Richard E Grant: Welcome to my family

An abusive father and adulterous mother gave Richard E Grant plenty of material for a film about his life. Gerard Gilbert meets him

Richard E Grant has his mother to thank for his assiduous diary-keeping - one of whose by-products has been the enjoyable With Nails journals about the making of everybody's favourite Richard E Grant film, Withnail and I. Not that his diary-keeping received any maternal encouragement. For, as Grant's new movie - his semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Wah-Wah - makes plain, his mother was not that sort of a woman. Instead, it was the traumatic experience of witnessing her infidelity that first shocked an 11-year-old Grant into recording his thoughts and feelings on paper. While pretending to be asleep on the back seat of his mother's Mercedes, he saw her make love to his father's best friend.

"I started keeping a diary that very day and have done ever since," he tells me now. "I tried God and never got a reply so I gave up on that after a couple of years. The diaries kept me sane."

Wah-Wah is set in late 1960s Swaziland, in the dying day of British colonial rule, where Grant's father (played by Gabriel Byrne) was minister of education. In this "last outpost of the Union Jack on the African continent", the British went around speaking in anachronistic "toodle-pip, old boy" voices that were satirised by Grant's future stepmother, an American air hostess played in the film by Emily Watson, as "wah-wah".

In this "bizarre, claustrophobic, eccentric expat universe", Grant's cuckolded father descended into self-pitying and sometimes frightening alcoholism. There's a scene in Wah-Wah where his father (called Harry Compton in the film) points a loaded revolver at the young Grant (played by Nicholas Hoult from About a Boy) after his son tips away a crate of whisky. He fires and only narrowly misses. "I thought I was going to die. The bullet whistled past my head," recalls Grant, who underwent 18 months of psychoanalysis when he was 42, partly to come to terms with the crippling abuse his father threw at him while drunk.

But while attempted filicide seems barely credible, there were other events that Grant excised from the film because he felt audiences would find them too bizarre. "At my father's funeral the young Swazi priest, who had just come back from an evangelical course in America, jumped into the grave, undid the lid of the coffin and said: 'I am going to raise your father from the dead.' It was Monty Python meets Joe Orton.

"I have to say the film is semi-autobiographical because it's 10 years that have been concertinaed down into three years for the story. But everything you see happen did happen, and my family are all pretty verbatim."

Grant's first problem was assembling a cast. "Because my father was 42 when this happened, I went to all the usual suspects of that age. There are a handful of English men in their forties who can get a film financed and I went to every single one of them - Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Rupert Everett, who couldn't see himself as a twice-married heterosexual with children. So then I had to increase the age to 50-year-old guys. Jeremy Irons thought the part was too dark, unlike, of course, Claus von Bulow who won him an Oscar. Anyway, Gabriel Byrne absolutely loved it and jumped straight away."

And although Julie Walters, as a widow with designs on Grant's father, and Miranda Richardson, as Grant's mother, were quickly on board, he struggled to cast his American stepmother.

"I tried every American actress in their mid-thirties to mid- forties. You always read about them complaining about how there are no decent parts in their age group - and I thought 'great, they're going to jump at this one'; but oh, no - it was all 'she comes on in page 30; what's the problem?'. And then they heard that the budget was four-and-a-half million pounds. For the whole movie, as opposed to for their client. So, anyway, I'd worked with Emily Watson on Gosford Park - and my wife, who's a dialect coach, suggested her."

Grant has been married to his wife, Joan, since 1986 ("I'm a very loyal person. I think I put a higher value on monogamy because I witnessed the emotional cost of my father's cuckolding") and they have a teenage daughter, Olivia, who has a small role in the film.

Naturally Grant kept a diary of the filming in Swaziland - a mountainous area to the east of the Transvaal, which gained independence from Britain in 1968 and which Grant himself left in 1982. The country is now an effective dictatorship under King Mswati III, where nearly half the population is HIV-positive and life expectancy is 38. "No film had ever been made in Swaziland before," says Grant. "We had purchasing power to power of 12 - it was like making The Lord of the Rings out there." Maybe so, but the ensuing book of his experiences, The Wah-Wah Diaries: the Making of a Film, documents the five-year slog that led to this 100 or so minutes of celluloid.

Grant reckons he learnt the necessary fortitude from Robert Altman. "I love the democratic way he works," he says. "And I like Altman's attitude of just keeping going. When Jude Law pulled out of Gosford Park the financing collapsed, but he just kept on going."

Wah-Wah is a richly enjoyable, sometimes moving and often very funny human story, one of whose positive side effects has been to effect a reunion with Grant's mother, now aged 77 and living in South Africa.

"My mother hasn't yet seen the movie but she has read the script. I was cacking myself when I sent it to her - I thought she may never speak to me again. But she wrote back with her point of view of what it was like living in that sort of society and that time. And it's brought about an understanding - a rapprochement - with her, which was absolutely amazing."

There has been no reunion, however, with Grant's estranged younger brother, Stuart, an accountant who also lives in South Africa. "We never had anything in common," says Grant, who got his revenge in first by keeping Stuart out of the film.

Grant is famously gushing, but there is no doubting his sincerity when he says: "Without a doubt this has been the most intense and creative experience of my life. It was a genuine labour of love - and the opportunity to revisit and recreate your past in the actual locations where it all happened is something which imparted a tangible authenticity to the film."

'Wah-Wah' goes on release on Friday

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn