The Curious Case of ‘Withnail & I’

There was this great British indie movie that I fell in love with while in college (circa ’87-’88) called Withnail & I. It never did that well at the box office, but by the mid-’90s, when I wrote this article, Withnail & I had become a full-fledged cult among young men in Britain and America. I seized the opportunity to write about this wonderful film, and, to my delight, was invited to spend the night at the gorgeous Herefordshire farm of Withnail’s brilliant but reclusive writer-director, Bruce Robinson. I also got to live out every Withnail-er’s fantasy by spending lots of time with the movie’s three principals, Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (“I”), and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty; Griffiths would later achieve greater American fame as Harry Potter’s mean Uncle Vernon). At the time I wrote this article, I was that much younger than I am now, and I still had a bit of Withnail-wannabe in me: a put-on misanthropy, an eagerness to impress, a faked Britishness. But I still like this piece, and it evokes happy times.

GQ, October 1995

Rather ridiculous, the images brought to mind by the words of cult following: pallid misfits organizing their lives around figments of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination; tie-dyed refugees mourning the loss of their paunchy old Haight-Ashbury godhead; runaways wearing their underpants over their trousers so they’ll be let into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for free. The cult of Withnail & I is different, though—bereft of the usual loserish underpinnings of cultism and rife with clever, hygienic, intelligent individuals who know brilliance when they see it. Or so I’ve liked to think ever since I discovered that Withnail & I, a relatively obscure British film comedy, was not just a personal favorite of mine but a full-fledged transatlantic underground phenomenon—in other words, a cult.

Noninitiates will have dim memories of the film at best. Low budget and offbeat, it was perceived at the time of its release in America, 1987, as just another well-reviewed art-house flick, something along the lines of Babette’s Feast or Rosa Luxemburg or any other film of the period that didn’t have William Hurt in it and was made someplace other than the United States. But when the film was subsequently released on video, Withnail proved to be something more—“the perfect film, as shallow as you want it and as deep as you need,” in the words of Mark Ellen, the author of a dissertation-length appraisal of Withnail’s merits that appeared earlier this year in Empire, a British movie magazine.

The segment of humanity that shares Ellen’s view is small but passionate. For those whose Anglophilia manifests itself as an appreciation of great British comedy (as opposed to an appreciation of Crabtree & Evelyn’s soaps and soporific BBC-produced adaptations of Waugh), Withnail ranks with the finest output of Ealing Studios, the Monty Python troupe and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. For those in middle age who once claimed the counterculturist banner, Withnail, the story of two young men fumbling through the waning months of 1969, affords a remarkably authentic look back at the period, with none of the conspicuously prosthetic sideburns and implausibly hit-laden sound tracks of Hollywood’s ‘60s pageants. For those still in the throes of libertine youth, Withnail is an inspiring paean to last-gasp, preadulthood irresponsibility—a British analogue to Barry Levinson’s Diner, another film whose levity and humor belie its emotional resonance. Like Diner, Withnail is very much a guy’s film—women hardly figure in the picture, just like in freshman year—but it appeals to a different constituency: more the scrawny arts and humanities major than Diner’s ball-capped sports-bar fella.

The film’s story concerns two out-of-work actors, Withnail and Marwood (the “I” of the title, identified by name only in the screenplay). On the verge of turning 30, getting evicted and succumbing to alcohol-and drug-induced dementia, they decide to leave their squalid North London flat, and embark on a disastrous countryside holiday. The Byronic Withnail (Richard E. Grant), at once a rebel against his upper-class background and a champion of the very upper-class notion that the world owes him a living, is everyone’s fantasy of what he or she is like when drunk: profoundly funny, venomously eloquent, glamorously disheveled and able to tell people off without violent consequences. Various individuals who cause him displeasure are called “silage heap,” “shag-sack” and “you terrible cunt!” Marwood (Paul McGann), steadier and sturdier, supplies the quietly hilarious voice-overs that give the film its literary tone. Here’s his description of a dreary public house he and Withnail are shown entering: “It was like walking into a lung. A sulfur-stained, nicotine yellow and fly-blown lung. Its landlord was a retired alcoholic with military pretensions and a complexion like the inside of a teapot.”

Rounding out the film’s principals is Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the owner of the country cottage to which Withnail and Marwood alight. A sozzled, portly squire whose flair for gracious country living predates the emigration of Martha Stewart’s people from Poland, Monty rescues the hopelessly urban boys from certain starvation and the rural neighbors’ enmity by paying Withnail and Marwood an impromptu visit. He tidies up the house, produces fantastic wines from his cellar, cooks wonderful meals—and takes a proprietary interest in the handsome Marwood. Late one night, while a drunken Withnail snores obliviously across the hall, Monty, Rouged and wearing an enormous paisley robe, bursts into Marwood’s bedroom and attempts to seduce and rape him: “I mean to have you—even if it must be burglary!”

Marwood manages to elude Monty, who flees in disgrace. A few days later, word comes that Marwood has been cast in a play and must leave for Manchester immediately. The film concludes with Marwood and Withnail bidding each other good-bye in a miserable downpour in Regent’s Park—the former going off to begin a new, respectable life as a legitimate actor, the latter returning to juvenile depravity. The film’s cumulative effect sneaks up on you: What has seemed at times like a loose, affably shambling druggie comedy reveals itself to be a tightly constructed, poignant story about the precise moment in life when one grows out of youth and the friendships that go with it.

That said, it’s the film’s silly moments that hook people. Like This Is Spinal Tap and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Withnail is full of memorable lines its more pathetic adherents are ont to utter at high volume in public. Whereas the Tap fan’s clarion cry is “Hello, Cleveland!” and the Python fan’s is “This is an ex-parrot!” the Withnail acolyte favors Withnail’s lament “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” or Uncle Monty’s fretful response to his cat’s misbehavior, “Yet again that oaf has destroyed my day!”

It was the absentminded tossing off of such a line that first clued me in to the breadth of the Withnail phenomenon. “Wait, you’ve seen it, too?” said someone I barely knew, responding to the involuntary expulsion from my lips of the words “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops” (another Montyism). The virtual stranger told me he and his friends watched Withnail religiously. Soon I heard of others like him, and still others, and the usual hallmarks of cult-film status became evident. Withnail, it transpired, was playing in collegetown revival houses. Young fans with literary aspirations were churning out unauthorized Withnail stage adaptations and sequel attempts. Sly allusions to Withnail were turning up in pop culture: The singer Morrissey called his second most recent album Vauxhall & I, and Ralph Brown, an obscure actor who in Withnail plays the perpetually stoned Cockney drug dealer Danny—the inventor of a clarinet-sized spliff called the “Camberwell carrot”—materialized in Wayne’s World 2 playing essentially the same character. A school of hard-core Withnail-ologists emerged, peeling away the layers of meaning supposedly hidden within the film. In the final scene, for example, when the abandoned Withnail recites a portion of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy in Regent’s Park, his declaration “Man delights not me, nor women, neither” is interpreted in some quarters as a coded admission that he and Marwood, purportedly heterosexual best friends, are actually lovers.

Further investigation revealed that whatever small pockets of Withnail fanaticism exist in America are nothing compared with what’s going on in England. Last year, the premiere issue of Loaded, a Britsh men’s magazine, called Withnail “the biggest cult in British film since A Clockword Orange.” The magazine detailed the rules of a popular new British pastime known as the “Withnail & I drinking game,” wherein players watch the film on video and attempt to match the bibulous characters drink for drink in real time; never mind that the film’s action takes place over the course of a week. The London Times reported that pilgrimage-minded young people are besieging Penrith, the quaint Cumbrian burg where, in the movie, a ferociously drunk Withnail and Marwood terrify the elderly clientele of a tearoom.

“They are always male,” a spokeswoman for the Penrith Tourist Information Center said of the pilgrims, “usually two or three of them, quite polite and slightly trendy looking.”

It wasn’t even necessary to go to Penrith to find Withnail pilgrims. In Regent’s Park, I was told, you can stand by the wolves’ cages, where Withnail recites his Hamlet soliloquy, and find Withnail-esque young men milling about. On a trip to London, I gave it a try, planning myself along the wooded path one afternoon like a retiree waiting for squirrels to feel. Sure enough, two of them emerged, fashionably undernourished teenagers with palpable buzzes on, snickering, dangling on the wrought-iron fencing and wreaking havoc on Shakespeare’s sentence “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”

There was more: Hilary Davis, who handles UK theatrical distribution for Hand-Made Films, the company that produced the film, said her office had been getting “loads of calls about Withnail & I. Mostly nutters, asking ‘Where’s the pub? Where’s the scene in the Lake District?’ ”

After hearing all this, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the actors themselves have become prime targets of Withnail-related comments and queries. “I first noticed it a few years ago,” Paul McGann told me. “I was in Mothercare buying nappies—we’d just had our first child—and some students stopped me as I was leaving. They couldn’t have been more than 17. They said, ‘Guess what we did last night? We had a Withnail & I theme party.’ It was some dressing up and smoking Camberwell carrots, cooking onions. They were in the full gear. It was incredible.” Richard Griffiths said he’d been approached by several AIDS hospices requesting that he go public with his homosexuality and act as a spokesman for their fund drives. They were disappointed, he said, to learn there is a Mrs. Griffiths. He added that it is not uncommon for him to be approached in the street by young autograph hounds carrying the Withnail & I videocassette on their person, much as Mark David Chapman toted around The Catcher in the Rye. “People have got them in their pockets!” her said. “What they’re doing with them, God knows.”

But no one receives more fanatical Withnail & I-related attention than Ricard E. Grant. His dynamic, vitriol-spewing portrayal of Withnail has made him the idol of an awful lot of schoolboys, and when I first got in touch with him, he was about to address the Oxford Union, the university’s famed debating society. “They sent me this wonderfully popous letter,” he said. “ ‘The last people to speak here were Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton, and you’re next on the agenda!’ ” Though exams were on at Oxford when Grant made his appearance, the hall was thronged. “Withnail becomes a bonding thing the first weeks of college,” explained David Pinto-Duschinsky, the Oxford Union’s 21-year-old president. “I had never heard of it when I got here. By the end of my first year, I’d seen it six times. At every party, it’s like, ‘Right, we’ve got to see Withnail.’ ”

Grant acknowledged that playing Withnail has rewarded him with more than a guaranteed living on the college lecture circuit. He attributed his being cast in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the largesse of Withnail fanatic Winona Ryder, who starred in both films: “She and Johnny Depp knew most of the movie by heart, and I met here at a party and she said, ‘You’re gonna be in Dracula!’ I was like, ‘Sure, sure,’ but she was true to her word.” He offered a list of other Withnail-ites he has encountered in his Hollywood travails: Robert Altman, Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Keanu Reeves, Tom Waits, Gus Van Sant, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, among others. Modestly, Grant averred that much of the adulation directed at him should be directed at Bruce Robinson, the film’s writer and director: “It’s a slightly daft thing, because it’s Bruce who should be the one reaping the benefits. He is the real brilliant wit.”

Indeed, what of this Bruce Robinson? He followed up Withnail two years later with How to Get Ahead in Advertising, another vehicle for Grant. This time the actor was a nefarious, barking yuppie advertising execturive who, stumped in his efforts to come up with a campaign for a new boil cream, develops a huge talking boil on his neck. Though the film isn’t the through-and-through artistic success Withnail is, its release signaled that in Robinson, England had found a promising new filmmaker, one who could be counted on to pump out wonderful, quirky comedies starring Richard E. Grant for years to come.

And then, nothing. Withnail’s auteur, who had appeared out of nowhere, seemed to have disappeared just as precipitously. What happened? Who was he in the first place? A rummage through a handful of film encyclopedias and guides turned up a variety of credits for someone named Bruce Robinson: There was the writer-director Bruce Robinson of Withnail and Advertising; an actor Bruce Robinson who played Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet and seven years later starred opposite Isabelle Adjani in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H; a screenwriter Bruce Robinson who was nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for scripting The Killing Fields. The final entry for Bruce Robinson was from 1992: writer-director of Jennifer 8, a competent but unmemorable American-made cop thriller starring Uma Thurman and Andy Garcia.

All of these Bruce Robinsons turned out to be the same person—an intriguing figure, now 49 years old, whose name provoked rapturous, evangelical testimonials from those who had worked with him. “I, like lots of people, I assume, developed an instant crush on him,” said McGann. “It’s something you can’t help.”

“I think Bruce is a fucking star of the first order,” said Griffiths. “I’d word with him like a shot. Anytime, anywhere. Like a shot.”

Most emphatic was Grant, Robinson’s disused mouthpiece. “He will draw out of you as much gush as you can come up with,” he said. “He will draw it out of you! It’s absolutely involuntary.”

Grant seemed hurt that Robinson, to whom he readily admits he owes his career, had forsaken him and the British indie-film milieu to make Jennifer 8 for Paramount Pictures. “His talent has been in writing character-driven British comedies,” Grant said. “He knows that I would literally knock off a limb to go and work with him again. He’s very possessive towards me. He’d probably deny this, be he doesn’t like that I’ve worked for other people, Scorsese and Coppola. I say, ‘Bruce, I got these movies because of your movies! It’s only because you’re not making more movies for me to be in!’ ”

Hear, hear. So where on earth had Robinson gone off to, and what was he doing?

Some weeks after I put word through to Robinson’s Los Angeles “people,” a call came my way, all the way from the remote hills of rural Herefordshire, England, near the Welsh border: “Hello, this is Bruce Robinson. I’m as baffled by Withnail’s return from the dead as you are. You’re welcome to come by and stay over if you like.”

I was greeted at the Hereford train station by what appeared to be an aging rock star: wraith-thin, longhaired and black-leather jacketed, his face creased and angular like Mick Jagger’s or Steven Tyler’s, but much more handsome. We got into his spotless 1961 Aston Martin DB 4 (no seat belts) and set out at face-flattening speed for Cwm Farm, the homestead he shares with his wife, Sophie, and their two young children. En route, he mentioned that there were several local types about, shepherds, who were not unlike Withnail’s sour rural groteseques in their suspicion of the strange, urbanized interloper in their midst. Robinson told me he had earned the enmity of his neighbors by refusing to let their sheep graze on his land.

“Do the locals have a nickname for you?” I asked.

“ ‘Arsehole,’ I should think.”

To spend time with Bruce Robinson is to realize just how much Withnail & I is the essence of his being, his soul rendered in celluloid. His speech is richly, sidesplittingly misanthropic. He drinks prodigiously, siphoning the contents of two bottles of “vino rosso” in the course of an evening. When nature calls, he announces, á la Marwood, he’s going out back “for a slash.” As a youth, he really did weep in butcher’s shops.

Goblet in hand, Robinson furnished for me an abridged version of his life story: born in ’46 to a lower-middle-class family; directionless student; thought he’d found his salvation in acting; went to drama school in the mid-‘60s; got a few parts in plays and movies; lived with the actress Lesley-Anne Down for a while; realized in 1970 that what he really wanted to do was write; became a protégé of British producer David Puttnam; several screenplays sold but never made; finally got his big break with 1984’s The Killing Fields. Flush with that film’s success, Robinson was approached by producers asking him what he wanted to do next. He dusted off an unpublished novel he had written fifteen years earlier and set about turning it into a screenplay: Withnail & I.

That the film’s original story dates from the time in which it is set—the final months of ’69—explains Withnail & I’s glorious authenticity. When Robinson pecked out the original manuscript on an old typewriter in his kitchen, he really was a struggling actor on the dole, living in a freezing-cold flat. He really had embarked on a disastrous country sojourn (albeit with a different friend than the one with hom he shared the flat). He really had been propositioned by a middle-aged homosexual who asked him, as Monty asks Marwood, “Are you a sponge or a stone?”

Withnail & I went into production in 1986. As a director, Robinson brooked absolutely no improvisation and insisted that lines be read his way. “He said, ‘Boys, look, say it like this, because I’ve had this thing knoking around in my head for fiteen years—I know how it should sound,’ “ McGann said. He issued orders to Grant, in real life a teeotaler, to get “totally arseholed” so that he would have a “chemical memory” of what it’s like to be deathly drunk. “I poured myself a tumbler of vodka, about thee-quarters of the way up, and topped it off with Pepsi Cola to try and get it down,” Grant said. “In rehearsal, I manged to get through about an hour of the script. I was falling over and crying, I tore my clothes, I got through the dialogue, and then there was this blinding moment where I had to get out the French doors into the garden because, you known, a Persian carpet was coming out of my mouth. I passed out and woke up the next day at home. Paul McGann and Bruce told me afterward that I would never again be that funny in my life.”

Robinson first became aware of his film’s burgeoning cult a couple of years ago, when he was living in Los Angeles. One day, Robinson recalled, he received a call from his friend David Dundas, who composed the music for the film: “He said, ‘Christ, you’re not gonna believe this! I was in Blockbuster Video in Piccadilly in London and there was this huge display of Withnail & I tapes!” Then last summer, not long after we moved here, we went to this remote pub in Wales, in the middle of nowhere. There were these young guys outside, surrounded by ducks from the garden. I don’t even know why I spoke to them, but I just said, ‘Oh, look at those ducks.’ And then, in unison, they came back with, ‘Raymond Duck—a dreadful little Israelite! Four floors up on the Charing Cross Road and never a job at the top of them!’ ”—Uncle Monty’s words, describing the agent he employed during his brief, youthful flirtation with acting. “These boys looked like undergrads—20, 22 years old—and they had no idea who I was,” said Robinson. “Now I’m looking back at them in my mind and realizing they all had long scarves on and clapped-out old coats—they were in the Withnail world.”

Late at night, after talking for several hours, we fell into silence, sitting opposite each other in armchairs while the wood in the fireplace crackled. Looking at me languorously, Robinson finally spoke.

“Do you like cocks?”

I must’ve gone white. Thousands of miles from home, in the middle of nowhere, not a chance of reaching the police. And everybody knows that when it comes to Englishman, the fact that they’re married means nothing. I’d expected some Withnail-esque moments, but nothing like this. A swirling torrent of disquieting mental playback:

You can’t help but develop an instant crush on him….
He will draw out of you as much gush as you can come up with….
Even if it must be burglary…


“I said, ‘Do you like clocks?’ I collect them.” He motioned to the several antique specimens chiming away in the room.

A double lungload of exhalation. Relieved, I owned up to what I thought he’d said. This sent him into prolonged, hysterical laughter. When he recovered, he showed me to the guest room. “Good night,” he said. A pause, and a crooked smile. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

Robinson’s move back to England from L.A. last year was precipitated in part by the earthquake, the fires and the race riots that propelled many an Angeleno eastward, but his career was also stalled. Jennifer 8 had been a miserable experience. When HandMade Films collapsed in 1990 (it has since been purchased by a Canadian company and revived), Robinson felt he could no longer get the financing to make small, character-driven British comedies. He singed a deal with Paramount to make a cop thriller because it seemed the opportune thing to do. “This was the time when everyone was doing those dreadful ‘Fatal Instincts’ and ‘Brutal Attractions,’ ” he said. Soon after filming on Jennifer 8 began, the artiste-versus-studio tensions kicked in: “I felt completely in control on the set with my actors, but I knew nothing of the politics and mechanics of working with the studio. Every day a new Armani suit with a phone coming at you, and you’ve never seen his face. You get to the point where you say to them, ‘Can you fire me?’ and they say, ‘No,’ and you say, ‘Well, fuck off then!’ It literally got that heavy.”

But with his Hollywood cautionary tale behind him, he could now start afresh on humorous Richard E. Grant vehicle number three. Right?

Apparently not. Jennifer 8 soured Robinson on filmmaking—not so much the actual directing but the process of pitching ideas to moneymen and abiding their interference. Since his track record as a screenwriter brings him a steady stream of lucrative writing work, Robinson could afford to walk away from directing. In fact, the movie he was writing when I visited him, an occult thriller called Blue Vision, has been commissioned by none other than Steven Spielberg. “It’s nothing I could ever direct. I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “But I do think it’s quite an original take on a genre movie.”

Ugh. Citing the perennially worthy contributions of low-budget British filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and Mike Newell’s out-of-nowhere success last year with the relatively low-budget Four Weddings and a Funeral, I asked Robinson what prevents him from making another small, character-driven British comedy.

“Even smaller British money. I can’t get any money,” he said.

This seemed implausible, given the level of excitement Withnail & I has caused in England. I tried another tack: “You know, Richard Grant said he’d lop off a limb to work with you again.”

“I’d love to work with Richard.”

“And with the resurgence of interest in Withnail & I, there’s demand for that. So if it’s so obvious, why isn’t it happening?”

“Maybe because—see, my career had a very late start. I’m almost 50 years old now, and I’m not as aggressive as I was. If someone came along to me in England and said, ‘We have a film fund here—have you got anything? Because we can probably finance it for 2 or 3 million pounds,’ I’d leap at it. But no one is saying that, you know. And because of my family, my age and all those things, I’m not getting on the train and knocking on doors.”

And despite clamoring from fans and Grant’s comments in the past that he would be game for Withnail 2, a sequel is impossible for one simple reason: In Robinson’s mind, Withnail is dead. A final scene, written but never filmed, has the “I”-less Withnail returning from the park to the flat. “He’s got the shotgun from Uncle Monty’s cottage and two bottles of Monty’s wine,” Robinson said. “He opens both bottles and pours them down the barrels of the shotgun. He drinks from the shotgun and blows his head all over the fucking room.”

Robinson dispensed with the suicide scene because he wanted to leave the audience with Marwood’s sense of hope, not Withnail’s sense of despair. “You can’t live your life like Withnail and ‘I,’ ” he said. “You can’t be Byron. If you’re Byron all your life, you end up fucking dead like Byron. That moment where Marwood acquiesces and accepts that he’s got to become part of society or die, to me, is hopeful.”

Maybe realistic is a better word than hopeful. It’s part of our biological makeup that the proportion of Withnails to Marwoods in the population falls off considerably after 25. This is called growing up, and most people willingly, relievedly give in to the process. Perhaps it’s unfair of the Withnail cult to ask that Robinson retain a little more of Withnail than the rest of us, that he not acquiesce to society—or, in his case, to mainstream, compromised, dull-as-dishwater Hollywood.

“Do you consider yourself finished as a director?” I asked.

“No. No, I don’t.”

“So you will direct again?”

“I don’t know that I will again. I really don’t. A friend of mine said to my wife before I made Withnail that he had a premonition that I was going to direct three films in my life and never do another one. And I’ve done three films. Maybe he’s right, you know. Maybe he’s right.”

August 14, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark


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