Simply The Thesps
He set the standard for debauched toffs with Withnail;
you can forget about Hugh who went up a boulevard and came off
his pedestal, Richard E Grant is top of the fops
Loaded December 1995
East Twickenham, just by the river Thames and merging into Richmond is -ahh, so civilized. East 17 it ain't. It is where the expensive streets are carpeted, rather than paved, trodden by well-heeled vegetarians and democratic Tories with too much money; it is where the air is a heady mix of Chanel No. 5 and jojoba oil while the prevailing ambience is an interesting marriage of privilege and liberal complacency. It is also where Richard E Grant lives and -most incongruously for the star of Cult Movie Withnail and I, in which he plays the eponymous hero, an alcoholic unemployed actor, with magnificently lubricious abandon, reveling in his role of the alcoholic louche with the delightfully deviant delinquency of a psychotic found in a community health project theatre and given his big break.
So it is with some surprise and slight disappointment to find Mr. Grant cosily ensconced in shiny happy suburbia, seemingly embracing all those leafy bourgeois values so idealistically eschewed in the film. Oh silly me-confusing the part with the person. No I haven't really, it's just that Withnail, though it is based on embroidered fact that (an amalgamation of writer/director Bruce Robinson's experiences in the late '60's) is one of the few films that has the viewer yearning, nay aching for those people to exist. It's just so screamingly funny, so entertaining to watch somebody falling at the seams and doing it so well -with such insouciant style, with such dogged panache. Of course, Grant's had so many different roles since, good ones too (like in Steve Martin's LA Story, Coppola's Dracula and Robert Altman's The Player) but none to match his brilliant debut. Paul McGann wasn't half bad, either, but as he played the slightly more sober 'I' of the title, somehow, and unfairly, he seems due a degree less of respect.
a quiet balmy afternoon, myself, the photographer and his assistant
are cooling our heels in Richard E's highly-eclectically decorated
-an Aladdin's cave of knick-knacks, toys, souvenirs, photos,
an over-flowing pot pourri of the past and present of two people
whose lives revolve around acting, Grant himself and his wife,
Joan Washington, a top voice-coach. it is the teacher herself
who answers the to us, and when loaded's snapper has the ty to
make a joke about the hand written note under the doorbell, it
is received with frosty incomprehension before we are irritably
dispatched like annoying schoolchildren to the reception room
to wait for Richard -who, Compaq computer in hand and in a flap
because he can't get it to work properly and he really must get
the last part of the final draft of his book finished. Eventually,
though, he is settled on the sofa (all angular languor) and ready
to talk (all camaraderie and candour). Conversation is an art
and Richard proves his smarmy agent's boast true: "he gives
great copy". To begin with, he is full of concern that he
won't fit into what he is loaded's image of himself: "Oh
God, this is going to be ghastly. I'm soooo unloaded. I know
bugger all about football, I've never smoked, I've only ever
drunk once and that was for Withnail and I've never felt so fucking
awful afterwards, and as for large-breasted women, aren't they
the ones that wear 52D Wonderbras?" Yeah, them and fat drag
queens. I try to reassure him, but he groans and buries his face
in his hands: "No, no, I can see it now. It's going to be
a page long and everyone'll be asleep before they've got to the
end of it. They're going to be so disappointed!" His voice
rises to a wail and I can't help but laugh -he's being very Withnail,
An ensuing chuckle shows that he knows it too, the naughty thesp
is just pulling my leg. He starts as he intends to finish: on
the ball, mischievous and charming but with than a hint of a
dangerous edge. Which goes to show that Withnail And I has another
unsung hero -the casting director -especially when Richard reveals
Kenneth Branagh went up for his part. Can you imagine that!
Withnail And I is soon to be re-released nationwide to celebrate its 10th anniversary Bloomsbury is re-issuing the screenplay this month with new photos and a new introduction by Bruce Robinson, EMI are releasing an album the soundtrack while the singularly crumpled second-hand '60s greatcoat worn by Withnail throughout the film will be available to order from Harris Tweed. To put a movie on general release so long after it was made is highly un usual and Richard says he is "thrilled but 'slightly flabbergasted. I don't know if anyone will go. You might get people going to see it in groups completely arseholed which could be interesting."
Bemused is the word to describe his reaction to the Harris Tweed bespoke reissue idea: "I find it hard to believe that people would buy it but then there are so many nutcases around. Perhaps if Lisa Minnelli's hot pants from 25 years ago were up for sale, maybe I'd buy a replica pair and frame them!"
However, the thing he's most looking forward to is meeting up with Bruce Robinson again at the promo bash (Robinson also wrote and directed the feature-length zitcom How To Get Ahead In Advertising). Grant claims that Robinson is "even more extreme than me" and backs this up when he launches into his royal rant: "I loathe the Royal Family. They make me want to fucking heave. The thought that any amount of my money or taxes could be funding in any shape or form anything to do with that bunch literally makes my hair want to jump and fallout faster than it already is. Bruce Robinson would like them beheaded and have their heads stuck on posts down The Mall, but I'm not going that far," he reassures me with a sly smile, which seems to suggest that, privately, he is really in full accord with Comrade Robinson. The actor's expression -both conspiratorial and amused -reminds me of a short passage in his book, With Nails (published next year by Picador), where he remarks admiringly that Jackie Collins, the bonkbuster novelist sister of Joan, appears to have a "well-developed irony organ". Wherever he keeps his, I am sure that he too is similarly well endowed. I wonder what exercises he recommends to keep it in good nick?
"To develop your irony organ you've got to keep living in Britain under whatever government they choose to vote upon our unsuspecting heads. The fact that you can still get up in the morning, having had 15 years of Thatcher and her cohorts, just that in itself, just getting out of bed, should develop your irony organ, as well as reading any newspaper. Other exercises? Well, the VE Day celebrations were good for that and also for developing your sincerity ducts, because no matter which way you look at it, Hitler had to be stopped...and I thought Vera Lynn was in fantastic form!" Well that's fair enough, then.
So how does Richard feel about being seen as the thinking woman's crumpet now that he's got his kit off in Jack & Sarah? He dismisses the idea with a hysterical cackle: "You must know that 'hunk' is the last word you can use to describe my scraggy old ribcage." He explains his utter cynicism: "I've been around Hollywood too much to believe that could happen with that film... I would be less surprised if they re-made it with Tom Hanks and souped it up." Aw, c'mon Richard, put your positive hat on -just for a minute. "No, I can't. You see, I was so burnt by being in Hudson Hawk. .." He said it, not me. Just like Basil Fawlty not mentioning the war, I was going to steer clear of Bruce Willis' famous flop, the all-action turkey Hudson Hawk in which Grant got the 'Alan Rickman is unavailable' part -the cut-glass-vowelled Bad Brit So, what was it like working with Bruce and his ego? "Look, on paper it looked good. The director had done Heathers, Dan Walters had co-scripted Batman and Sandra Bernhardt was playing the wife. ..but it really was Willis' show. All the chips were stacked in his favour, so the possibility of being a real foil to him, well, I certainly didn't have the nerve or the balls to do that. I think only someone like Schwanenegger could control that." Poor man -Bruce Willis and Sandra Bernhardt both at the same time. I wonder which one ate him up and spat him out first? "Working with Sandra is a bit like being imbibed by Godzilla's vulva. She demands 500 per cent of your attention because she is self-obsessed to a degree the like of which I've never experienced before... It's like you join the Sandra Bernhardt Trail. She goes on and off people. There have been times when I've been thrown out by her and, like some biblical prodigal, I'd have to beg my way back in and be re-instated." However, when I suggest that such 'friendship' should be shoved right back up her skinny dyke butt, Richard E leaps to her defence vigorously for the next five minutes, something he chooses not to do when I jokingly ask him to compare working with Willis to appearing with Dame Maggie Smith in last year's highly-praised West End production of The Importance of Being Earnest. After much laughter, he manages to spit out "There's no comparison because of her capacity for cruelty. On scale of 1 to 10, she's 12. The way she humiliates other people, other actors. Her talent is untouchable but what she's capable of personally is lethal."
I think that provocative comment is a glimpse of what we can expect to read in With Nails, a collection of choice chunks from the diary of one of the most successful character actors. It was sold at literary auction to Picador, the highest bidder. Grant recalls his reaction: "I was flattered out of my skull. Steve Martin and I write regularly to each other, he encouraged me a lot...there could be libel suits ahead because I don't use roman a clef, names are named."
So, an actor who's prepared to dish in public. How unusual, and somewhat rash? In that case, elaborate please on the diary extract which was published in The Observer, the one written during the filming of Robert Altman's Prêt A Porter, where you compare top fashion editor Suzy Menkes to an "old VW with a sort of bonnet hairdo...a middle-aged old barge who had the audacity to describe Claudia Schiffer, at the age of 24, as looking like mutton dressed as lamb". Can Grant identify the people referred to in this quote: "In every company, inevitably, there are going to be some prize arseholes". He explodes good naturedly: "Are you mentally retarded? A few code names? Well, let's put it this way, Danny Aiello and Rupert Everett came to blows which divided the company very clearly." Ah, good old Rupert. He can always be relied on to make a drama out of a crisis. Granty snorts, "He had a crush on me and never gave me a bloody bean!" Then he fixes me with a beady eye: "I bet you take a lot of drugs. You're the only person ever to have asked me about the E in my name like that"
Sorry folks but it's true! Sir Withnail is Middlesex Man personified -non-smoking, nonsmoking teetotaller with one daughter and wall-to-wall lentils in his kitchen. He is vehemently anti-smoking, with good reason as his father died from lung cancer at the early age of 51. His wife Joan used to be a heavy smoker until he issued an ultimatum -he stopped kissing her until she gave up the filthy habit: "If you kiss someone who stinks of cigarettes, it's like closing in on a big ashtray. I've never found it very attractive especially when it's covered up with Triple X mints or something. It's like going into the loo after someone's just dumped half a week's worth of vindaloo and has sprayed one of those airy fresheners around and then there's this sort of subterranean stench underneath..."
worked and the Grant household is now a fagfree zone. From my
earlier impression of her, I am surprised that Joan submitted
to such blatant blackmail, especially after he has just told
me that "she's very argumentative and volatile. We combust
regularly, we're on our hind legs most of the time. Sometimes
I do wish we could be calm and sedate about everything, we take
it in turns to rant at the TV and at each other. I didn't grow
up in a calm household and I certainly don't live in one
With Richard E testifying to his wife's robust temperament, I am interested to hear of her attitude to his after-hours hobnobbing with the supermodels in Paris during the making of Prêt A Porter: "Well, I was never on my own. Going out with them is like going out with a pack of conventites, they move in packs like Sloane Rangers. None of them go out anywhere alone. So, unless you're doing some soft shoe-shuffling under the table, it's not that much fun... They smoke so much, some nights I just wanted to pull my eyeballs out of my head!"
He also described how his two-step skills impressed Naomi Campbell: "I said, 'I'm white Swazi, that's why I can dance! '. She looked almost surprised but seemed quite satisfied by my explanation. There's a problem being over 35 and going out and dancing in public, it's a bit like playing Hamlet once you're over 40... It means you're almost inevitably a figure of ridicule because I'm probably still dancing to an invisible late '70s disco beat no matter what rap or house beat is pounding underneath. And anybody playing Hamlet who's 35 to 40, you think, if the guy's still got a problem with his mother at that age, he should go and have himself sorted out, just go and kill someone rather than farting around saying 'To be or not to be'."
We've come full circle back to that over-grown, dare I say, over-blown public schoolboy again. Still, though he can now add 'notorious' to his CV, at least our Richard can make a claim that I doubt Hughie will ever be able to boast. What's it like being acult figure? "Fantastic! Better than no figure at all, believe me. I was invited to speak at the Oxford Union recently. They sent me this fantastically pompous letter listing past speakers like President Clinton and Mother Theresa, then it said Ben Elton and I thought 'How do I fit in with this line up?' But I was very flattered to go and then I realised I wasn't in the Debating Society with Oliver Stone and the boys. This was just when you go into a Union and speak to 300 Withnailites which was fantastic 'cos they must all have been about 10years-old when it was made, so that's a whole new generation who knows this film. And because of video, this has given Withnail a life way beyond its normal sell-by date... Without video it would never be a cult film."
So, here we are. I'm sitting on an over-stuffed settee in the heart of well-to-do suburbia with one of our most convincingly-deranged yet lovable cult figures in the history of British cinema. Richard E Grant smirks subversively: "Maybe I'm not as normal and suburban as you seem to think. Maybe it's all a smokescreen and I spend my time strapped up hanging from the rafters." Actually, no, it wouldn't surprise me at all. And why not? Even the retired Sir Withnail has to get his kicks somehow.