Screenplays I Wish I’d Written: Withnail and I

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 Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time.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.

We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.

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.

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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?
Withnail
Sherry.
Monty
Sherry?
Marwood
Sherry.
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?
Withnail
Geraniums.
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.
Withnail
Eccentric.
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.

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