Written by Sooz Kempner

Arts

Why I ❤️ Withnail and I

Happy 30th to Bruce Robinson’s cult British comedy: Sooz Kempner thinks you haven’t aged a day.

Somehow, this didn’t put Sooz off a career in entertainment: Paul McGann and Richard E Grant in Withnail and I. Photos: Handmade Films.

At uni I was that insufferable twat who quoted Withnail and I to my bemused housemates, none of whom were studying scriptwriting like me and none of whom had seen the film. I didn’t let that stop me though, no Sir.

If there was a whole bunch of washing up in the sink I’d say, “There’s something GROWING in there… FORK IT!”. If it was a big night out I’d yell, “I demand to have some booze!” If the uni house was cold (and it frequently was) I’d murmur, “It’s like Greenland in here.” My housemates thought I was weird. They were entirely correct.

I saw the film for the first time aged 16 and had the rare experience of scream-laughing through it. Every line is stunning, every performance is perfection, not a shot has been wasted and though shot in the 80s (complete with some very 80s motorway signs) the 60s has rarely been better captured on film.

Now, 30 years after it was released, I’m going to wax lyrical about what I consider to be the greatest British film ever made.

If you haven’t seen the movie, stop everything and watch it. But just in case you have no access to a screen at this exact second, here is the gist: it’s the end of 1969 and penniless not-quite-30-yet actors Withnail (Richard E Grant, in his debut performance) and the unnamed “and I…” who is occasionally referred to in the screenplay as Marwood (Paul McGann) live together in a freezing, grotty Camden flat bemoaning their unpromising careers, doing drugs and slagging off shotputter Geoff Woade. They are visited by their dealer, Danny (Ralph Brown), who insists that hairdressers are employed by the government because “hair are your aerials”.

“Richard E Grant would never better what he created in this breakthrough role and what is possibly one of the greatest screen performances of all time: committed, real, hilarious, heartbreaking.”

Withnail and ‘I’ visit Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), a very moneyed old eccentric who has a cottage in the Lake District. Somehow Withnail manages to get the keys from Monty and the two friends head up north in their Jaguar with its one working windscreen wiper. If they can just escape London for a few days it will rejuvenate them, they believe.

Unfortunately the cottage is colder and bleaker than Camden. Withnail uses a fork to dig out a few potatoes with carrier bags on his feet. The locals treat them with suspicion and hostility (“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” whimpers Withnail).

Then Monty arrives, unannounced, and the place is far warmer. He cooks wonderful meals, provides wonderful wine and… puts some serious moves on McGann’s character. It’s classic farce as McGann has to come up with a detailed, fictional explanation of why he simply cannot have any kind of affair with Monty.

Monty understands. The boys return to London. They are being evicted from their flat. Marwood lands an acting job, a brilliant one. Withnail congratulates him. They part ways in Regents Park. Things don’t seem so funny anymore.

The bleakest of comedies, Withnail and I is as hilarious as it is tragic. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson and loosely based on his experiences as a young actor, the film seems to me to mainly be a love letter to Vivian MacKerrell, a very brilliant and incredibly difficult actor friend of Robinson’s.

MacKerrell would apparently declare his incredible talent to anybody who would listen but do nothing to back it up (“I’ve never written a film but if I did it would be a fuck sight better than yours”).

This is Withnail. At once repellent and compelling, he nabs all the best lines in the film and Richard E Grant would never better what he created in this breakthrough role and what is possibly one of the greatest screen performances of all time: committed, real, hilarious, heartbreaking.

When we finally see him act, declaiming Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man!” speech to the wolves of London Zoo, we are struck by the talent and beauty that probably made him the golden boy of his RADA class.

But then Robinson changes the angle: we see Withnail in a wide shot and suddenly he isn’t this undiscovered star. He’s a sad drunk in a park shouting to nobody in the rain. And then he lopes away as the credits roll. It makes the ending of The Deer Hunter feel like the finale of Grease.

Richard E Grant’s performance is always singled out and it started a phenomenal career but there isn’t a duff actor in this film. McGann, mainly a straight man to Grant’s tour de force, is brilliant in his calm contrast. Uncle Monty could easily have been played as a gaudy joke but Griffiths creates genuine pathos, giving him a sad undercurrent and a faint dignity in his lumbering pursuit of ‘I’. The Penrith locals they encounter in the Lake District feel as authentic as the oppressive damp communicated through the screen.

Robinson’s iconic ode to the 60s is simultaneously a timeless artwork and a slice of another era. To reduce it down to the fact that it’s one of the most quotable pieces of cinema in history would be doing it a disservice. Happy 30th, Withnail and I, you haven’t aged a day.

@SoozUK

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Written by Sooz Kempner

Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.