VULTURES ON THE ROOF? A review of Vivian and I by Colin Bacon
This first biography of Vivian Mackerrell was published towards the end of 2010 in time for the 25th anniversary of the making of Withnail and I. Author Colin Bacon presents the process of writing as a sort of quest – a cliché of modern biography – but was warned off any such title as “In Search of Withnail” by Bruce Robinson. Robinson wrote to him: “Withnail is one of my life’s biggest waking nightmares and there are vultures permanently stationed on the roof.” Bacon went ahead and wrote the book anyway. Should Robinson be worried about the latest vulture to plop down on the tiles? Here is my assessment.
Despite the title of the book being definitely second-best so far as the author is concerned – he would have preferred something like “The Quest for Withnail” – it does at least reduce one’s main objection: of the book’s 200 pages, there are many more to do with Bacon (“I”) than with Vivian. The material which is both (a) about Mackerrell and (b) interesting is sparse indeed. Instead, the book is padded out with rambling, inconsequential anecdotes taken from Bacon’s own life and his family history. And even his wife’s family history. Four-and-a-half pages of the book are actually written by Mrs Bacon, about her family history, and these pages are printed in italics to make them as difficult to read as they are boring. Publishers really should know better than to do this.
The publisher does not seem to have thought this book worth proper copy-editing, or even proof-reading. As well as the pages of italics, there are so many spelling and punctuation mistakes that I stopped recording them. Here is just a small sample:
“mettle” printed as “metal” (p.12)
“rooted” printed as “routed” (p.28)
“breathe” printed for “breath” (p.32)
“hair lip” printed for “hare lip” (56)
The title of a Shakespeare play is misspelt on page 153 (whatever would Monty say?) and there are misplaced apostrophes all over the show.
My conclusion is that far from resenting this book, Bruce Robinson should welcome it as the greatest of compliments. It is a clear demonstration that the genius of Withnail and I is entirely his own; it is not a transcript of funny remarks made by his former flatmate. Robinson’s virtuoso use of the English language, apparent in every line of Withnail’s screenplay, is a world away from a book which includes sentences such as the following:
“It was a fashion style that he was loathed to discard.” [sic] (p.88)
True, it’s useful to have Vivian’s dates and indications of some of his jobs and homes, but one has to wade through a great deal of badly-written dross to find anything worth reading. Withnail nuts might want to skim through Chapter 7, mainly composed of quotes from people who remember the flat in Camden Town, as this is mildly interesting. Chapter 13 is OK, describing the former council house in Nottingham that Mackerrell bought with an inheritance and where he lived in squalor. Chapters 15 to 17 about his death are gruelling and pull no punches.
But the point to remember is that no one would want to read about this forgotten Bohemian hell-raiser from the 60s were it not for Bruce Robinson’s extraordinary film. There is only one passage I feel like quoting and it’s not by Bacon but a comment from Gregory Floy remembering the break-up of the Camden Town ménage at the end of the 1960s:
“What I do recall was the time depicted in the end of Withnail when Bruce’s character gets the part in Journey’s End, which he did, only it wasn’t the lead. I can remember one day knocking around with Viv in his scarf and that long coat and it was winter. David Dundas was selling the house and Viv was going to move back to Nottingham. I trekked around Regent’s Park with Viv. He didn’t quote Hamlet, but it was raining and it just felt like the end of an era.” (pp. 113-4)
I welcome every Withnail book that comes along, the more the merrier, but Vivian and I did nothing to help me understand the film or appreciate it more. Relax, Mr Robinson. That’s not a vulture on your roof: it’s a dead parrot.