Speaking to the 'Withnail and I' Creator Who Believes He's Discovered Who Jack the Ripper Really Was
We visited Bruce Robinson at his Herefordshire farmhouse to talk about his life and his new book, <i>They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper</i>.
"Why is it that all the writers one admires are always arseholed?"
Bruce Robinson and I are already a bottle of wine each in when he asks this, which sort of proves his point. Since writing Withnail and I, Robinson has had plenty of admirers – not least Johnny Depp, who painted the oil portrait of Keith Richards smoking a joint hanging above us on Robinson's living room wall. The canvas is made – and hopefully you can see the subtle motif here – entirely from Rizla papers.
There are, as Robinson points out, "no books in booze", although that never stopped him looking. "I've been so drunk working I've typed with my nose," he says. "But the point is, if you're typing something worth reading, no one knows you typed it with your nose."
When it works, it works. As well as Withnail, Robinson is best known for writing the BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated The Killing Fields in 1984, and for writing and directing – at Depp's insistence – The Rum Diary in 2011. What's less well known is that he's spent much of the last 15 years on the trail of the true identity of Jack the Ripper – and he reckons he's finally got his man.
We're in Robinson's 16th century farmhouse, half a mile from the arse-end of nowhere, Herefordshire. He's a generous host with a lupine grin, lighting up rants about Tony Blair, Jimmy Savile and an array of other modern criminals. Down the hall is his old writing room, with an IBM typewriter on the desk and Ralph Steadman's original artwork for Withnail and I – done for £200 – on the wall. There's also a yellowed copy of that picture of Vinnie Jones grabbing Gazza by the balls. "That's one of the funniest photos ever taken," he says. "If someone's got you by the knackers, you're fucked."
In another building opposite the farmhouse is a second writing room, with another typewriter, where he moved to accommodate the hundreds of books required in his search for the Ripper. "And the thing is," he points out wearily, "you've got to read all these cocksuckers."
The result is They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, 801 pages of meticulously argued investigation delivered in Robinson's lurid vernacular. One reviewer wrote that it reads as if written by Withnail after he'd sobered up, which makes Robinson laugh: "Withnail – i.e. me – will never sober up."
The book is less of a departure than it might appear. Robinson is no stranger to rigorous historical research, having written both The Killing Fields, about the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Fat Man and Little Boy about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the nuclear bomb (released in the UK as Shadow Makers). Director Roland Joffé rewrote the script for the latter film against Robinson's will, then realised he needed to get his hands on Robinson's original research. His reply was a curt fax: "You've stolen my car. Don't expect me to buy the fucking petrol as well."
Having bet a friend he could find the Ripper, once Robinson began his search it soon became clear he was looking at a cover up. "There was this constant reiteration from the police that he never left a clue. He came out of the fog, murdered these women and disappeared," he says. "That's the myth of the Ripper and it's patent nonsense. Anyone who's conducting a series of murders in a ritualistic way is leaving clues. If they're ritualistic, what's the ritual? The day you ask that you're going down Freemason street."
Robinson's conclusion – persuasively laid out in They All Love Jack – is that Jack the Ripper was a musician and prominent Freemason named Michael Maybrick. He argues that Maybrick was protected by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Charles Warren, a fellow Mason who wished to avoid a scandal. After assembling his case against Maybrick, Robinson noted that although he had composed "The Holy City", one of the most popular songs in England, he had been expunged from contemporary books like the exhaustive Grove Dictionary of Music.
"This guy was as famous as it got, so how come he's nowhere?" asks Robinson. "How come he's been Jimmy Saviled out of history?"
Having studied the murderer for so long, Robinson is disgusted by the Jack the Ripper museum that recently opened on Cable Street in east London. "It's an outrageous and revolting proposition," he says. "It's like having a [Ted] Bundy museum in Washington."
Robinson has no time for the quasi-veneration of the Ripper's misogyny and misopedia indulged in by some "Ripperologists". "The thing I hate about Ripperology is that they want to keep the myth," he says. "This guy is almost a heroic character in some of their books: 'Who was he, the amazing Jack the Ripper?' The truth is he was a nasty piece of work. Had he not been in a symbiotic relationship with the authorities he would have lasted ten seconds. That's the whole point of my book. That's why I'm angry. He's not Robin Hood, he's a piece of shit."
Robinson has carried a distrust of authority with him since his childhood, which he novelised in 1998 as The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. Born in 1946 in London before growing up in the seaside town of Broadstairs, Kent, Robinson was unloved and brutally beaten by the man he thought was his father. He would learn later that he was in fact the son of an unnamed American serviceman, and thus living evidence of his mother's affair.
It wasn't until last year that Robinson learnt his father's identity. He'd just written the penultimate paragraph of his Ripper book, in which he reveals that Maybrick's family crest bears the legend: "Tempus Omnia Revelat" [Time Reveals All]. Minutes later, his agent called from Los Angeles to say a woman had contacted him claiming to be Robinson's half-sister. "I was 68 years old before I saw a photograph of my dad. That's pretty weird," he says. "Penman is full of rage and humour to try and exorcise some of my anger about it all. I have a motor drive to get to truth because I thought I never had it as a child. That's why I write about victims."
One way or another, all of Robinson's work is about victims. The Killing Fields and the Oppenheimer film are about victims; 1989's underrated How to Get Ahead in Advertising, about an advertising exec who spouts a talking boil on his neck, is a satire of Thatcher victimising Britain. "That could be George Osborne now," he says. "Yacking away and going: 'Fuck the lot of you.'"
His Ripper book is motivated by sympathy for the murder victims, but also by the fact that "the whole of society were victims of these liars on his behalf. It incensed me. How dare anyone lie on behalf of Jack the Ripper?" Modern parallels run rampant. "In the same way, how dare anyone lie on the behalf of the Iraq war?"
Withnail too is about victims – initially the "I" character, and then later Withnail himself becomes the victim. Robinson originally wrote it as a novel, before being convinced to translate it into a screenplay. "What's fucking weird is that the most joyful piece of writing I've ever had was Withnail and I when it was a novel," he says. "And the most difficult piece of writing I've ever had was the screenplay. I constantly tried to abandon it. I sent letters in saying 'I can't do it. I can't make it work.'"
The story is based on Robinson's time living as a struggling actor in Camden with his friend Vivian MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995. The novel originally ended with Withnail returning home, filling a shotgun with the Chateau Margaux 53 he'd stolen from Uncle Monty and blowing his brains out. For the film, Robinson replaced Withnail's suicide with Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a man..." soliloquy, which Richard E Grant performed to a pack of wolves at London Zoo.
"It's sadder to let him go on with that horrible life," says Robinson. "When the 'I' character leaves him, he's alone. You know he's fucked. That was quite true, in a way, with poor Viv. A complete total fucking disaster life he had. We worked hard on the ending: the build up to when Fatty Grant pulled off, did he not, that Shakespeare at the end? It still blows me away. He just had that right rage. What a magnificent fucking train of words is that? Oh, god damn! That's as good as writing can ever be."
Robinson is a little surprised by how Withnail has burned itself into our shared national consciousness. "It was a long time ago, and it was a tiny film, but for some weird reason – nothing to do with me – it's become one of England's reference points," he says. "I heard someone on the radio the other day say: 'Oh, it's very Withnail-esque.'"
I tell him my housemate and I have a very Withnail-esque kitchen.
"Of course you do! That's why Withnail has had that lasting effect. Everyone recognises what it's like to be in an aspirant situation without a fucking penny to your name. 'Where am I gonna get my next pack of fags from?' When I wrote that I was in the bowels of despair for my life. The game was up. Because I believed that, it became an honest expression. There's two ways of looking at your life when you're in your early twenties: poor and broke. I was broke, but I was never poor, because I could read Dostoyevsky. I was lucky to meet people like Viv who were educated and turned me on to literature and things I'd never dreamt of."
It was Withnail that led Depp to recruit Robinson as writer-director for The Rum Diary. Depp screened it for Hunter Thompson and they agreed he was the man to bring Thompson's novel to the screen. In one of those strange coincidences that can mark a life, it was the real-life Withnail who'd first introduced Robinson to Thompson's work.
"Many years ago, I remember Vivian, God rest his soul, throwing a book across the room," says Robinson. "I was in bed with a terrible fucking hangover in Camden Town. He said: 'You should read this, this bloke writes like you.' It was Fear and Loathing. I wish I could have written like that! I read this thing and thought: 'Yeah, I'm like an English version of this, in a way, because of the aggression and the humour of the approach.' That was the first time I'd heard of Hunter Thompson. He really was an important writer of the 20th Century. He had some real magic about what he could do, and that's all you fucking need. And the rage. You've got to be angry. You've got to be pissed off by these people as a motor drive to writing."
There's also a neat symmetry to the fact that, while making The Rum Diary, Robinson was able to play out one of Withnail's best lines on Depp's tab: "Both of us are very fond of good red wine, and he drinks the best on the planet. 'We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!' And that's what we used to get. Fucking Haut-Brion, twelve-hundred bucks a bottle, and as many of them as you want."
Having "nailed that fucker" the Ripper, Robinson has three jobs he wants to finish. There's a "Withnail-esque" script called The Block, an adaptation of The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman and a book of short stories. "If I could do those I'd sort of drift off," he says. "I wouldn't mind then. Cast anchor one night. Few hours outside on the roof shagging each other and then drift into eternity."
But he's not ready for the void just yet. "I still want to rage," he says. "I'm supposed to be quite a well off old cunt. I am a cunt, and I am relatively well off, and I'm certainly quite old, but I don't feel like that. I'm nearly 70, but I don't want a diminution of that feeling. I'd rather rage than sit there with a gutful of beer in front of Eastenders. Where has rage gone? We've become so bloody anodyne, and so acquiescent."
So he'll return, when I leave, to the typewriter and the booze and the truth. "It's bloody difficult writing, isn't it?" he says. "Smoking and drinking my life away because I thought if I get that wasted maybe I'll be able to get what I want. It's not really true, although so many great writers were piss artists. It's hard work. What I want out of a fucking typewriter is the truth, as good as I can make it. When you don't know where the fuck that line's come from but fuck it makes you laugh. If you can get those two things in a line, the truth and a laugh, then that justifies the whole fucking show to me."
More on VICE: