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Grant, Richard E. (1957-)


Main image of Grant, Richard E. (1957-)

Tall, slim and saturnine, Richard E Grant has never yet cast off the shadow of his debut cinematic role. The persona of Withnail, scathing, self-obsessed, booze-and-drug-ridden unemployed actor, in Bruce Robinson's lethally funny 60s scuzzbag comedy, Withnail & I (1987), seemed to fit him so snugly that it's coloured all his subsequent career, in much the way that Norman Bates took over Anthony Perkins and Jeff Bridges has become 'The Dude'; the more so since the film, no great success on its initial release, has now gained the status of a cult classic. Despite having acted in near on a hundred other films and TV dramas (and being, in real life, allergic to alcohol), Grant seems lastingly likely to conjure up such well-loved Withnail lines as "We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!"

He was born in Swaziland, as Richard Grant Esterhuysen, in the dying days of British colonialism - a milieu he portrayed in his first film as director, Wah-Wah (2005), as drunken, snobbish and joylessly adulterous. He studied English and drama at the University of Cape Town, where he joined the Space Theatre Company, before moving to London in 1982. With features that lend themselves readily to disdain or disgust, and a voice with a hint of old-fashioned hauteur, he seemed naturally suited to playing villains or anti-heroes. "No other actor in recent movies, not even James Woods, is better at creating a repellent, spiteful, vindictive character," observed Roger Ebert. After Withnail, Grant starred in Bruce Robinson's second film as director, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), as a scruple-free adman, but the satire was found crude and heavy-handed.

Since then Grant has established himself as a reliable character actor - the characters, inevitably, generally being on the unpleasant side - while occasionally taking the lead, as he did in Alan Plater's adaptation of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997), and in the BBC series The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000), showing impressive swashbuckling skills as the famously elusive adventurer. Costume dramas fit him well: he played Dr Seward (on the side of the angels, for once) in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (US, 1992) a waspish New York socialite in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (US, 1993), a snooty British aristo in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady (UK/US, 1996), Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Trevor Nunn's film of Twelfth Night (1996), the head footman in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001) and Sir Hudson Lowe (Napoleon's jailer on St Helena) in Monsieur N. (2003).

Similarly, on television he portrayed the Prince Regent in A Royal Scandal (1997), Bob Cratchit in the umpteenth version of A Christmas Carol (1999), a cold-blooded villain in The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002) and a sinisterly avuncular doctor in the BBC's highly-coloured adaptation of Michel Faber's Victorian melodrama, The Crimson Petal and the White (2011). His incisive, measured speaking voice has made him a frequent choice for animations and voice-overs: among those he's voiced have been Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1993, 1997), John the Baptist in The Miracle Maker (2000) and Doctor Who in Scream of the Shalka (2003).

Though Grant has occasionally worked in Hollywood, he professes no great love for it. "Hollywood is fear-filled," he once remarked. "You only need to be there when the sun is not shining to notice the grim determination and the need to be on every billboard." Some of this animus fuelled his first foray into fiction, By Design: A Hollywood Novel (1999). Wah-Wah, his only directorial outing (so far), which he also scripted, was generally well received, but the seven-year ordeal of making it may well have put him off repeating the experience.

Philip Kemp


With Nails: the Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant (London, Basingstoke: Picador, 1996)

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Low-rent but side-splittingly funny period comedy that grew its own cult

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