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THE WAH-WAH DIARIES (article first published : 2006-07-2)

Swaziland-raised and British-based actor Richard E Grant recently returned to his homeland to make his debut as a director, with a film he also scripted. The engaging Wah-Wah, opening locally on July 14, is largely autobiographical and touches on Grant's childhood and parents' separation on the eve of Swazi independence in the late 60s. Making Wah-Wah was a dream come true for Grant - but, he says, getting the project off the ground also proved a constant nightmare.

Charlize Theron, Minnie Driver, Brenda Blethyn, Juliet Binoche, Rachel Griffiths, Anna Chancellor, Toni Collette. Also, Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes.

All were approached, but declined, to play Ruby and Harry, characters inspired by Richard’s alcoholic father and American stepmother.

In the end Grant managed to assemble a fine cast - headed by Emily Watson and Gabriel Byrne as his father and stepmum, Miranda Richardson as his mother, About a Boy's Nicholas Hault as Ralph (a character inspired by Grant), Julie Walters as a family friend and Durban's own Caroline Smart as Taj, a Scottish am-dram actress.

The constant to-and-fro e-mailings and pleadings for performers to join his project was just the tip of the iceberg of hassles encountered by Grant for whom the film, premiered as the opening movie at last year's Edinburgh Film Festival, marks his directing debut.

Such were his constant headaches trying to get the project off the ground and on to the screen that the star of Withnail and I and dozens of other films admits to sobbing in private on at least two occasions - once on a bed, once in a loo - in his recently published The Wah-Wah Diaries, published by Pan MacMillan and released to coincide with the film's July 21 release locally.

Not the least of problems for Grant, who visited South Africa last week for the film's Johannesburg premiere, was working with French producer Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar. A relative novice - she had only produced one other movie, Monsieur N - she seemed, judging by Grant's sarcastic, eye-rolling dairy notes about her, to have spent more time beating about the bush, constantly yakking away on a cellphone, than actually fulfilling the many important tasks required of her.

To say there was minimal love lost between her and Grant is putting it mildly. And, as he points out towards the close of The Wah-Wah Diaries, he was apparently not the only one whose feathers she ruffled.

Grant writes: "MC seems to have single-handedly alienated the English producers, co-producers and sales team . . . yet I'm still pretty taken aback when we are all asked to a post-screening party ... and discover that she has not seem to have been invited. That has to hurt bad."

One of the most worrying of worrying times for 48-year-old Grant was being informed, only days before filming was to start in Swaziland, that his company did not have clearances or work permits. He was told the production team would have to pay a fine of close to R1million, on top of a hefty licence fee, as a result.

With the shoot due to start on the Monday, Grant, on the Friday, visited the King of Swaziland, pleading for help - "I felt like I was begging for my life here" - which eventually came through in the nick of time.

Grant finally escaped into a loo, he says, and broke down, sobbing uncontrollably from the sheer relief of the royal reprieve.

The Wah-Wah Diaries is a book written with such humour and charm, such honesty, that it is un-put-downable. The film, meshing drama, humour, tragedy and life-affirming moments that shape the man Grant would one day become, is every bit as rewarding.

Oh, why Wah-Wah? The title refers to an expression used constantly in the film by Emily Watson's Ruby character, in reference to the continual whinings and carrying-ons of many characters around her. – Billy Suter, Arts Editor, The Mercury




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