London, 1969. Two unemployed actors, the self-centred Withnail and the self-conscious Marwood, decide to escape the squalor of their Camden flat and head to the country for a holiday. Travelling to the small cottage, owned by Withnail’s eccentric Uncle Monty, the two men find themselves completely unprepared for the mild horrors of non-suburban life and the trials self-sufficiency. Then Uncle Monty himself joins them, with less than noble intentions for Marwood.
Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant. An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has stood the test of time perfectly and gathered a huge cult following, not to mention its own drinking game, along the way.
However, it is one of a long line of classic movies that almost didn’t get made. Three days into shooting one of the producers threatened to close the film down, so unimpressed was he with the script. This seems insane in retrospect since Robinson’s screenplay is one of Withnail and I’s biggest strengths. Full of rich, eminently quotable dialogue, all delivered with utter panache by the likes of Grant, Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths, there is an inherent Englishness to Withnail and I that I adore. These are the kind of characters, and style of speech, which you would not find anywhere else in the world.
Withnail and I is celebration of life’s eccentrics, in all their unkempt, unyielding and unproductive glory. But it also mourns the passing of an era, as all the hopes and dreams of the sixties breathed their last gasp. In the words of Danny the drug dealer, ‘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. It is 91 days to the end of the decade and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black’.
Here is one of my favourite excerpts, the introduction of Uncle Monty as Withnail and Marwood visit him to try and get the key for his cottage. Uncle Monty’s dialogue is exquisite.
A battered Jag pulls up outside Monty's house and Withnail and Marwood get out. There is a rather flash looking open-topped Rolls parked outside. The sound of a Schubert piano sonata comes from the house.
Withnail Monty's car.
Withnail knocks on the door. Monty, a rather fat, effeminate, middle- aged gentleman, opens the door. He is holding a very large fluffy cat and a watering can.
Monty Oh hello. Come in. Sit down, do. Would you like a drink?
Monty moves to the sideboard and pours the drinks.
Monty Do you like vegetables? I've always been fond of root crops but I only started to grow last summer. I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose.
Withnail Chin chin.
He drinks the sherry.
Monty Do you grow?
Monty Oh, you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you'll agree, a certain je ne sais quoi, oh so very special, about a firm young carrot. Excuse me. Do help yourselves to another drink.
Withnail turns and reaches a bottle over from the sideboard.
Marwood What's all this. The man's mad.
Marwood Eccentric? He's insane. Not only that he's a raving homosexual.
There is a yowl from the cat. Monty storms back into the room.
Monty You beastly little parasite! How dare you? You little thug! How dare you? Ooohhhh, beastly, ungrateful little swine.
He deposits his considerable bulk on the other sofa.
Withnail Shall I get you a drink Monty?
Monty Yes. Yes, please, dear boy. You can prepare me a small rhesus negative Bloody Mary. And you must tell me all the news. I haven't seen you since you finished your last film.
Withnail Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff. My agent's trying to edge me towards the Royal Shakespeare again.
Monty Oh splendid.
Withnail He's just had an audition for rep.
Monty Oh splendid. So you're a thespian too?
Withnail Monty used to act.
Monty I'd hardly say that. It's true I crept the boards in my youth but I never had it in my blood and that's what so essential isn't it? Theatrical zeal in the veins. Alas, I have little more that vintage wine and memories.
He stands and looks at a photograph on the mantelpiece.
Monty It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself [He puts his hand on his heart] 'I will never play The Dane'. When that moment comes, one's ambition ceases. Don't you agree?
Withnail A part I intend to play, Uncle.
Monty And you'll be marvelous. [He starts quoting from Hamlet] We do it wrong, being so majestical. To offer it the show of violence...
As Monty rambles in the background I steps over to Withnail and whispers.
Marwood He's a madman. Any moment now he's going to rush out and get into his tights.
Withnail Ok ok. Give me a minute.
Marwood The house or out.
Withnail stands and moves over to Monty.
Withnail Could I have a word with you Monty?
Monty Oh forgive me dear boy, forgive me. I was allowing memories to have the better of me.
Withnail Shall I get you a top up?
Monty Indeed I remember my first agent. Raymond Duck. Dreadful little Israelite. Four floors up at the Charing Cross and never a job at the top of them. I'm told you're a writer, too. Do you write poems?
Marwood No, I wish I could. It's just thoughts really.
Monty Have you published?
Marwood No no.
Monty Where did you school?
Withnail He went to the other place Monty.
Monty Oh, you went to Eton? The cat reappears on Marwood's chair.
Monty Get that damned little swine out of here. It's trying to get itself in with you. It's trying for even more advantage. It's obsessed with its gut just like a bloody rugby ball. Now it will die, it will die! He storms around ineffectually.
Withnail Monty, Monty.
Monty No dear boy you must leave, you must leave. Once again that oaf has destroyed my day.
Withnail Listen Monty. Can I just have a quick word in private.
Monty Oh, very well.
Later they are leaving the house. Monty shows them to the door.
Monty Good night, my dears.
Withnail Good night, Monty.
Monty closes the inner door to the porch behind them.
Marwood What's all this going off in private business? Why did you tell him I went to Eton?
Withnail Because it wouldn't have helped if I hadn't.
Marwood What do you mean by that?
Withnail [Showing him the key to the cottage] Free to those that can afford it. Very expensive to those that can't. ______________________________________________________________________