Thanet Writers Spotlight Bruce Robinson
Bruce Robinson has been writing for over forty five years, with his three best known works being the screenplay for The Killing Fields, for which he won a BAFTA, the cult classic Withnail & I, a semi-autobiographical film which he wrote and directed that launched the career of Richard E Grant, and more recently writing the screenplay for The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp.
“Acting, writing, direction, I see them all as aspects of the same thing—essentially I’m a dramatist, and I act it out when I write—being the characters, they’ll say a line to me and from that line I grow a scene.”
Before we go into his career, we should take a look back at Bruce’s early life, and discover how the works of a famous local author acted as a companion when he needed support the most.
Born in 1946, he was an affair child of an unknown American man, and spent his early life in Thanet. When his step-father returned home from war he found his wife raising another man’s child. Bruce was to grow up in “an environment of neat rage, all the time,” a childhood of verbal abuse and beatings so bad Bruce often thought he was going to die. It became a normal occurrence in their house to hear his mother yelling “stop it, you’ll kill him.”
Bruce also suffered badly with asthma, and during one stint off sick from the Charles Dickens Secondary Modern School a teacher dropped round a copy of Oliver Twist for him. Charles Dickens was a child victim himself and is said to have carried that hate throughout his whole life. Bruce found himself relating to the authors’ works and began spending all his pocket money on Dickens books.
“I could hear him talking directly to me, telling me how to cope.”
By the time Bruce finished school he wanted to be an actor, having played the lead role in four school dramas, and gained a place at The Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He dated the actress Lesley-Anne Down for eleven years, and she greatly encouraged and funded his writing. “She was off making movies with people like Peter Sellers, then she’d come back to this miserable disaster. But she never lost faith in me. I owe her a great deal.” Bruce acted in a handful of prominent roles, such as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when he was twenty two. After this, however, he spend most of his time waiting for the phone to ring while living in Camden Town, an out of work actor with hardly any money. He became an alcoholic and survived on benefits, and while losing hope with acting started to write the screenplay that would earn him a BAFTA, The Killing Fields.
Robinson went on to write and direct the screenplay Withnail & I, loosely based on his life as a failing alcoholic actor in Camden. The story follows anxious Marwood and his alcoholic, paranoid friend Withnail, who live in a squalid flat and spend their time drifting between the unemployment office and the local pub. Here’s an extract of the script:
Withnail: This is ridiculous. Look at me, I’m thirty in a month and I’ve got a sole flapping off my shoe.
Marwood: It’ll get better, it has to.
Withnail: Easy for you to say, luvvie, you’ve had an audition. Why can’t I have an audition? It’s ridiculous. I’ve been to drama school. I’m good looking. I tell you, I’ve a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television. Why can’t I get on television?
Marwood: Well, I don’t know. It’ll happen.
Withnail: Will it? That’s what you say. The only programme I’m likely to get on is the fucking news.
The story follows the hopeless friends as they leave Camden for a holiday in the Penrith countryside to stay at Withnail’s uncle’s cottage. Far from idyllic, we see the pair struggling with non-stop rain, lack of modern conveniences, odd locals, and their own complete lack of basic survival skills. Then Uncle Monty shows up and takes an uncomfortably keen interest in Marwood. The humorous dialogue of Withnail & I is both brutal and clever, and writer Keven Jackson describes it as “ferocious verbal inventiveness.”
Bruce insists he does not receive a penny of royalties from the film, but refuses to embark on the legal action that might unlock the cash. “I feel cheated by Withnail in that department,” he says. “I write for a living and I’m getting old. To know that I had a bit of an income from Withnail would be great.”
After screenwriting two more films, How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Shadow Makers, Bruce directed Jennifer 8, a thriller that he found such a restrictive and miserable experience that he swore he would never work in Hollywood again.
“There are two types of animals roaming the Hollywood jungle. Those who do the screwing, those who get screwed. You have to try to ensure you’re one of the former.”
At this time Robinson focused solely on writing, and the following year he and his wife, artist Sophie Windham, moved to a 16th century farmhouse on the Welsh boarder and had two children, a daughter named Lily and a son, Willoughby. Bruce returned to acting briefly in 1998 for a role in the film Still Crazy, and the same year wrote a screenplay for the film Return to Paradise, but it was greatly changed by producers. It was at this point Bruce published his debut novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, described as “a story of a dysfunctional family” and based loosely on his childhood in Thanet.
“What really makes this book tick is Robinson’s peculiar sense of dialogue dynamics. The voice of each of the characters and the narrator is distinct but brimming with peculiarities.”
Extract from a readers review
Bruce continued writing, and his next piece was the novella Paranoia in the Launderette, a short comical story of an awkward and paranoid man trying to function normally which was later adapted into a film starring Simon Pegg.
He wrote two children’s books, The Obvious Elephant in 2000 and Harold and the Duck in 2005, which his wife illustrated. Around this time, Bruce attended AA meetings and overcame his life long battle with alcohol.
In 2009, while on holiday, Bruce received a surprise phone call from actor Johnny Depp. “Johnny called me up, I was in Spain at the time—God only knows how he found me—and he asked if I knew The Rum Diary. I didn’t. He asked if I’d mind if he sent it to me. Our next conversation went like this: ‘Do you want to write it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you want to Direct?’ ‘Sure.’ ”
Seventeen years on from the disaster of Jennifer 8, Bruce began working again on a Hollywood movie for the novel The Rum Diary, originally written by author Hunter S. Thompson in the early sixties. At first the screenwriting did not come easy because the alcoholic side of Bruce was telling him to go for it, but the AA part of his personality was telling him not to. As a result he mentioned to his wife that maybe having some wine would be the only way he would be able to write it. She told him “Well, you’ll have to have some then.”
After that Bruce wrote quickly, drinking a bottle of wine a day, which in his alcoholic days he would have polished off by 10am. After the completion of the film he successfully cut back on his drinking.
At this point I think it’s worth mentioning that during an interview about the film in his home in 2011, Bruce inspected every piece of wood before placing it on the fire “for fear he would incinerate a spider.”
Last October Bruce published his most recent book, described as the most ambitious project of his career. They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper is a tale of a gripping quest to discover the identity of history’s most notorious murderer, Jack the Ripper, and the cover-up that enabled the killer to remain at large and in plain sight. Bruce estimates he has spent at least twelve years and more than £500,000 on the project, travelling to America and South Africa to build a case against the man he holds responsible for the murder of five prostitutes in London’s East End, and many more besides.
“I say in the introduction to the book that this isn’t a theory, it’s an explanation—and I sincerely believe it is. I’m not a man given to kidding himself—I wouldn’t have spent this long working on it unless I was pretty damn sure of it.”
After a life successfully dabbling in acting, directing and writing, does Bruce see his traumatic childhood as a worthy source of motivation?
“My early life has given me a great deal to draw on, certainly—but would I have swapped a happy childhood for the writing? Yes. Hemingway said the only thing a writer needs is an unhappy childhood. Many of the writers I admire are or were alcoholics. But the drink doesn’t cause the writing. And the childhood doesn’t cause the writing.”
So, what does the future hold for Bruce? He’s reportedly written a comedy called The Block, which he says is very similar to Withnail & I, except the main characters are a man and a woman. The man is a famous American writer—“the most cynical, vicious-tongued man on the planet”—and the woman is a clueless English girl who steals the man’s unfinished novel and sells it to a publisher. Forced to come up with the rest of the book she has to rid the author of his writer’s block and an unlikely relationship ensues.
If Bruce had the money to make the story into a film he would see his daughter Lily in the lead female role. She is currently in Hollywood trying to become an actress.
“It’s the nearest thing I’ve written to Withnail. It’s torrents of words. I adore words, I just adore words.”
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© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.