Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick
In October 2006 someone, somewhere came up with the most ridiculous, not to mention blasphemous, concept ever – a stage version of Withnail and I. “It’s a crap idea, what possible function would it serve except to make someone some money” said Richard Griffiths who played the now infamous Uncle Monty in the 1987 original. Speculation has thankfully receded since. Withnail treading the boards? They, whoever they might be, say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, why imitate when the original is note perfect and surely one of the finest films to have come out of this small island we inhabit.
Grand words maybe. I can hear the howls of derision from critical puritans. How could Withnail take a seat at the same table as the creative offspring of directors such as Lean, Reed, Powell and Pressburger, Leigh, Roeg, Anderson etc? Director/writer Bruce Robinson may not have built up a classic auteur reputation like the aforementioned, but his début is that rarest of beasts. It stands the test of time and multiple viewings, every scene being as hilarious as the last, the whole 108 minutes an absolute and constant pleasure. Robinson described Withnail in retrospect as “a badly shot film with great dialogue”. The former is true, but when the screenplay filmed is the most quotable ever, issues surrounding camerawork pale into insignificance.
Withnail and I charts the drink and drug addled course of two out of work actors at the tail end of the 60’s in Camden Town, London. For a change of scenery they go for a weekend in the country residing at Withnail’s gay Uncle’s cottage with farcical results. The seeds for the screenplay were spun from Robinson’s own personal experience, the ‘I’ character, who acts as partial narrator and foil for Withnail, a surrogate persona for himself. Inspiration for Withnail derived from Robinson’s flat mate Vivian MacKerrell, who upon leaving drama school never worked and died young of throat cancer. Robinson himself later found work, his most notable appearance as Benvolio in Franco Zefferelli’s anodyne adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1968). Zefferelli’s on-set advances towards him subsequently formed the basis for the latter half of the picture, with Uncle Monty’s none too subtle attempts to seduce ‘I’ after Withnail lies about his sexuality to get access to Monty’s countryside abode (“I mean to have you boy, even if it must be burglary”).
After his screenplay spawned success with the multi Oscar winning The Killing Fields (1984) Robinson set up Withnail at HandMade Pictures, Beatle George Harrison’s company that had already made the two Monty Python films The Holy Grail (1974) and Life of Brian (1979). He received £1 for the script and £80,000 for helming the project, although just under half of this fee would be put back into the picture whose £1.1 million budget did not allow essential scenes to be shot, Handmade refusing to cover them. Casting was not an easy process for someone meticulous as to how his words were spoken. Paul McGann got the ‘I’ part, lost it and regained it again. Potential candidates for Withnail included a young Daniel Day Lewis and Bill Nighy before Grant won Robinson over despite his lack of experience.
Production was a strenuous process for the debutant director who began nervous and apprehensive as to what would lie ahead and deteriorated from there on in. Grant and McGann both recall Robinson’s paranoia when crew members would crack up during scenes, assuming that this was due to flaws in his dialogue, dismissing any thought of genuine laughter. The addition of American executive producer Denis O’Brien on set merely intensified the situation. His belief was that Grant should play the part camper, more in a Kenneth Williams, Carry On vein. Robinson threatened to walk if interference continued but long-term won the battle to maintain his own vision of the picture. Upon finishing the picture HandMade was bought up and a new distributor took over. When released in 1988 Withnail played out in UK cinemas for a few weeks and got pulled. It fared slightly better in theUSwith Grant’s performance attracting particular interest and critical praise. Barely a dent was made in the box office.
Television and the video market effectively saved Withnail. Like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) before it and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) after, critics and audiences rediscovered and re-evaluated opinions. A cult following quickly grew. The main attraction is Grant’s performance as Withnail, surely the best portrayal of inebriation to grace cinema and particularly impressive considering Grants tee-total, non-smoking status. Robinson insisted Grant get pissed once before shooting so he would have a “chemical memory” of what it felt like, which ended in a predictably messy fashion.
Grant gets all the best lines – “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”, “We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now”, “I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze” and, when frequently hung over, “I feel like a pigs shat in my head”. Despite the characters cowardice, narcissism, arrogance and constant loathing (not to mention selling his friends arse for a weekend in the country, citing “tactical necessity, calculated risk”) you can’t help but revel in every second of his screen time. Perhaps this is down to his healthy dose of English pessimism, a trait we can fully appreciate and empathise with. Some screenplays would have run with a grotesque one dimensional stereotype but Robinson’s skill is to invest this English eccentric with an air of tragedy. Withnail is someone of great ability (as illustrated by his delivery of the Hamlet monologue in the films final scene) lost in this vast canvas we call existence. The very thing that we find laughter in is his frequent intoxication and multitude of addictions – a way out, but one that will prove to be much to his own personal detriment. McGann as ‘I’, or Marwood as he’s known in the screenplay, is solid in the straight man role, an innocent who always gets on the receiving end as Withnail pulls the strings.
The supporting players are also exemplary. Monty exudes the same sadness as his nephew. Any possibilities of him being a barmy, camp stereotype dispatching sexual metaphors (“There is you’ll agree a certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot”) evaporate as we learn of his failed theatrical aspirations and overwhelming desire for a partner. Like Withnail he’s lost but his solitude is due to the decade, Monty’s tea and crumpets traditionalism usurped by swinging sixties cultural changes. Ralph Brown’s severely addled hippy dealer Danny has only two scenes but both are classics, the first revealing his entrepreneurial ventures into the toy market and the second containing the legendary 12 skin whitey-inducing Camberwell Carrot (“I invented it in Camberwell and it’s shaped like a carrot”).
On another level Robinson’s screenplay mourns the end of the sixties, an era of free love, drugs and hope, not necessarily in that order. As Danny says, in a rare moment of caned clarity, “We have failed to paint it black” and “We are at the end of an age. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths.” The depiction ofEnglandis grimy and downbeat, a world of greasy spoons, tabloid newspapers and demolished buildings. Matters would worsen under Heath. After that was Thatcher.
Grant would go on to work with Altman, Scorsese and Coppola, (of which he gives a lively account in his diary With Nails) but has never surpassed his début performance. Withnail would doubtlessly have something to say about recent appearances in catalogue commercials. McGann got steady film and TV work, starring as Dr Who in a feature length movie episode. Robinson would direct Grant again in honest failure How To Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) and standard US thriller Jennifer 8 (1992). Only very recently has he returned behind the camera with an adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diaries (2011), seemingly a perfect marriage of director and content but not quite as successful in execution. Somehow I doubt he will better his poignant, acerbic, hilarious début. All that could be placed near it in the laugh for laugh stakes would be This is Spinal Tap(1984) but, to quote Withnail, “You can stuff it up your arse for nothing, and fuck off while your doing it.”. Chin, chin.