I spent last weekend at Port Eliot in Cornwall, the only summer festival I’d pay to attend. Indeed, I ended up paying through the nose. Not only did I rent a teepee so that we wouldn’t have to lug our bell tent from the car park to the campsite and back, but I bought Caroline and our four children special wristbands so they could use the ‘posh loos’. I thought she’d get a particular kick out of swanning off with them to do their ablutions in the morning in the lap of luxury while I had to queue up to use one of the Portaloos.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure, Port Eliot is a literary and music festival that takes place on the estate of the Earl of St Germans in the last weekend of July. It’s intimate and charming in a way that few other festivals are, partly because so many of the punters seem to know each other. To give just one example, there were at least half a dozen families there with children at the same primary school that my two youngest go to in Shepherd’s Bush. Even strangers don’t remain strangers for very long. I overheard one woman saying to another, ‘So which part of west London are you from?’
The event I was looking forward to the most was an interview with Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail and I. The 70-year-old legend was going to reflect on his fascinating career, which began with acting in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet in 1968, saw him rise to become one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Britain and, after a fallow period, reinvent himself as book writer. He was at Port Eliot to promote They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, a work that took him 15 years to complete and which, according to him, definitively solves one of the greatest mysteries of the Victorian era.
By the time I arrived at the marquee it was standing room only, so I had to loiter at the back. Rather bizarrely, the person tasked with interviewing Robinson was Noel Fielding, a stand-up comedian best known for having co-created The Mighty Boosh and captaining a team on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Being a bit of a curmudgeon, I thought that was a mistake. Surely, the best person to interview Robinson was a -professional journalist — hint, hint — not some attention-seeking ‘personality’?
But within five minutes, any suspicion that I could have done a better job than Fielding completely vanished. Not because he turned out to be a brilliant interviewer, but because Robinson was such a difficult interviewee. By his own admission, he’d been drinking red wine beforehand and he’d clearly had one too many. He’d reached that stage of inebriation where it had become difficult to speak and every attempt by Fielding to engage him in conversation was met with slurred, single-sentence answers or an explosion of righteous indignation accompanied by a torrent of abuse. To be fair, the indignation was hammed-up, as if Robinson was playing the part of an obstreperous drunk rather than just being one, and, for the most part it was quite funny.
The bits I didn’t enjoy were when, apropos of nothing, Robinson started effing and blinding about Brexit, the Tories and the Daily Mail, not least because I voted for Brexit, am a member of the Conservative party and write for the Mail. Every time he made one of these outbursts it was met with a huge cheer and, at first, I thought he was sending up the left-wing pretensions of the entirely white, mostly privately educated, west London audience. But I reluctantly concluded that a writer I’ve long revered as the neglected genius of the British film industry is actually a full-blown Corbynista.
Fielding handled the whole business extremely well. It can’t have been easy to sit in front of 600 people and try to sustain an hour-long conversation with a man who is almost speechlessly drunk, but he somehow carried it off. What was so impressive is that he managed to do it without ridiculing Robinson or even seeming to mind very much that he’d put him in this impossible situation. I came away disappointed that I hadn’t got to hear Robinson tell any seditious anecdotes about famous actors and filmmakers, but also convinced that I’d just witnessed something extraordinary — a tragicomic piece of performance art. On reflection, that ‘interview’ alone was worth the price of admission.