Impossible Conversation: Serge Gainsbourg & Withnail

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Serge Gainsbourg & Withnail
Serge Gainsbourg & Withnail

France's favourite libertine and a struggling actor called Withnail hold court at the bar in editor Ben Cobb's imagined conversation in the latest issue of Another Man

Monday, mid-afternoon – sometime in the past. A pub filled with stale smoke and beetrootfaced men. Everybody is here to get drunk. But none more so than the two dishevelled reprobates clinging to their stools at the bar: legendary songwriter, womaniser and hellraiser Serge Gainsbourg and, next to him, an out-of-work but defiantly pompous actor known only as Withnail. Judging by the hoard of empty glasses surrounding them, they haven’t moved since opening time. Here, using their own words, the two soaks try to make sense of each other… 

WITHNAIL: This is ridiculous. I’m 30 in a month and I’ve got a sole flapping off my shoe.
SERGE GAINSBOURG: Well, I’m going to die broke but whatever… I don’t want to give my children the handicap of being a millionaire.
W: Easy enough for you to say ‘lovey’. It’s ridiculous. Why can’t I have an audition? I’ve been to drama school. I’m good looking.
SG: Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts. I don’t understand where my ugliness came from. My mother was beautiful, my father too…

"Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts" – Serge Gainsbourg

W: I dislike relatives in general, my own in particular… and I have absolutely no interest in yours.
SG: You’re going to get a slap in the face in a minute!
W: I have a heart condition. If you hit me it’s murder.
SG: I couldn’t care less… I had a heart attack. It just proves I have a heart.
W: Balls! (Finishes his glass of whisky) I tell you, I’ve a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television.

SG: I burnt 500 francs on a chat show once. Whenever I’m on TV everyone thinks I’m on drugs. But I’m not. I’m just a little wasted.
W: The only programme I’m likely to get on is the fucking news! I can’t take too much more of this, I’m going to crack.
SG: To be honest, I’m not at my highest point.
W: What’s the matter with you?
SG: (Snivelling) I lost my dog, poor dog. I’m the one who drinks and he’s the one who died of sclerosis. I’ve been crying a lot these days.
W: Don’t be a fool! Leave this to me… (Signals the barman) A pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints please.

"I have a heart condition. If you hit me it’s murder" – Withnail

SG: I want a Bloody Mary with a lot of vodka. (Wipes his eyes on his sleeve and lights a Gitane)
W: What are you talking about? Don’t want to overdo it, do you?
SG: I know my limits, it’s the reason I go over them… Alcohol is only a minor drug. But, as Bogart said, cigarettes are the ‘coffin nails’. I’ll probably die from them but I’m not scared to join my parents and my dog. (Raises his glass) Santé!
W: Chin chin! (Downs another whisky) I think we’ve been in here too long. I feel unusual.
SG: (Turns to the barman, pointing at Withnail) This guy is crazy!

W: Utterly arse-holed… (Head lolling) I’m gonna have a doze.
SG: You are? Unacceptable!
W: OK. OK. Gimme a minute. (Pulls himself together) Sorry about that. I got a bit carried away, sort of said it without thinking… Can I get you a top up?
SG: Yes. But this is the last one. Let’s not push it.
W: What absolute twaddle! (To the barman) Two large gins. Two pints of cider. Ice in the cider.

Words by Ben Cobb

This article features in the latest issue of Another Man.