Withnail and I, & I: Growing Up With A Cult Classic
The windows ran yellow with nicotine every time there was a touch of condensation and the kitchen ceiling was black from numerous frozen pizza fires. There was a hole in the living room door where my flatmate had put his fist through it in rage, and a sharp chunk knocked out of the bathtub from when we tried opening a bottle of wine with a hatchet. Every single item of crockery and cutlery was always piled up high and unwashed by the kitchen sink.
Like many people up and down the country, my best mate and I lived the full Withnail experience in our early twenties. We share a sense of nostalgia about those few years, but they were desperate times. We were both on the dole for about six months and during that period my daily routine rarely deviated. I got up around nine and stumbled to the corner shop for my daily supplies, normally ten Mayfair, a four-pack of Fosters, a few bags of Space Raiders, and something frozen for dinner. We then spent the day watching movies or playing full seasons of NHL on the Playstation before topping up our booze supply for the evening session.
One of the films we watched on repeat was Withnail and I. In our bleak situation, we totally related to Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann's unemployed actors. Every line of despairing dialogue struck home and the movie felt like ours.
I first found Withnail and I during my teens thanks to Empire magazine's entertaining 10 year retrospective with Grant and writer-director Bruce Robinson. It took me a couple of watches to fully appreciate it. Once I got into the groove, I started swaggering around town in an oversized military greatcoat and laceless steel toe capped boots. The long-coat-and-boots look was inspired by the film, if not directly quoting the boys' fashion sense. Half-cut and chuffing endlessly on Mayfairs, I carried myself in what I imagined was a raffish, Withnailesque manner.
Says Robinson on this phenomenon:
"It’s men that like Withnail And I, isn’t it? Young homos. I have seen them! I have seen them! I was coming down the motorway not so long ago, with my wife – sedately driving a Range Rover, as a matter of fact – and we get stuck in a traffic jam. And coming towards us is a Jag with about five Withnails in it. They didn’t realise that you can’t all be Withnail..."
I gravitated towards the Withnail character because I was a young wannabe writer who felt destined for great things, although I did very little actual writing during those years. Like Withnail, I considered myself immensely talented and was bitter that the world couldn't recognise the fact, even though I did almost nothing to prove it. I considered approaching publishers as a form of grovelling. Instead, I fired my writing into the early internet and was enraged when nobody paid the slightest bit of notice.
In preparation for this article, I posted on the Withnail and I Appreciation Society on Facebook to ask why the members found it so meaningful. In between calling me a "tit", "ponce" and a "London type", there were some pretty insightful answers and colourful stories. Mostly, it boiled down to one thing: the film accurately portrays what life is like for so many of us as young adults - skint, jobless, aimless, and living in semi-squalor.
If the film carries such a heavy whiff of authenticity, it is because Bruce Robinson lived it himself during the late Sixties. In 1970, he wrote a novel about his experiences sharing a squalid Camden Town flat with Vivian MacKerrell, a terminally unemployed, alcoholic actor who died from throat cancer.
Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration for Withnail
The book became the basis for Withnail and I, a film that Robinson directed himself after the success of his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Killing Fields.
By the time I left the flat in 2004, our living situation had deteriorated to the point where we no longer had a sofa. The old one fell apart and my flatmate moved his bed into the living room instead. My departure was hastened by a silly argument about the washing up, which grew angrier as the accusations flew.
Our friendship survived that row, but now I felt more like the Marwood character. I was doing alright at work, had a few quid to spare and found a place to rent with my girlfriend. I was moving forward with my life while he was left rattling around the flat by himself, drinking and raging at the world. We still saw him all the time but five years later, we would have our true Withnail and I goodbye. I was offered a job in Brno in the Czech Republic and there was no way in hell I was going to turn it down.
Whenever I go back to Ipswich, I visit him. Sometimes there are some of the old gang there, sometimes it is just us two. Visits usually involve drinking, smoking and playing video games, much like the old days. People rarely ask about my life abroad, so it always feels like I just popped out to the shop for five minutes. The Playstation controller never seems to cool from the warmth of my hand, despite lying unused on the coffee table for 12 years.
Withnail and I was Bruce Robinson's first directorial effort and Richard E. Grant's screen debut. Robinson considered his friend Bill Nighy for the role but he auditioned drunk, and the director felt there was only room for one pisshead on set - himself. So the role fell to teetotaller Grant who, according to Robinson, secured the gig on the strength of a two-word delivery: "Fork it!"
Paul McGann, who had done some TV work but was also appearing in his first film, provided the perfect foil for the histrionic Grant as his more sensible, anxious flatmate Marwood, who remains nameless in the movie.
Rounding out the principal cast were three excellent character actors. Richard Griffiths played the eccentric, lovestruck Uncle Monty with a masterclass of jovial, understated desperation, while seasoned TV and film actor Michael Elphick provided menace as Jake, the gruff poacher. Ralph Brown showed up to his audition in full costume to win the role of Danny, the boys' airheaded drug dealer. It was a part that Brown would semi-reprise as a cameo in Wayne's World 2 a few years later.
The film was low budget and didn't exactly set the box office alight, but it developed a cult following as people discovered it on VHS and through word-of-mouth. As Ralph Brown notes: "Somebody says, ‘Oh, you must see this.’ And they watch it and enjoy it and they almost feel like it’s theirs. It’s like a little secret film..."
Over the past few years, I have increasingly found myself relating to Uncle Monty. I'm now old enough to look back on regrets with wisdom and a touch of Monty's wistfulness. I'm just about eking out a living as a writer, but I'm not the great novelist I dreamed of becoming when I was a teenager. Maybe I'll still get around to writing a book someday, or maybe I won't. Either way, that's OK.
Just before Christmas, we moved from Brno to the countryside, into an old house in a village of around 500 people. The house stood empty for years before we moved in and it took a month just to penetrate the deep cold with electric radiators and the old wood-burning stove.
If you spend your whole life living in a town or city, a rural environment can come as a bit of a shock. There is mud everywhere, lots more weather, and very few people, which freaks me out when I'm trudging the fields and lanes trying to fill in the gaps in the map around us.
All this has enabled me to tap into a whole trove of Withnail quotes that have largely gone unused until this point. I get to say that we "might as well sit around a cigarette" to warm up and moan about the "fuel and wood situation" when I get a shipment of logs delivered, completely encrusted with ice. All that "beastly mud and oomska", gets everywhere, especially without "good quality rubber boots". I even notice that some of my neighbours drive around in tractors instead of cars which, despite my best efforts, never fails to draw a cry of "are you the farmer?"...
Time has been kind to Bruce Robinson's deadpan masterpiece. Withnail and I has aged like one of Uncle Monty's fine wines and now graces many lists of the best British films ever made, and it continues to draw in new generations of fans. It is regarded as one of the most quotable movies of all time, and I have quoted it most days for the past 25 years.
I think part of its longevity is that the characters represent different stages of maturity. Withnail is tumultuous, egotistical arrested development; Marwood is moving on from the leftovers of student life into respectable adulthood; Monty is the middle-aged disappointment that awaits if we don't fully grasp our dreams. It is a truthful film that grows with you and has a quote for every occasion as we make our way through life. Or perhaps, I'm just talking absolute twaddle.
Mark Levy's wonderful alternative movie poster for Withnail and I (traffikcone.info)