The farmhouse lies at the end of a narrow lane in a valley that swallows mobile phone signals and scrambles satnav systems. Bruce Robinson’s home is hard to find, but that doesn’t deter the steady stream of friends, acquaintances and admirers who seek him out.
Fortunately for them, the ancient farmhouse nestled in the shadow of the Black Mountains operates something of an open-door policy, particularly when the festival in nearby Hay-on-Wye is in full swing. Will Self, who admits he might be “a little obsessed” by the screenwriter and director, likes to stay here when he’s on the Hay programme. Today, Richard E Grant – the star of Robinson’s cult film Withnail and I – is reportedly on his way, and a bottle of fine Italian wine from Jude Law has just been delivered by courier.
Not all the guests are famous. “I found a guy drinking my vintage port in the kitchen at 7am a few days ago,” says Robinson, a slight man whose thatch of greying hair contributes to an elegantly dissolute appearance reminiscent of Mick Jagger or Jeff Beck. “This guy put down a whole bottle of port, ate a bowl of cornflakes and fucked off. I still don’t know who he was.”
Life chez Robinson is seldom dull, it seems. His 21-year-old son, Willow – a musician who has just recorded an EP – is playing electric guitar in a nearby outhouse, sending squalls of amplified sound across the fields. Lily, his actress daughter, is tending one of the family’s horses. “How many horses do we have?” Robinson asks her with genuine curiosity. “Is it six?” The answer: two, seems to take him by surprise. “We got rid of some,” explains Lily patiently, “because you hate horses.”
Robinson, who started his career as an actor (he was in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in 1968) and has made his living as a screenwriter and occasional director (he wrote the screenplay for The Killing Fields), is not a household name. If he is known to the wider pubic it is as the man who wrote and directed Withnail and I, the 1987 black comedy about two down-on-their-luck actors that put Grant on the first rung of stardom.
Robinson also accepted the inevitable invitation from Hollywood, but it wasn’t a happy experience. His 1992 film Jennifer 8 – a thriller starring Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman – crashed and burnt at the box office. More importantly, he had a miserable time making it, and in 1993 he and his second wife, Sophie, a children’s illustrator, turned their backs on Los Angeles and moved to the farm on the Welsh border.
It was here, earlier this month, on his 69th birthday, that Robinson completed the most ambitious project of his career, a 1,000-page book about Jack the Ripper. They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper will be published by Harper Collins in September. He estimates he has spent at least 12 years and more than £500,000 on the project, travelling as far afield as 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.
He won’t name the culprit yet – his publisher wouldn’t thank him if he did – but it isn’t any of the usual suspects, a pantheon that includes Lewis Carroll and Lord Randolph Churchill.
“I say in the introduction to the book that this isn’t a theory, it’s an explanation – and I sincerely believe it is,” he says. “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.”
Anyone expecting the usual portrait of the Ripper – a top hat-wearing toff who evanesces into the London fog – will be disappointed. “It’s much more complicated than some weird freak living in a lair and coming out [to kill] for no apparent reason,” says Robinson. “It ain’t like that at all.”
Familiarity with the killer has bred contempt rather than affection. “He was a prick – a psychopathic prick,” says Robinson. “Somehow he’s managed to accrue this almost heroic aura, but I have no time for that. I go after the bastard.”
Those with an attachment to a different version of the Ripper story are just as likely to go after Robinson. He expects “ripperologists” to line up to tell him he’s got the wrong man when the book goes on sale. “It would only be right and expected,” he says. “But the book is extremely well sourced. If they want to say that’s bollocks they’ll have to say your source is bollocks.”
I ask him if he’d like to make a film about Jack the Ripper and he looks aghast. No, he says. He vowed not to direct another film after the Jennifer 8 débâcle and was true to his word for 17 years until Johnny Depp – possibly the world’s most famous Robinson acolyte – persuaded him to make 2011’s The Rum Diary.
The truth is, the film business has not been kind to Robinson. He insists he does not receive a penny of royalties from Withnail and I, 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.”
If he does direct again it will be on his own terms. He’s written a comedy called The Block which, he says, is “very like” Withnail and I, except the main characters are a man and a woman. He’s a famous American writer – “the most cynical, vicious-tongued man on the planet” – she’s a “clueless” English girl who steals his 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.
Robinson wants Lily to play the girl, but admits the $5m he needs to make the film may prove elusive.
“It’s the nearest thing I’ve written to Withnail,” he says. “It’s torrents of words.” And that – when all is said and done – is what gets him out of bed in the morning. “I adore words,” he says lighting another cigar. “I just adore words.”
Bruce Robinson joins a panel to discuss screenwriting at Hay Festival on 31 May, 7pm (www.hayfestival.com)
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