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Withnail and I

This is almost certainly the last time I’ll ever write anything about Withnail and I. Just in case it doesn’t come out too good I’ll get to the point immediately. I want to dedicate this new edition to my friend Vivian.

From 1966 to about 1976, I kept a diary, and page after page of this is about Vivian and I. I met him in 1964 in our first year in drama school. He wore a blue suit and shades and looked like Marlon Brando. Everyone thought he was going to be a star. Within ten minutes I was his closest friend, and so was everyone else. Everyone loved Viv. He wasn’t a bad actor (though when we left Central School he hardly ever got a job). Wasn’t a bad writer either (although I don’t ever remember him writing anything). The reality is that, if he had acted, or had written, he wouldn’t have excelled at either because the interest wasn’t there. What Vivian was brilliant at was being Vivian. That was his genius, and everyone who ever met him was overwhelmed by it. His nicknames were “the spine” and “crime.” I don’t know where the first came from, but the latter predicated on his ability to spend all day in the pub, and always with discretion navigate his turn to buy a drink. “Crime doesn’t pay.” But none of us cared because his company was worth the price. Viv was into literature, Keats and Baudelaire, and turned me on to both these poets. Plus the funniest book I’ve ever read, the great À Rebours, is one of two novels Marwood shoves into his suitcase at the end of the film.

There isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail and I, but his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word. Without Viv, this story could never have been written. And all I’ve got to do is look back through this old diary with its daisies stuck under yellowing Sellotape, to realize why. Vivian and I lived Withnail and I for a long time before that weird thing happened in my head, and I had to sit at the kitchen table and try and write it down.

April 16, 1975. Hadn’t seen V. for two years. He’s lost his looks but not his habit. Scotch before breakfast. He doesn’t eat breakfast. Vivian is drinking himself to death. He said, “If there’s a God, why are arses at the perfect height for kicking?” and I said, “I’ve got to agree with you.”Going backwards now and plunging deep into the hangovers. I can’t believe the amount of hangovers.

November 16, 1969. In bed for two days. I can hear Viv groaning in the other room.

I can’t believe this one. It’s almost biblical.

I simply can’t believe the amount of drinking. Practically every entry starts with a description of a hangover, and they are all different, like Eskimos have twenty different ways of describing snow. This one was gin and retsina and lasted four and a half days. It gets about a page and a half, adjectives all over it, as I looked for different ways to describe pain. Vivian was of the opinion that the only way to deal with a hangover was to drink your way around it. Jesus, I remember you drinking them out. I remember you drinking the lighter fuel in the middle of a blistering argument. But I’d forgotten that I was a member of the Conservative Party.

January 16, 1970. V. came back and said we should join the Conservative Party. “What for?” I said. “Because they give you sherry.” (Apparently he’d met some accountant called Bill Twococks who told him this was the case.) That night we got on our suits and walked over to Primrose Hill. The Conservative Party was in a basement and consisted of about six women and a photo of Macmillan on the wall. A tall twot with a ludicrous accent and a second-hand Saab wanted us to “canvass.” We said we would, but didn’t get any sherry, so we threw their fucking leaflets over a hedge.

April 30, 1969. Vivian and I get on our suits and go down for wine-tasting at Sotheby’s. This time we didn’t get in. Some bloke with ears and a green hat prevented our entry. “We’ve come to taste the wine,” we said. “You two cunts can hop it,” he said. He obviously remembered us from previous tastings and this expulsion left us depressed. Sotheby’s was one of the best shows in town to drink brilliant wine and arsehole yourself absolutely free.

That night we go into Regent’s Park and look at the wolves. I can’t count the number of times we went into the park and looked at the wolves. And I can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known. It’s got to be hard to laugh when you’re dying, but I’ll always remember you laughing. That sad, brilliant, bitter face of yours laughing. Good-bye my darling friend. This is for you forever. And I know if there’s a pub in heaven, you’ll be in it. And Keats will be buying the drinks.

From the introduction to “Withnail and I”: The Screenplay 10th Anniversary Edition. Copyright ©1985 Bruce Robinson. Published in the U.S. by The Overlook Press. Used by permission of the author and of the publisher.

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