.”
Cathartic this process may have been, but the Bruce I met in the mid-Nineties was still a visibly tormented man. It’s said — perhaps apocryphally — that Richard E Grant had never been drunk before when he was given the role of Withnail, and that Bruce forced him to undertake a drinking bout in order to experience his character’s semi-permanent condition. It might well have been difficult for any teetotal actor to have played Withnail, but it would’ve been a rank impossibility — in my view — for anyone but an alcoholic to have written his lines, saturated as they are with such a perfect cocktail of alcoholic ingredients: self-pity, manipulation, vanity — shaken up by that other giddy thing which often surrounds the charismatic drunk: a kind of antic high drama that, at least viewed from afar, remains painfully funny.
Painfully funny the film may be for those debauched types who try and match Withnail’s onscreen consumption — including the lighter fuel and Presuming Ed’s Camberwell Carrot — but for Vivian MacKerrell, the fellow actor [and Robinson’s one-time housemate] on whom he partly based the character, the party ended less amusingly: he died of throat cancer in 1995. Like Marwood (Withnail’s “I”, played by Paul McGann) before him, Bruce got out in time: he stopped drinking in 1998 — using the usual methods — and channelled all that revived energy into a more constructive home life, more movie scripts… and, gulp, his search for the true identity of Jack the Ripper.
The Ripperology may seem a bit left field, even for such an ad hoc career, but when Bruce revealed to me that he was on the trail of the man who committed the Whitechapel murders I wasn’t too surprised. The first time I’d stayed chez Bruce in 1997, he was already dabbling in conspiracy theories of various kinds — albeit with rather more sophistication than the types who credulously see the Pentagon in every pentangle.
It would be easy to dismiss Bruce’s Ripper hunt as just another bit of crankiness to add to the wildflower meadow he painstakingly created in back of the farmhouse by withholding pesticide for year upon year, or indeed his extensive collection of antique firearms, were it not for two factors: the origin of his hunt was so random as to absolve him of any mad intent, and the utterly disinterested zeal with which he has pursued it. Up in Liverpool to do some research for a film script on another unsolved Victorian murder, Bruce ran into an old friend who’d become a Ripperologist; over an Indian meal this chap said: “Y’know there’s one case that will never, ever be solved…” And so Bruce picked up the gauntlet. The bet they made was for £10.
In order to collect, Bruce has been researching and writing for 11 years. He has converted a large barn on his property into a Ripper research unit, complete with groaning shelves, bursting filing cabinets and a brace of desks. He took a substantial advance for the intended book from Bloomsbury, the publishers of Thomas Penman, but after his original editor, Liz Calder, retired, “some fat money man” demanded that he hand the advance back. The manuscript crouches in the Ripper research unit — an 800-page behemoth — but although Bruce knows who the Ripper is (and he’s told me, too!), he isn’t ready to publish: “I need it locked down,” he said. “I don’t want there to be any doubts expressed at all, and for that I need to do more research — and that costs.”
Johnny Depp stars in Robinson’s adaptation of The Rum Diary
The money Bruce gets from writing and directing The Rum Diary probably isn’t quite enough to unveil Jack the Ripper — he doesn’t have any share in the film’s profits, if there are any — but he’s not complaining: “It was basically Johnny’s project and that’s why it got made — without that it wouldn’t have.
You’ve got to understand how extraordinarily powerful he is in the industry — people don’t realise.” As for getting behind the bullhorn after 19 years on the subs’ benches, Bruce again paid tribute to Depp — or at least his clout: “Johnny has this crew he always works with, and basically they’re the best film technicians in the world — the best lighting people, the best costume people. These are Oscar winners. They’re with him on his pirate movies and they worked with him on this one, and they made things very easy indeed.”
Robinson isn’t exactly in awe of Depp, but there’s a puzzled kind of respect when he speaks of the younger man. Nor is it precisely that Bruce needed a leg-up, but nonetheless Johnny has provided him with the kind of largesse only the very wealthy — and the very cultivated — can arrange for: “We have so much in common,” Bruce mused, “I mean, the first time we met we started talking about writers, and he loves all those guys that I love — Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. I mean, I’m a bibliophile, I love a beautiful first book — but with Johnny it isn’t just a first edition of TS Eliot — it’s the manuscript.
When I visited his library — which is incredible — he showed me a first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal inscribed by Baudelaire, and I just couldn’t believe it — I couldn’t believe this thing was in my hands. Then, when I got back home, I found Johnny had slipped it inside my suitcase…” He trailed off, stunned by his own good fortune as much as his friend’s generosity.
It would be cheesy-easy to finish up this portrait of Bruce Robinson on that note: the doyenne of British satire getting his just deserts, aided by the great wealth of his eternally boyish fan. But there’s nothing facile about Bruce at all: he struggles, you can sit and watch him roiling away inside. “I’m 65,” he said before he left for the long drive back to Herefordshire. “That’s five more Christmas trees until I’m 70 — and that’s not a lot of Christmas trees,” the miniature plantation seemed to sprout from the rug between us: “There’s two more movies I’d like to make — this Block thing, and I’ve also written an adaptation of Thomas Penman. If I can get these done… well, I have to accept that may be it for me and film.”
Maybe — but unlike Bruce’s quest for the Ripper, I wouldn’t put any 10 quid bets on it. Still, for an ad hoc film career it has to be conceded that to end up directing your own adaptation of your own autobiographical novel has a certain beautiful circularity — so much better than the tragic trajectory his career might well have described: an enormous up-thrust, followed by its slow and ignominious detumescence. Ah, Bruce! No wonder he fears his erections.
Photographs by Tom Craig
Words by Will Self