As cult British classic ‘Withnail and I’ turns thirty, we catch up with actor Paul McGann ahead of his latest role in Moira Buffini’s stage play, ‘Gabriel’, to chat acting, time travel, Johnny Depp and of course, fine wine


First things first, you play Commander Von Pfunz in the play, ‘Gabriel’, what drew you to this role?

I’m a bit of a history buff, I’ve played soldiers before and war stories I really like. When I first read the script, it had a kind of magical element, some of it quite Jacobean, it’s really well written. You also don’t usually see straight dramatic plays touring, it’s usually musicals so this is quite unusual. I really like the idea of it and it’s a hoot. There’s a couple of scenes in it where me and Robin Morrissey have to speak German.

How’s your German accent?

Apparently it wouldn’t fool a German. But with only a few week’s practise, that’s to be expected.  Our task really is to make it good enough to fool a UK audience and there’s not that much in it. For the rest of the time I speak English with a German accent. Actors like doing them because it’s harder to play but sometimes they can get in the way for a few weeks until they fit a little better.  

How does it feel to be returning to theatre and back to the Liverpool Playhouse?

It’s lovely and great to be going back to Liverpool, it’s years since I worked in Liverpool, thirty years. I feel like an ancient relic! I know exactly when it was because we were playing in the May of 1986 and both Liverpool and Everton had got to the cup final, I remember town was deserted. Thousands of people had gone down to Wembley.

Does performing live get any easier with age?

It never gets easier. I think it depends where you start. I remember working with Helen Mirren and watching her in the wings once in this big show.  She was talking to a crew man drinking a cup of tea. I watched her hand the guy her tea, walk on stage, bring the house down, come off then grab her cup of tea and continue her conversation, completely relaxed. I’ve never been like that and like I say I think it depends upon your temperament, but I’ve always loved theatre.

It’s been thirty years since ‘Withnail & I’…

That was the same year and it was the next job I did. We were doing ‘The Seagull’ at the Liverpool Playhouse and I literally went from one to the other, shooting Withnail and I and he’s banging on about loathing all those Russian plays. [That was] the summer of 86’ and its gone so quick!

Would you be happy if Hollywood attempted a re-make of ‘Withnail and I’?

They couldn’t. I would hate it. I wouldn’t like to see it, I wouldn’t even like to see them try. But they’d have to ask Bruce Robinson as he owns it and he wouldn’t let them anyway. There have been a few who have wanted to try, even Johnny Depp was deadly serious at one point about ten or fifteen years ago. He loved it and was going to play my role. But just leave well alone I think, just no.  You can’t go back.

What is the finest red wine you’ve ever tasted?

You know what? It was on the set of Withnail. I didn’t know anything about wine until I did that film and of course wine is one of the themes. The old man has a cellar, there are bottles of wine around, best of the century sort of thing. Of course all of this actually happened. These lads had lived in a house in Camden Town whilst they were all in drama school. Michael Elphick, the guy who plays the poacher, he was in the house along with David Dundas who did the music. Dundas was very posh and I remember one day there was a party or something and he brought one of those bottles of Margaux in, you know the ones mentioned in the film. It could have been whatever, say 53’ Margaux, and unless you have £1000 or you’re sitting with someone rich who’s going to buy one – you’re never going to see a bottle. But he brought one in and gave me a glug and I’ll never forget it. It went over my head a little bit, but I remember it tasted gorgeous and after that I tried to learn a bit about it and nowadays if I drink at all, it’s red wine.

Him, Bruce Robinson and Michael Feast who Withnail was party based on all went to a cottage together. All that actually happened. Another caper that they had was when they were driving around and they stopped at a little pub in the countryside and got chatting to the barman. The barman told them that he had just taken over the building and said the old fella before him had a cellar of wine in the basement and Robinson’s ears pricked up and he immediately asked if they could have a look at it. The barman said yeah no problem, I don’t like wine. They went down and said it was full. An Aladdin’s cave of wine. They ended up getting a van, told the barman they’d take the wine off his hands for £200 and ended up with a cellar’s worth of the best wine of the century.

They took it back to the house that features in the film and thought about selling it or auctioning it at Christies, but of course it didn’t last three weeks. They just drank it with all the other head cases in the house. The best wine of the century and they were having it with fish and chips.

How do you feel about using CGI to resurrect actors from the grave, would you be happy for future film makers to recreate you in CGI?

You know what? I wouldn’t know, so I’d have no qualms whatsoever. The good thing is they can make you look brilliant, they can perfect it.  Oliver Reed’s performance in Gladiator was sensational, so in that respect I’m fine with it.  As long as they make me more handsome and about seven inches taller I’ll be happy.

You’ve played time traveller Dr Who, if you could travel back in time what would you say to your younger self?

Lighten up lad, enjoy yourself. It’s allowed.

Are there any directors who you would love to work with?

There are loads of directors, the first one that springs to mind is Joanna Hogg (Archipelago, Unrelated). I’d love to work with her, whatever that process is and I’d love to be in a Terence Davies film. That would just be heaven.

Describe your style in three words.

Slap dash. No, that’s only two. Very Slap Dash.

Will you be returning to our screens in Luther?

The good thing is I can, I’ve got a good feeling about it.  He’s out there somewhere and he’s gonna’ turn up again, but it’s in the lap of the gods. That first series was great to be in, it was quite unusual. I think Neil Cross is a really clever writer too and as for Mark North, maybe he just went for the milk or something.

What keeps you awake at night?

Insomnia. It’s tricky but it is what it is. There’s loads of us though, the more I mention it the more people confess to it. When I’m awake at night I read a lot of books, thick ones with small type, to try and bore myself back to sleep. Just one of those things I guess.