Withnail & I – 25 Years On

By Feidhlim de Frein, September 15, 2011

Withnail & I - courtesy of Murray Close

Withnail & I - courtesy of Murray Close

It’s one of the most-loved of all British films. It’s almost certainly the most-quoted one. And its popularity has never been greater. So why have so many people never heard of it?

Withnail & I is a low-budget, oddly-titled British movie, made in 1986. The plot is basic, the mood dark, the characters eccentric. There are no women in the movie, or as near to none as makes no difference. Most of the men are substance-abusers, living in self-inflicted squalor. The overriding sense is of unfulfilled potential, gloom, loss, endings – probably bad endings at that. Not a single instance of laughter was scripted for any of the characters. The lead actors were rookies. The director, also a first-timer, had to pay for some of the scenes out of his own pocket. The production company hated the script and said so, leading the director to threaten resignation on the opening day of shooting. The first test screening was a disaster. It took a year to find a distributor, and on its eventual release it disappeared from cinemas within weeks. And yet, among a certain section of the population, this film is loved like no other. Some of its acolytes are able to recite the entire script. The lead actor continues to be ambushed by fans quoting lines at him. How did this come to pass?

* * * * *

Withnail & I is set in late 1969. Two out-of-work actors in their late 20s share a grim flat in London’s Camden Town. Richard E Grant takes the lead role of Withnail, while Paul McGann supports as ‘I’ (the ‘I’ character’s surname is apparently ‘Marwood’, though this is never referred to).

The movie is semi-autobiographical. Marwood is based on Bruce Robinson, who in 1984 had been Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for The Killing Fields. On Withnail & I, Robinson wrote the script but also made his directorial debut.

Withnail is widely regarded as being based on Robinson’s drama college friend Vivian MacKerrell (of whom more later), though Robinson has said that the character is a composite of both MacKerrell and himself, plus some elements of an alcoholic acquaintance called Jonathan Withnall.

Withnail is an arrogant, acerbic, opinionated, self-centred, mendacious, irresponsible, self-pitying, cowardly, thieving, upper-middle-class substance abuser. Marwood is more down-to-earth and reasonable, if capable of matching some of Withnail’s appetites. They are articulate, educated men, aspiring to acting roles and careers, but living in appalling accommodation, with unhealthy lifestyles, no work, no money, no girlfriends, and no obvious escape route. As Withnail observes with some acidity, “I’m 30 in a month and I’ve got a sole flapping off my shoe”.

The flat is very cold – Withnail rubs ‘Deep Heat’ onto his limbs to stay warm. Marwood, less splenetic and more connected with the real world, notes accurately that “we are entering the arena of the unwell”.

Work seems impossible to find, and theatrical agents are ineffectual (Withnail: “What happened to my agent? Bastard must have died”). A hairy drug-dealing hippy called Danny (memorably played by Ralph Brown) visits occasionally, offering unsolicited views on a range of topics, delivered in a deadpan monotone (“I don’t advise a haircut, man. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly to your brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.”). Withnail is sarcastically unimpressed.

Stuck in a jobless rut, with insufficient food and their health in decline, they decide on a restorative break in the countryside. They visit Withnail’s rotund, eccentric and gay Uncle Monty (the perfectly-cast Richard Griffiths), who, in between quoting Shakespeare and feuding with his cat (“beastly little parasite”), offers them the use of his rural retreat.

They travel to the Lake District in a battered old Jaguar, with Marwood at the wheel and Withnail drinking and shouting abuse at passers-by. Arriving in darkness and torrential rain, it soon becomes apparent that the trip was a mistake – the accommodation seems no better than the Camden flat and is just as cold. Withnail slumps sullenly into a chair: “I’m sitting down to enjoy my holiday”.

Procuring food and provisions does not come easily to the two urbanites, leading to awkwardly conducted commerce with the locals (Withnail, running alongside tractor, addressing driver: “Are you the farmer?… We’ve gone on holiday by mistake… Are you the farmer?” Marwood: “Stop saying that Withnail, of course he’s the fucking farmer”). The farmer sells them a chicken; on delivery it turns out to be a live one, though not for long (the chicken scene apparently led Grant to embrace vegetarianism).

That night, having familiarised themselves with the bleak local pub, they are woken and terrified by a suspected burglar. The intruder turns out to be Monty, compelled to visit by romantic feelings for Marwood. Monty restores domestic order to the house, but terrorises Marwood with his advances. (Monty’s pursuit of Marwood is based on a real-life episode when, during one of his few acting roles, Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, the heterosexual Robinson was pursued energetically by the director, Franco Zeffirelli, an experience that left him with a nervous breakdown, a lifelong dislike of acting, and a habit of referring to the role as “Bendoverio”.)

Marwood receives a telegram offering an audition, and the pair return to London, though not without incident – Marwood wakes from a nap to find that Withnail, who doesn’t drive, has taken the wheel and is swerving all over the road with a police van on his tail. Withnail is arrested and charged (aficionados of on-screen drunkenness will appreciate Grant’s skilled take on inebriation, conveyed principally via the eyes, and all the more impressive coming from a teetotal actor). They eventually return to Camden to discover eviction notices in the hall and Danny now in residence, along with his large friend ‘Presuming Ed’. Danny rolls a colossal joint, which he terms the ‘Camberwell Carrot’ (“I invented it in Camberwell and it’s shaped like a carrot”). All four share it, with varying results.

Marwood doesn’t get the part he auditioned for – he actually lands the lead role. He moves out, and is accompanied to the railway station by Withnail, who for the first time appears vulnerable. Withnail tries to coax his friend to share one last bottle liberated from Monty’s cellar: “53 Margaux. Best of the century… There’s always time for a drink”. But Marwood is in a hurry to catch his train and declines. Marwood is going somewhere, and Withnail is watching him go. The final scene sees Withnail alone in London Zoo, in the middle of a downpour, reciting Hamlet (“I have of late … lost all my mirth”) to an audience of wolves.

* * * * *

As plots go, this might all seem a bit thin (Robinson has described the film as just “people yakking”), though it does fit a well-known three-act formula: send a man up a tree; throw rocks at him; bring him back down. But the appeal of the film has little to do with the plot, being instead based on two central pillars: Robinson’s script and Grant’s spleen.

In addition, the uncertainty and lack of fulfilment evident in most of the main characters’ lives speak to both younger and older viewers. Younger fans (usually students) are often living through that part of early adulthood that is pock-marked with wrong turns, false dawns, lack of money, and no road-map for life. Older ones, having lived through such times and come out the other side, enjoy looking back with something akin to war-time romanticism (as per Thurber’s dictum that humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity). But those who have enjoyed conventional success, without episodes of disorder and hopelessness along the way, may find it harder to connect with the film, and many are bewildered by its critical acclaim and its still-growing popularity.

The comedy is dark, and derives from the characters’ situation and their reactions to it. Robinson’s determination to avoid conventional joke-based humour led him to condemn and reshoot any scene that made the camera crew laugh. He fought constantly with his uncomprehending producer, who, accustomed to working on mainstream comedies, apparently found the first rushes “about as funny as a burning orphanage”. When the production company refused to finance one section (the road trip back to London), Robinson paid for the scenes out of his own pocket.

The first test screening was a fiasco. The PR company recruited a youthful audience, ushered in from the streets of central London, who sat through the movie in silence. Robinson was terrified that he had made a turkey, but then discovered that the audience was made up of visiting German students who spoke no English. (He fired the PR company.) Another test screening, this time in New York, offered reassurance (Withnail & I generally got a better reception from American audiences); the laughter began around the 10-minute mark as the crowd got their bearings, and scarcely let up thereafter, although one middle-aged couple opined that they found the film to be a very touching tragedy. The humour had passed them by, but their observation was still valid.

The on-screen chaos and the off-screen director/producer squabbling were complemented by other tribulations, and in fact, some knowledge of the background to the film and its characters is more than helpful in appreciating it.

The film is set in 1969, near the end of the year, the decade, and the era. The sense of loss, of things coming to an end, is palpable. In one scene a wrecking ball demolishes some period houses, reflecting a time when London was still mostly at a low ebb, with a contracting population and widespread dereliction. Withnail himself is coming to the end of his 20s, with a CV uncluttered by roles.

Off-screen, Richard E Grant had been out of work for the better part of a year, clocking up numerous rejections on the back of increasingly desperate auditions. As a would-be Little John in the pantomime Robin Hood, his raucous, howling version of his native Swaziland’s national anthem did not find favour with the casting panel. And he failed to land the role of Frankenstein’s Monster in, above all things, a BBC Religious Department programme on faith and medical advances – throwing himself into the role too enthusiastically, he half-throttled the casting director. The 29-year-old Grant was thus elated to be offered the role of Withnail, but it couldn’t have escaped his notice that the only role he could get was playing an unemployed 29-year-old actor. (The elation didn’t last long – a week before rehearsals commenced, Grant’s first child, a daughter, was born prematurely and died the same day.)

The music complements the different moods of the film, often sad and wistful, occasionally more aggressive. The intro, saxophonist King Curtis’ bittersweet instrumental version of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’, was recorded in 1971 at the Fillmore West, and is elegiac for more reasons than just the nature of the movie – Curtis was stabbed to death shortly after. Well-chosen music from another dead man, Jimi Hendrix, features on the two road trips in the film, which proved to be fortunate timing, as the Hendrix estate subsequently forbade his work to be used to project benign images of drink or drug abuse. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ also surfaces, which might surprise given The Beatles’ reluctance to licence their songs’ use in films, but George Harrison was behind the production company and allowed its inclusion.

On-screen, Withnail’s baleful presence dominates. Acerbic remarks are sprayed around indiscriminately. The journey from London to Cumbria allows him time and space to vent on those he spots through the car window: “Scrubbers! Scrubbers!!” (to some passing schoolgirls); or “Throw yourself onto the road darling, you haven’t got a chance” (to a blameless pedestrian). In Cumbria, he is told he has failed to land a part in The Seagull, prompting “I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow”. His frequent hangovers (“I’ve got a bastard behind the eyes”) ratchet up the snarling and self-pity.

Danny’s visits, and his prophesies, darken the mood further: “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over”, “there’s going to be a lot of refugees”, and, most damningly, “they’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man”.

Monty, though now apparently affluent, is himself an ex actor and recalls his own difficulties finding work through his agent: “Four floors up at the Charing Cross and never a job at the top”. He regrets that he will never play the Dane. His harmless cat runs the risk of meeting a bad end at his frustrated hands (“it will die, it will die”).

There are elements of hope. Monty’s ebullience, domestic competence and general likeability lighten the mood. The comparatively sensible Marwood does secure a role that might in turn lead to something else. Danny, whose laid-back pronouncements reward close attention, also hints at aspirations to better things a couple of puffs into the Camberwell Carrot – while pondering legal matters, he states airily that “the law rather appeals to me”, causing Withnail to double up in derisive laughter. But Danny’s ambitions are perhaps not so ridiculous – according to Kevin Jackson’s essay Withnail & I (published by the British Film Institute, and highly recommended), Danny was based partly on a skinny-legged hairdresser who habitually wore a stove-pipe hat, wolfskin leotard, and clogs (and nothing else, even in mid-winter), and who eventually ended up with a successful career in the City, a Porsche, and a large house in the Home Counties.

Marwood may well emerge with the prospect of a career, but the same happy ending cannot be predicted for Withnail. The movie ends with their separation and Withnail’s Hamlet recitation. While hardly a cheerful finale, the original script had Withnail blowing his brains out with a shotgun loaded with Monty’s Margaux. This was deemed too dark even for this film, but the viewer is under no illusions that Withnail is not destined to come to a good end.

Withnail is based partly on the up-market and highly intelligent Vivian MacKerrell, a larger-than-life drama school contemporary and flatmate of Robinson, who would stand at bar counters entertaining a wide circle of admirers. Nicknamed “Crime” because of his ability to get drunk without ever buying a drink (“Crime doesn’t pay”), he had a high opinion of his acting ability, a view not shared by casting directors. He regarded his own family with indifference, though he did take a keen interest in the health of elderly relatives, hoping for inheritances.

The Camden flat was owned by David Dundas, son of the Third Marquess of Zetland, and later Lord Dundas, but better known for being a one-hit wonder in 1976 with the song ‘Jeans On’ (he would later compose the theme music to Withnail & I). With the population of the flat rising steadily, he decided to move out, but generously allowed the current residents to continue living there, before subsequently (and probably wisely) selling it.

Life in the flat was impoverished. Discarded fruit and vegetables were scavenged from Camden Market; milk and newspapers from other people’s doorsteps. Potential sources of free alcohol were researched and investigated. For a time, they managed to bluff their way into fine-wine tastings at Sothebys, until a security man rumbled them. They also made for a couple of unlikely recruits to the Conservative Party, but the rumour of free sherry that led them to join turned out to be false. One episode seems to sum up the nature of their existence in the flat. MacKerrell visited Scotland (his parents had retired to Islay, possibly the most distilleried place on Earth) and returned with illicitly-made bottles of a 200˚ proof liquid. They tucked into it, and after a while began to perceive pustules forming on the walls, which they attempted to beat back with a hammer and an artificial leg. The wall (an external one) caved in, and had to be replaced with polythene sheeting, leaving them vulnerable to incursions from burglars and drunks.

* * * * *

It probably goes without saying that Withnail & I does not cater for all tastes. Its critics have accused it variously of being homophobic, racist, disinterested in women, anti-semitic, anti-Irish, inciting drunkenness, and generally having nothing important to say. Let’s take these criticisms in turn.

Monty might seem an over-the-top representation of homosexuality in some respects, and at times Marwood appears inordinately fearful of homosexual attention, but given that this is apparently based on Zefferelli’s persecution of Robinson, a true-to-life depiction of Monty would be far less favourable. Robinson also had to fight off his producer’s lobbying to present Monty as a much camper figure. In fact, Monty is the only source of generosity and order in the entire film (witness his willingness to share his very fine wine, and his rapid transformation of the run-down rural retreat into a homely cottage). A good test is “which of the characters do I warm to?” Withnail may be the most compelling and memorable, and Marwood the most well-adjusted, but Monty (if we draw a veil over his cat-strangling ambitions) is the most likeable.

The accusations of racism rest on a couple of instances of the word “spade”, a term now universally regarded as derogatory. However, the film was set in 1969, when British popular culture ascribed such terms to just about every nationality and race. For context, The Black and White Minstrel Show, with its white performers in blacked-up faces, and which nowadays could only be viewed through slitted fingers, ran on the BBC until 1978, almost a full decade after the setting for Withnail & I. In addition, both instances of the term in question are used to refer to people who are friends of Danny – his companion Presuming Ed, and his drug supplier ‘The Coalman’, an unseen character who, by Danny’s account, sports a kaftan and a bell during a court appearance (“they can handle the kaftan, they can’t handle the bell”), informs the unimpressed judge that these are no more bizarre than judicial apparel, and gets a two-year sentence for his trouble. So, while today most people would not use this term under any circumstances, the exclusionary nature of racism is absent from Withnail & I. And while Withnail & I wasn’t filmed until 1986, even if it could be argued that the script should have been purged of the term given the passage of time, the mid-1980s weren’t exactly an on-screen racial nirvana either – the same year, ITV commissioned a new series of Mind Your Language, which poked fun at immigrants to the UK as they tried to learn English.

It’s true that there are no roles in the film for women longer than a few seconds. Hence, it has been speculated that either or both of Withnail and Marwood are homosexual, or bisexual, or asexual, but Robinson has stated that there is no basis for this. It seems more likely that their relationship was of a recognisably male variety, ie, total absence of pleasantries, nobody called by their first names, lots of arguments and sarcasm, but all underpinned by a deep Platonic friendship. Robinson says that the lack of romantic interest in their lives was simply due to their poverty-stricken existence – they couldn’t afford girlfriends. And it’s certainly difficult to imagine any sentient female being a willing participant in such a lifestyle.

The anti-semitic accusation rests on Monty’s description of his agent, Mr Raymond Duck, as a “dreadful little Israelite”. No other context is offered, and it seems reasonable to commit it to the same not-unusual-for-1969 category and move on.

These issues, plus the anti-Irish one, apparently contributed to the decision of actor Michael Maloney to turn down the part of Marwood. Early in the film, Withnail and Marwood go drinking in The Mother Black Cap, an Irish pub in Camden Town. Marwood has unwisely scrubbed his boots using essence of petunia (necessary because Withnail had vomited on them after consuming lighter fluid during an alcohol drought). A large Irishman refers to Marwood as a “perfumed ponce”. Withnail turns to defend him (“What fucker said that?”), but, on seeing the size and attitude of his opponent, quickly reverts to lies and cowardice (“I’ve a heart condition. If you hit me it’s murder. My wife’s having a baby.”). He suggests that Marwood and the Irishman should settle their quarrel outside, and then flees the pub, with Marwood in hot pursuit. (To declare an interest, your writer is Irish, worked in a West London pub a few decades ago, and encountered a few compatriots who chimed with Withnail’s adversary.) Robinson and MacKerrell lived in an area of London where such characters were not uncommon; the scene in the pub represents the pair’s regular social collisions with them.

A small tangent. Most of the Camden Irishmen of Robinson and McKerrell’s acquaintance would have left school at an early age. However, in the late 1960s, in a transformational national event, free secondary school education was championed and rapidly introduced by a dynamic government minister, Donogh O’Malley. Equally dynamic with a glass in his hand, he and his drinking partner, the late actor Richard Harris, were barred from a substantial number of Limerick’s pubs (one convivial evening concluded with O’Malley smashing up a chip shop, necessitating the payment of IR£500 in compensation). Having burned brightly, he died suddenly in 1968 at the age of 47. His then teenage son, Daragh, went on to become an actor, and wound up playing the Irishman in Withnail & I, a character-type whose demographic numbers went into sharp decline following his father’s educational reforms. Withnail’s combination of genius and enthusiasm for alcohol may also have reminded him of someone.

The characters’ alcohol intake has become enshrined in student drinking games over the years, but the drinking is not of the adolescent, high-jinks, rugby-hearties-at-play varieties. It might appear hedonistic, but it also reflects a darker escapism, pouring booze into a void deepened by lack of work and fulfilment, and the loss of youth. The amount consumed is impressive – according to one authority, Withnail swallows nine-and-a-half glasses of red wine, a pint of cider, two-and-a-half shots of gin, six glasses of sherry, 13 whiskies, a half-pint of ale, and a shot of lighter fluid, not to mention his share of the Camberwell Carrot. And Grant’s Withnail is surely one of the most convincing on-screen drunkards in cinema history. But reducing the appeal of the movie to a drinking game misses and indeed subverts the point. Withnail is not having fun; he is an alcoholic, feeding an addiction.

Some have also criticised the film for its lack of political or social analysis, though it should be noted that the prominent road sign they pass on their way out of London rather pointedly reads “Accident Black Spot – London Borough of Finchley”. This was the constituency that elected Margaret Thatcher, of whom Robinson was not a fan. Withnail’s suggestion to the Finchley pedestrian that he should throw himself onto the road could be interpreted as a political opinion as to the man’s prospects under Thatcherism.

* * * * *

So why is Withnail & I funny? The key point is the precision of the language (hence, the extensive quotes in this article). Given that Robinson was a writer first and a director second (he already had a screenplay Oscar nomination for The Killing Fields under his belt), and the subject was semi-autobiographical, he understood precisely what he was trying to achieve with each word. According to Alastair Owen’s interviews with Robinson (published in one superb volume, Smoking in Bed – Conversations with Bruce Robinson), Grant got the role on the basis of his perfect delivery of just two words during the audition – “Fork it!” (shouted by Withnail while hunting an unseen rodent in the indescribably filthy kitchen sink). According to the same interview, Grant originally stressed the word “in” in the line “I’m in a park and I’m practically dead”, but Robinson made him shift the stress to the word “park”, which works much better, and is the type of nuance likely to have been missed had the director not also written the script. Curious expressions such as “we are entering the arena of the unwell”, or “my thumbs have gone weird”, or even “Here Hare Here” (a three-word note left at the rural cottage by Jake, the semi-literate poacher, as read by Monty) may not seem humorous on the printed page, but work very well on screen. Withnail’s cries of “I demand to have some booze”, and subsequently “there must and shall be aspirin”, highlight his dipsomania, but also economically convey his arrogant sense of entitlement.

One unexpected consequence of the wonderful script is that, years later, Grant continues to have lines from the movie thrown at him by random strangers. On holiday in a remote village in the south of France, a car-load of fans drove past him yelling “Scrubbers!”. In New York, having spent hours in a computer shop trying to make up his mind what to buy, the short-back-and-sides salesman advised him that what he really wanted was “the finest wines available to humanity” (as demanded by Withnail in the Penrith Tea Rooms scene). Robinson has encountered Withnail fans up a hill in rural Wales, trying to outquote each other. For my own part, I once observed similar behaviour inside an American investment bank – Withnailites addressing each other with lines from the movie, in the manner of freemasons exchanging signals.

Also key to the humour is that the characters have absolutely no idea that they’re funny. Like Basil Fawlty, or Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring, or The Naked Gun’s Lieutenant Drebin, if they gave even so much as a hint that they were aware of the comedy of their situation, the humour would be destroyed. Robinson, with his dislike of jokes, was determined to avoid this, and only tolerated Grant’s guffawing through a line addressed to some little old ladies in the Tea Rooms (“liven all you stiffs up a bit”) because (a) Grant proved unable to carry it off without laughing and (b) he eventually rationalised that Grant is playing a drunk in the scene, so the drunken laughter, being natural, would not detract from the humour.

And the issue of class is never far from the surface. Withnail has difficulty reconciling his personal superiority with his professional failure. His outburst “I’m a trained actor, reduced to the status of a bum”, is reminiscent of Basil Fawlty, shaking his fist at the hotel ceiling, ranting “Thank you, God” after some catastrophe.

* * * * *

Withnail & I has by now broken out of its original cult-movie category and regularly features in “Greatest British Films” lists. It was also the watershed moment in Richard E Grant’s career, and became his calling card – having previously been unable to secure a single role, within a week of its release in America he had a call from Hollywood and his career took off.

Vivian MacKerrell settled down (in a vicarage, of all places) with the portrait painter Kate Stacey Lister. They lived together for 14 years, but his alcoholism ultimately led to the ending of the relationship. In an interview in 2009, she remembered him as “magnetic” and “mind-blowingly beautiful”. She also thought Grant played MacKerrell as Withnail “fantastically well”, and apparently MacKerrell also loved the film, believing it to be highly authentic.

MacKerrell’s health eventually went into decline. On one occasion, he did actually swallow lighter fluid a là Withnail, leading to temporary blindness. He developed throat cancer, which Robinson suspects may not have been unrelated, and underwent radiotherapy, but ignored doctors’ advice and continued to drink prodigiously. The cancer returned, necessitating the removal of his voicebox. Unable to speak or swallow, he had to feed himself through a tube into his stomach, via which he also channelled sherry and neat Scotch. Observing this extreme example of tragicomedy during a hospital visit, Robinson was amazed at the supposed coward’s remarkable courage. He eventually died of pneumonia in 1995, aged 51. Vivian MacKerrell may be long gone, but thanks to Bruce Robinson’s marvellous film, his great friend is far better known now than he ever was during his own lifetime. In the words of Withnail, “cin cin” to that.

* * * * *

Sources and recommended further reading:
Smoking in Bed – Conversations with Bruce Robinson, by Alastair Owen (Bloomsbury)
Withnail & I, by Kevin Jackson (BFI Modern Classics)
With Nails, by Richard E Grant (Picador)
The Scotsman
The Daily Record
London Evening Standard
Time Out
Magill
www.withnail-links.com

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