A peek into the Withnail and I diaries (2024)

A peek into the Withnail and I diaries (1)

I’ve never been great at keeping them, but I do love reading diaries. I can’t imagine spending hours of an evening ploughing through one, but I do have a selection on the bookcase by my bedside within easy reach for easy reading before I nod off. As Gwendolyn brags to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train."

Standing in line next to each other a weary arm’s length away from my pillow are the daily comings and goings of novelist Anthony Powell, playwright Simon Gray in his ‘Smoking Diaries’, the thoughts of Hugh Casson and Frida Kahlo (both beautifully illustrated), the journals of Alan Clark (hilariously candid) and Evelyn Waugh (hilariously unlikeable), the remarkable Samuel Pepys, his less readable peer John Evelyn, Shaun Bythell’s various accounts of bookselling in Wigtown, an abridged James Lees-Milne, and assorted collections including The Faber Book of Diaries. At the very genuine risk of sounding like I’m trying to flog my recent The Book Lover’s Almanac, there are diary entries on pretty much every page of it throughout. My gaff, my rules.

So I was particularly interested when Sotheby’s got in touch earlier this wee to let me know in my role as the Online Editor for Fine Books & Collections magazine that the previously unseen personal diaries of Vivian MacKerrell (pictured above and below) were soon to go under the company’s esteemed hammer next month. Who he? Only the not very successful actor who was the main inspiration behind the eponymous lead character in the film Withnail and I.

I do like the 1987 film but realise that writer-director Bruce Robinson’s 1987 cult classic is not for everybody. I attended an online party 15 years ago at which there was a special ‘room’ where the film’s sturdy devotees (let’s be honest, men) could go and swap quotes from the film so as not to bore the pants off the rest of the partygoers. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, it’s the very black comedy-tragedy of two struggling, ludicrously hard-drinking young actors in London (played by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) who head off for a weekend for a holiday in a cottage in Cumbria owned by Withnail's uncle (Richard Griffiths).

MacKerrell (1944-1995) shared a house on Albert Street, Camden Town with Robinson where they lived in bohemian squalor not dissimilar to the film in a house owned by songwriter Lord David Dundas who wrote the musical score for the film.At the same time, betwen 1974 and 1975, MacKerrell kept various books of diaries in which he mentions that Robinson was beginning the new writing project that became Withnail and I.

A peek into the Withnail and I diaries (2)

The diaries include the real-life events behind some of the most famous scenes in the film, the flat’s mouse-ridden squalor, the imbibing of lighter fluid, and visiting the wolves in Regent’s Park, as well as bittersweet notes about watching friends moving on with their lives. In Robinson’s introdution to Withnail and I: the Original Screenplay he wrote: “There isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail and I, but his horrible wine-stained tongue may well have spoken every word. Without Viv, this story could never have been written.” The film ends when ‘I’ (the character’s name is actually Marwood) moves out, the diaries continue after Robinson left and show that MacKerrell (pictured below) continued living the same lifestyle.

Here are some excerpts:

26 January 1974: "I drank some lighter fuel - got frantic & burst into tears - walk in the park & bed at 5AM"

27 February 1974: “David asked B. for his rent today and mine too - je n'ai rien - hardly enough for a pint - if I had the bread I'd be drinking the finest wines oh Lord! Work! Work! Bed at 12:45 with the grisly thought of another day like today tomorrow.”

21 August 1974: “we had some wine and then went over to see the wolves”

2 May 1975: “O Lord the march of time in its inexorable grey cloak – we’re into May now! No job, no chick and no bread – still nil Carborundum. And what is worse – as I peered into the dusty intestinal hall no Bunce [unemployment benefit] I had a fa*g and coffee and hastened out to a blustery but hazily sunny day”

16 March 1975: “I had intended to kip on the couch and nearly away – when I felt this scratching and pattering on my head – a mouse – on the couch I told it to f*ck off and it disappeared thank god. The buggers are spreading and no poison can deal with them”

27 March 1974: “Up at about 9.30 to go down to sign on with B[ruce]. The labour [exchange] seemed fuller than usual – they’ve cutdown on staff – the buggers. After a pint... I read and corrected more of ‘Withnail and I’, his book and when he came back we opened the bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that L had put out in the windowbox to chill”

25 March 1974: “Up first – as usual and out for a copy of the Sun and a bottle of red – Bruce’s bunce had not come... He ‘phoned them but to no avail so he went out to purchase a bottle of Pernod while I had a bath. When I finished the bath I lashed into the pernicious liquor with him & also into reading Othello. Cassio is a difficult part – another goody goody – at least he displays one flaw getting pissed –shouldn’t have much difficulty there. Got a decent buzz of the Pernod and was slumped in front of the telly”

29 March 1974: “Up bedtime and over to Spread Eagle for wine then another. Then changed into suits + B + I went for a large Pernod as a double bunce arrived for him… down to the Little Theatre to see Chick she said if B + I were to do the play she’d be worried about us being stoned - Christ I said - How dare you - and persuaded her that we had discipline at our fingertips… Back home by tube and so to kip with copy of men only. God what a fate. Must work work work.”

The diaries come with photographs of MacKerrell from his personal archive, including unseen negatives from a Vogue photoshoot, and all together have an estimate of £12,000 – £18,000, though with my professional hat on I predict they’ll go for a lot more.

All photos courtesy and copyright Sotheby’s

A peek into the Withnail and I diaries (4)
A peek into the Withnail and I diaries (2024)

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