A terrible cult

'Withnail and I' is 10. Suzi Feay celebrates a comedy classic
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The Independent Culture
NEXT MONTH sees the re-release, with fanfares, of Withnail and I, an irresistibly charming, low-budget comedy about a pair of witty layabouts drifting towards the end of the Sixties in a haze of booze and drugs. It played for six to eight weeks in the cinemas back in 1987, and its creator, writer-director and former actor Bruce Robinson, says he never saw a cent. But the movie promptly went underground to lead a strange, potent afterlife: on video, at late-night screenings and in university film clubs. A terrible cult was born.

Like many a cult project, the film tapped surprising reserves of talent in its tiny cast: its stars have never been so fresh or so inspired since. Richard E Grant has not yet surpassed his wrathful, raddled, craven and decadent Withnail, the most famous fictional Old Harrovian since Lord Brett Sinclair. Paul McGann, the ingenu "I" of the title ("Marwood" in the script), promptly returned to the small screen, as did Richard Griffiths, who played mountainous Uncle Monty. Of the smaller parts, Michael Elphick did a neat turn as Jake the monosyllabic Poacher ("Here. Hare. Here"), while the pub thug who calls Marwood a ponce went on to become Sean Bean's sidekick in Sharpe's Rifles. But what on earth happened to Ralph Brown, whose Danny the drug dealer was one of the film's most memorable characters? He was last seen doing a virtual re-run of the part in Wayne's World 2 (Wayne'n' Garth being, naturally, huge Withnail fans).

The plot is scanty enough: here - there - here, to paraphrase Jake the Poacher. It's 1969. Two near-unemployable actors, living in a Camden Town squat that is half Young Ones and half Antiques Roadshow, decide to lay off the drugs and recharge in a bleak country cottage. Complications arise with the arrival of the owner, gay Uncle Monty; then one of them gets a job offer and they return to London and go their separate ways.

The key to the film is its supremely literate script: the ornate obscenities of Withnail, the stoned wisdom of Danny ("Cool your boots, man"; "Why trust one drug and not the other - that's politics, innit?"; "This'll tend to make you extremely high"), and Monty's Brideshead camp ("It's society's crime, not ours!").

"Every line in Withnail was acted out 200 times by me. I turned into Hitler on set in the way I wanted it said," says Bruce Robinson, from his Herefordshire retreat. One of the real-life inspirations for Withnail died last year (all the parts are composites) and in the screenplay Robinson dedicates an emotional foreword to him ("Goodbye my darling friend. This is for you forever"). The friend, Vivian McKerrell, is credited with an appropriately Withnail-esque line: "If there's a God, why are arses at the perfect height for kicking?"

The film has several constituencies: students, obviously, and it's a near-Spinal Tap for actors (they love the jokes about agents - "Well, lick 10 per cent of the arses for me, then" - and the Hamlet scene at the end). The protagonists' magnificent intake of intoxicants has prompted an apocryphal (and possibly lethal) game, which entails watching the movie and matching them, substance for substance, from "Two large gins. Two pints of cider. Ice in the cider", through Pernod, scotch, sherry, Ronsonol lighter fluid ("a far superior drink to meths"), "a pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints, please", to the infamous Camberwell carrot and the grand finale: a bottle of Margaux '53 ("the best of the century").

Robinson, curiously, was "never into drugs", but recalls beginning the movie in fine style, sitting terrified in the bar of an awful hotel in Penrith, drinking vodka with no ice with a friend egging him on: "Balls to going to bed, you don't need to the day before you become a director for the first time." The published script has a great picture of Robinson later in the shoot, outside the "Penrith Tea Rooms" (see panel, right), looking pensive and hungover.

The story was originally written as a novel. In the script - though not visible in the final cut - Marwood packs a notebook entitled Withnail and I into his case. "The novel got passed around my friends as a kind of samizdat," says Robinson. While he was trying to drum up interest in the script in the early Eighties, a friend raised money to commission an artwork from Ralph Steadman for the front of the package. This bilious portrait of Marwood and Withnail, drawn long before casting, became the film's poster, despite featuring an anachronistic Sony Walkman.

There's a story too behind the film's frequent references to vintage wine. As a struggling actor, back in the Sixties, Robinson found himself in Alderley Edge with his troupe, drinking in a hotel which was being stripped of its stock. One of their number wanted a glass of wine. "The barman said, 'I can't sell you a glass, but you can have the bottle for a quid.' We said, 'What bottle?' He said, 'I haven't a clue, mate. Come and have a look,' " remembers Robinson. "We went down into the cellars and we saw row upon row of fabulous wines; some of them even then would have cost pounds 20 a bottle. Between the six of us we had pounds 200 so we took 200 bottles. 'Great, we'll sell these at Sotheby's.' " He pauses. "Of course, within two weeks we'd drunk the lot. It was hilarious because we were virtually on National Assistance and there we were going: 'The Margaux next ... or perhaps the Petrus?' "

Robinson is currently laying down a cellar almost as sensational as Monty's at his Herefordshire farm. "My wife and I came back from LA a few years ago and we couldn't face living in London. It has of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all its charm." His post-Withnail life has been rich financially, impoverished creatively, with project after project dying the death, going in the deep freeze or being tweaked from under him. He earnt far more ($300,000) from the video of Jennifer 8, his ill-starred US serial-killer flick, than he got from Withnail and I, and views with ironic detachment the fact that you can now buy replica Withnail coats in Harris Tweed for pounds 750.

! 'Withnail and I' (15) opens on 2 February.

WITHNAIL: 'WE WANT THE FINEST WINES ...'

SCENE 79. INT. PENRITH TEA ROOMS. DAY.

A bell on a spring clatters above their heads. All eyes turn in their direction. Not an eyeball in here under 70 years old. Maybe five or six ladies eating dainty little cakes with dainty little forks. The place is dainty. Decorated like one of its iced and jujubed numbers in the window. An OLD WOMAN in an apron approaches, as WITHNAIL gestures towards a gingham-clothed table.

WITHNAIL: All right here?

OLD WOMAN: What do you want?

WITHNAIL: Cake. All right here?

Clearly a pair of drunken dustmen. She shows considerable courage.

OLD WOMAN: No. We're closing in a minute.

WITHNAIL: We're leaving in a minute.

They sit down and WITHNAIL studies the menu. An old man with a neck lagged in bandage like the top of a boiler glares at them. WITHNAIL ignores him and pokes a finger at the "Afternoon Teas".

WITHNAIL: We'll have cake and tea.

The BOILER gets up, balancing on his walking stick.

BOILER: Didn't you hear? She said she's closed.

Insubordination, and the BOILER approaches red of face.

BOILER: What do you want in here?

WITHNAIL: Cake. What's it to do with you?

BOILER: I happen to be the proprietor. Now would you leave?

WITHNAIL: Ah, I'm glad you're the proprietor. I was gonna have to have a word with you anyway. We're working on a film up here. Location see. We might wanna do a film in here.

BOILER: You're drunk.

MARWOOD: Just bring out the cakes.

WITHNAIL: Cakes and fine wines.

This is a desperate situation. But the OLD WOMAN has a solution.

OLD WOMAN: If you don't leave, we'll call the police.

A threat that brings a flutter of agreement from the feathers in the hats and the pugs on leads faction.

WITHNAIL: Balls. We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here. And we want them now.

BOILER: Miss Blenehassitt. Telephone the police.

MARWOOD: All right, Miss Blenehassitt, I'm warning you. If you do, you're fired. We'll buy this place and fire you immediately. We're multi-millionaires ...

MARWOOD and WITHNAIL rise to their feet and the BOILER steps back.

WITHNAIL: Yes, we'll buy this place. And we'll get a fucking jukebox in here to liven all these stiffs up a bit.

BOILER: The police, Miss Blenehassitt -

She goes about it. Fumbles nervously with the phone. Bit of chat from the hats and pugs: "Vagabonds." "They won't like the police."

BOILER: - just say that there are two drunks in the Penrith Tea Rooms and that we want them removed.

MARWOOD: We're not drunks. We're multi- millionaires.

BOILER: Hurry up, Mabs. We'll keep them here till they arrive.

Seems like he's going to bolt the door. A whispered explanation.

HAT AND PUG: He'll keep them talking.

WITHNAIL: He won't keep us anywhere. We'll buy this place and have it knocked down.

Just as Mabs says "Police please" a limousine appears outside.

MARWOOD: Don't bother. Our car's arrived. We're going.

Eyes alternate between them and the car as they reach the door.

WITHNAIL: But we'll be back. We're coming back in here.

The BOILER and the OLD WOMAN and the old LADIES with the feathers and dogs on leads watch in amazement as WITHNAIL and MARWOOD stagger out and slump in the back of an immaculate Rolls-Royce.

! Extracted from 'Withnail and I: the 10th Anniversary Edition', published by Bloomsbury (pounds 6.99).

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