|Withnail and I|
Original UK release poster
Art by Ralph Steadman
|Directed by||Bruce Robinson|
|Produced by||Paul Heller|
|Written by||Bruce Robinson|
|Edited by||Alan Strachan|
|10 April 1987 (United Kingdom)|
Withnail and I is a 1987 British black comedy film written and directed by Bruce Robinson. Loosely based on Robinson's life in London in the late 1960s, the plot follows two unemployed actors, Withnail and "I" (portrayed by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, respectively) who share a flat in Camden Town in 1969. Needing a holiday, they obtain the key to a country cottage in the Lake District belonging to Withnail's eccentric uncle Monty and drive there. The weekend holiday proves less recuperative than they expected.
Withnail and I was Grant's first film and established his profile. The film featured performances by Richard Griffiths as Withnail's Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer. The film has tragic and comic elements (particularly farce) and is notable for its period music and many quotable lines. It has been described as "one of Britain's biggest cult films".
In September 1969, two unemployed actors, flamboyant alcoholic Withnail and contemplative Marwood, live in a messy flat in Camden Town, London.[nb 1] Their only regular visitor is the drug dealer, Danny. One morning, the pair squabble about housekeeping and then leave to take a walk. In Regent's Park, they discuss the poor state of their acting careers and the desire for a holiday; they propose a trip to a rural cottage near Penrith owned by Withnail's wealthy uncle Monty. They visit Monty that evening at his luxurious Chelsea house. Monty is a melodramatic aesthete, whom Marwood infers is homosexual; the three briefly drink together as Withnail casually lies to Monty about his acting career and claims that grammar school-educated Marwood studied at Eton. Withnail persuades his uncle to lend them the cottage key and they leave.
They drive to the cottage the next day but find the weather cold and wet, the cottage without food, running water or power and the locals unwelcoming - in particular a poacher, Jake, whom Withnail offends in the pub. Marwood is anxious when he later sees Jake prowling around the cottage and suggests they leave for London the next day. Withnail in turn demands that they share a bed in the interest of safety but Marwood refuses. During the night, Withnail becomes paranoid that the poacher wants to harm them and climbs under the covers with Marwood, who angrily leaves for a different bed. Hearing the sounds of an intruder breaking into the cottage, Withnail again joins Marwood in bed. The intruder turns out to be Monty, who has brought supplies.
The next day, Marwood realises Monty's visit has ulterior motives when he makes aggressive sexual advances on him; Withnail seems oblivious to this. He drives them into town to buy wellington boots, but they end up spending the money he gives them on drink. Monty is hurt, though he puts it out of his mind quickly during a boozy round of poker. Marwood is terrified of what Monty might try to do and wants to leave immediately but after much argument Withnail insists on staying. Late in the night, Marwood tries to avoid Monty's company but is eventually cornered in the guest bedroom as Monty insistently demands they have sex. Monty reveals that Withnail, during the visit in London, claimed that Marwood was a closeted homosexual. Marwood lies that Withnail is the closeted one and that the two of them are in a committed relationship, which Withnail wishes to keep secret from his family and that this is the first night that they have not slept together in years. Monty, a romantic, believes this explanation and leaves after apologising for coming between them. In private, Marwood furiously confronts Withnail.
The next morning, they find Monty has left for London, leaving a note wishing them happiness together. They continue to argue about their behaviour and Monty. A telegram arrives from Marwood's agent with a possible offer of work and he insists they return. As Marwood sleeps, Withnail drunkenly speeds most of the way back until pulled over by the police, who arrest and fine him for driving under the influence. The pair return to the flat to find Danny and a friend named Presuming Ed squatting. Marwood calls his agent and discovers that he is wanted for the lead part in a play but will need to move to Manchester to take it. The four get high smoking a huge cannabis joint but the celebration ends when Marwood learns they have received an eviction notice for unpaid rent, while Withnail is too high to care. Marwood packs a bag and leaves for the railway station, turning down Withnail's request for a goodbye drink. In Regent's Park, Marwood confesses that he will miss Withnail but insists that they part ways there. Bottle of wine in hand, Withnail performs "What a piece of work is a man!" from Hamlet, seen only by the wolves in a nearby zoo enclosure, then walks home alone in the rain.
The film is an adaptation of an unpublished novel written by Robinson in late 1969. Actor friend Don Hawkins passed a copy of the manuscript to his friend Mordecai (Mody) Schreiber in 1980. Schreiber paid Robinson £20,000 to adapt it into a screenplay, which Robinson did in the early 1980s – . When meeting Schreiber in Los Angeles, Robinson expressed concern that might not be able to continue because the writing broke basic screenplay rules and was hard to make work as a film. It used colloquial English to which few would connect ("Give me a tanner and I'll give him a bell"); characters in dismal circumstances, and a plot prodded by not cinematic voice-overs. Schreiber told him that is precisely what he wanted. On completing the script, producer Paul Heller urged Robinson to direct it and found funding for half the film. The script was then passed to HandMade Films. After he read it, George Harrison agreed to fund the remainder of the film.
Robinson's script is largely autobiographical. "Marwood" is Robinson; "Withnail" is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend with whom he shared a Camden house, and "Uncle Monty" is loosely based on Franco Zeffirelli, from whom Robinson received unwanted amorous attentions when he was a young actor. He lived in the impoverished conditions seen in the film and wore plastic bags as wellington boots. For the script, Robinson condensed four or five years of his life into two weeks.
The narrative is told in the first person by the character played by Paul McGann, named just once in passing in the film (see below) as Marwood, and only credited as "I".
Early in the film, Withnail reads from an article headlined "Boy Lands Plum Role For Top Italian Director" and then goes on to imply that the director is sexually abusing the boy. This is a reference to the sexual harassment that Robinson alleges he suffered at the hands of Zeffirelli when, at age 21, he won the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
The end of the novel saw Withnail committing suicide by pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel of Monty's gun and then pulling the trigger as he drank from it. Robinson changed the ending, as he believed it was "too dark.":128
Danny's speech at the end of the film ("We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there's gonna be a lot of refugees") refers to the drug-addled scene after the pair return from Penrith on Thursday 2 October 1969, six weeks after Woodstock and three days before the first broadcast of Monty Python's Flying Circus. It is not known if Robinson intended any significance by including such a specific date. The headline "NUDE AU PAIR'S SECRET LIFE" was an actual headline from News of the World on 16 November, 1969.
The film cost £1.1 million to make. Robinson received £80,000 to direct, £30,000 of which he reinvested into the film to shoot additional scenes such as the journeys to and from Penrith, which HandMade Films would not fund. The money was never reimbursed after the film's success.:108-109
Paul McGann was Robinson's first choice for "I" but he was fired during rehearsals because Robinson decided McGann's Scouse (Liverpool) accent was wrong for the character. Several other actors read for the role but McGann eventually persuaded Robinson to re-audition him, promising to affect a Home Counties accent and quickly won back the part.:109
Actors who were considered for "Withnail" included Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. Robinson claims that he told Richard E. Grant that "half of you has got to go" and put him on a diet to play the part, although Grant denied this in the 1999 documentary Withnail and Us. The role of Withnail was Grant's film debut and launched his career.
Though playing a raging alcoholic, Grant is a teetotaller with an allergy to alcohol, preventing him from properly processing it. He had never been drunk prior to making the film. Robinson decided that it would be impossible for Grant to play the character without having ever experienced inebriation and a hangover, so he "forced" the actor on a drinking binge. Grant has stated that he was "violently sick" after each drink and found the experience deeply unpleasant.
During the filming of the scene in which the lighter fluid is consumed, Robinson changed the contents of the can, which had been filled with water, to vinegar. While the vomiting is scripted, the facial expression is totally natural.
According to Richard E. Grant's book, With Nails, filming started on 2 August 1986 in the Lake District, and shooting took seven weeks. A rough cut was screened to the actors in a Wardour Street screening room on 8 December 1986.
The film was not shot entirely on location. There was no filming in the real Penrith; the locations used were in and around nearby Shap and Bampton. Monty's cottage, "Crow Crag", is actually Sleddale Hall, located near the Wet Sleddale Reservoir just outside Shap, although the lake that "Crow Crag" apparently overlooks is actually Haweswater Reservoir.
Sleddale Hall was offered for sale in January 2009; a trust was created by fans who wished collectively to purchase the building for its preservation as a piece of British film history. It was sold at auction for £265,000 on 16 February 2009. The starting price was £145,000. It was bought by Sebastian Hindley, who owns the Mardale Inn in the nearby village of Bampton, which did not feature in the film. Hindley was unable to raise the necessary finances and in August 2009 the property was resold for an undisclosed sum to Tim Ellis, an architect from Kent, whose original bid failed at the auction.
The bridge where Withnail and Marwood go fishing is located at the bottom of the hill below Sleddale Hall, a quarter of a mile away. The telephone box in which Withnail calls his agent is beside the main road in Bampton.
Although exterior and ground floor interior shots of Crow Crag were shot at Sleddale Hall, Stockers Farm in Rickmansworth was used for the bedroom and stair scenes. Stockers Farm was also the location for the "Crow and Crown" pub.
"The Mother Black Cap" pub in the film was in reality "The Frog and Firkin" pub in Tavistock Crescent, Westbourne Green. For some time after the film, it was officially called "The Mother Black Cap". It has since been demolished. Withnail and Marwood's flat was located at 57 Chepstow Place in Bayswater (W2). The shot of them leaving for Penrith as they turn left from the building being demolished was shot on Freston Road, W11. The cafe where Marwood has breakfast at the beginning of the film is located at the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road. The scene where Withnail and Marwood are ordered to "get in the back of the van" was filmed on the flyover near John Aird Court, Paddington. The final scene was shot in Regent's Park. Uncle Monty's house is actually the West House, Glebe Place, Chelsea, SW3.
Police station interior was shot at the studios.
Although the first name of 'I' is not stated anywhere in the film, it is widely believed that it is 'Peter'. This myth arose as a result of a line of misheard dialogue. In the scene where Monty meets the two actors, Withnail asks him if he would like a drink. In his reply, Monty both accepts his offer and says "...you must tell me all the news, I haven't seen you since you finished your last film". While pouring another drink, and downing his own, Withnail replies that he has been "Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff". Then pointing at Marwood he says "He's just had an audition for rep". Some fans hear this line as "Peter's had an audition for rep", although the original shooting script and all commercially published versions of the script read "he's".
The "I" character's name is given as 'Marwood' in the original screenplay. It has been suggested that it is possible that 'Marwood' can be heard near the beginning of the film: As the characters escape from the Irishman in the Mother Black Cap, Withnail shouts "Get out of my way!". Some hear this line as "Out of the way, Marwood!", although the script reads simply "Get out of my way!".
There is, however, one occasion in the film where the name 'Marwood' is given, though not stated. Toward the end of the film a telegram arrives at Crow Crag and as Withnail reads the note, the name 'Marwood' appears to be visible, upside-down, on the envelope. 'I' is now widely accepted as 'Marwood', as this was the name that was used in the script of 'Withnail and I', but due to the fact that the story is told from Marwood's point of view, he is considered as 'I'. In the end credits and most media relating to the film, McGann's character is referenced solely as "...& I."
However, in the supplemental material packaged with the Special Edition DVD in the UK, McGann's character is referred to as Peter Marwood in the cast credits.
In 1999, the British Film Institute voted Withnail and I the 29th greatest British film of all time. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the 15th best British film ever. The line "We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now", delivered by Richard E. Grant as Withnail, was voted the third favourite film one-liner in a 2003 poll of 1,000 film fans.
The film had a UK gross of £565,112 and a US gross of $1,544,889. DVD and VHS sales have been quite strong throughout the years, and the film has gained cult status with a number of websites dedicated to the film itself. In 2000, readers of Total Film voted Withnail and I the third greatest comedy film of all time. In 2004 the same magazine named it the 13th greatest British film of all time. Withnail & I was 38th in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Films poll.
The film holds a 94% "fresh" rating, and an average rating of 8.5 out of 10 from critic website Rotten Tomatoes. In August 2009 The Observer polled 60 eminent British film filmmakers and film critics who voted it the second best British film of the last 25 years. The film was also ranked number 118 in Empire's 500 Greatest Films of all Time list. In 2009 critic Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list, describing Grant's performance as a "tour de force" and Withnail as "one of the iconic figures in modern films."
In 2007 a digitally remastered version of the film was released by the UK Film Council. It was shown at over fifty cinemas around the UK on 11 September, as part of the final week of the BBC's "Summer of British Film" season. In 2011, Time Out London named it the 7th-greatest comedy film of all time.
The film is routinely regarded as being among the finest British movies ever made, and its influence has been cited by several filmmakers, including directly inspiring: Shane Black's The Nice Guys, James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, Todd Sklar's Awful Nice, Jay and Mark Duplass's Jeff, Who Lives at Home, John Bryant's The Overbrook Brothers, David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express, Alexander Payne's Sideways, and Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight.
There is a drinking game associated with the film. The game consists of keeping up, drink for drink, with each alcoholic substance consumed by Withnail over the course of the film. All told, Withnail is shown drinking roughly glasses of red wine, one-half imperial pint (280 ml) of cider, one shot of lighter fluid (vinegar or overproof rum are common substitutes), measures of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen drams of Scotch whisky and pint of ale.
In 1992, filmmaker David Fincher attempted to create an unofficial reunion of sorts, when he tried casting all three of the film's main characters in Alien 3. McGann and Brown appear, however Richard E. Grant turned down his role. It eventually went to Charles Dance, who played the character of Clemens in the "spirit of Withnail".
In 2010, McGann said that he sometimes meets viewers who believe the film was actually shot in the 1960s, saying "It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record. Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an 80s picture."
The film features a rare appearance of a recording by the Beatles, whose 1968 song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" plays as Withnail and Marwood return to London and find Presuming Ed in the bath. The song, which was written and sung by George Harrison, was able to be included in the soundtrack due to Harrison's involvement in the film as one of the producers.
There is a misconception among some fans of the film that King Curtis was murdered on the night his live performance of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was recorded. Ralph Brown, in the audio commentary on some DVD issues, wrongly states that he was shot in the car park after the concert. Curtis was stabbed to death in August 1971, some five months after the recording was made in March 1971. The recording comes from Curtis's album Live at Fillmore West.
I have to confess, I first heard about Withnail and I in terms of a drinking game - could you watch the film while matching the two lead characters shot for shot, pint for pint, Camberwell carrot for Camberwell carrot?