“Despite chronic alcoholism and failing health, Viv remained at the top of his game until the end. He never let an audience down.”
There are a few characters that manage to make drinking something that is part of their personality in an almost positive sense. Think Oliver Reed and the other hellraisers and think of Jeffrey Bernard (who was most of the time unwell) and their alcohol abuse made them memorable, adding to their popularity.
Added to that list could easily be the name of Vivian Mackerrell who inspired the character of Withnail in the Bruce Robinson film Withnail & I. His drinking finally killed him but he went down keeping the audience laughing until the end.
Sadly that audience became fewer and fewer, made up of medical staff and the few friends who had been prepared to stay with him. One of those who was there at the end is Colin Bacon who has put together a book that not only provides the details, which at times are sketchy, of Vivian’s life and brief career but through anecdotes and memories provide an insight into the world that both Mackerrell and Bacon came from.
It was a life set against a Nottingham childhood and time spent as a drama student living in a house crammed full of other trainee actors. This provided the stage for Mackerrell to perform and perfect a routine he would become so well known for. Drinking heavily but with great charm and wit amusing those who stood him drinks.
He was still doing the same when he could no longer speak, having had his voice box removed, and was injecting the pints straight into himself through a syringe meant to be helping him eat.
There is something about these characters that provokes admiration rather than pity and contempt. Bernard had a play about his lifestyle play over many years to packed houses and Withnail & I is famous for its scenes of heavy drinking and the slide of Withnail into failure as his flatmate gets an acting job and moves on.
Bacon has produced a book that is part biography part autobiography of his own past as he shares the importance of his friendship with a man that amused many but died a fairly horrendous death with most of the old names and faces long since gone. The book will no doubt introduce a new generation to ‘the real Withnail’ but it also shows the depths to which real friendship can go.