Bruce Robinson: Smoking In Bed
This is another book I re-read on a regular basis. Robinson is most famous for having written and directed Withnail & I (perhaps my all-time favourite film), but he’s done so much more besides, from the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Killing Fields, to the heavily-biographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, to They All Love Jack, which the author himself describes as the final and definitive expose of the real culprit behind the Jack The Ripper murders. This book however is a series of conversations covering the man’s life, from troubled childhood and traumatic adolescence, through to his early acting career that he abandoned in favour of writing. “Writing hit my life like a meteor”, he says, but I suspect it was the only art form suited to his sensibilities. Robinson, a life-long functioning alcoholic, draws his fuel not from the bottle but from a seemingly-bottomless vat of sour bile, delivering his ideas and opinions using a lexicon unique in its meld of profundity and profanity. His experiences inside the Hollywood machine are enough to warn off any hopeful young screenwriter, though it certainly benefited him financially, allowing him to move with his family to the English countryside, a place he depicts as less than idyllic. “It’s just animals and shit”, he tells Alistair Owen, who proves to be an excellent interviewer, having really done his research and therefore capable of using that to guide Robinson into dredging up the genuine anecdotal gold. The background detail he gives on the writing of Withnail & I is essential. It’s well-known that it was based on his own experiences of living in Camden Town in the late 60’s, dossing in a house full of struggling actors, dirt poor and almost permanently pissed, but that period in his life informed everything that would follow. The story he told was originally intended as a novel, but as it slowly mutated into a screenplay the material really came to life. There’s an obviously Beckettian quality to the circumstances of Withnail and Marwood, but the real influence is Robinson’s own memories of what it was like to live through those times. There are certain periods in everyone’s life that they only see in retrospect as being important moments of absolute life-affirming experience, and Robinson captures not only the humour – humour born out of desperation, which makes it all the more effective – from those experiences, but also the bitter-sweetness of their passing. Bruce Robinson is that rarest of commodities in the age of the monoculture – a genuinely unique character – and the world is a better place for his being in it.
Here’s my 2012 & 2016 drawings of the principal characters from Withnail & I: