Cult classic: Withnail and us

Twenty years ago Bruce Robinson made an art house film that even its producers hated. Today the tale of excess and squalor is a cult classic. Liz Hoggard speaks to those who, against the odds, created the most quoted film ever
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The Independent Culture

It was made for £1.1m, the production company hated it and at the first screening nobody laughed. But Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I, now celebrating its 20th anniversary with the release of a special DVD, is now seen as one of the best British films with a cult male following that never flags. Fans still play the Withnail drinking game which consists of keeping up, drink for drink, with every substance consumed over the course of the film. They make drunken pilgrimages to its Lake District locations, and yell "Scrubbers!" at passing schoolgirls, just like Withnail in the film.

Made in 1986 and based on Robinson's 1960s novel, it's not surprising that a film about the end of adolescence should resonate with so many middle-aged men today. With its elegantly wasted heroes and revolting bachelor flat, it is the great hangover film encapsulating what many men look back on as the happiest time of their life - before marriage and children kicked in.

New teenage fans discover Withnail and I every year. It is the most requested movie at student film clubs, and many schools have special screenings. "Everyone at my school is obsessed by it at the moment," says Maxwell Benenson, 17. "Probably because we love the attitude of Withnail, this magnetic ex-public schoolboy we all aspire to be, with the long trench coat, the fag in one hand, and booze in the other."

The film not was an overnight success. In fact it was a very hard box office sell with its bunch of largely unknown actors and a first-time director. The production company that made it, George Harrison's HandMade Films, considered it "as funny as cancer". The finished film sat on a shelf for over a year. When HandMade was sold, a new distributor released it, but only at a handful of cinemas. Robinson remembers an awful test screening where nobody laughed: the audience was composed of German students.

Finally released in the UK in 1988, the film only played for a few weeks. In America it did better. But gradually Withnail and I was gaining word-of-mouth support among a cool, young audience who saw it at student film clubs and repertory cinemas.

Made at the height of Thatcherism, the story of two unemployed actors who take an alcohol-fuelled trip to the country struck a chord with anyone out of sync with its get-rich-quick ethos. Even so, Withnail and I seemed destined to remain an art-house favourite.

But in the first issue of Loaded magazine in 1994 the editor, James Brown, wrote an impassioned feature called "Withnail You Cult" with official instructions for the Withnail drinking game. The film was given a second cinema release in 1996 to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and a new male generation learnt "I demand to have some booze" and "We went on holiday by mistake".

Robinson's script is based on his experiences as a young actor in Camden "at the fag end of the 1960s". The soundtrack features Jimi Hendrix, King Curtis and the Beatles. Yet Withnail is timeless; Robinson deliberately avoids period trappings. The film appeals to men's vanity: they love to imagine themselves as Withnail's esoteric drunk-dropout delivering scorching put-downs. The rest of us see ourselves reflected in the character of Marwood, the timid, gauche narrator who finally quits a life of hedonism for a proper job and fantasises about what might have been.

And yet women love it, too, though there are no females in the film. Withnail and I are hardly macho characters. They spout poetry, share a bed in the country and never boast about their exploits with women. No wonder some critics regard it as an implicit gay love story.

For Robinson, the absence of women simply underlines the characters' hopelessness. "If you're in a state of emotional poverty when you're young, you can't afford girlfriends."

Daniel Day Lewis, Eddie Tudor-Pole and Bill Nighy were all considered for the Withnail role. Nighy did a good audition, said Robinson, but it was at the height of his drinking and the director - knocking back copious amounts himself - thought one drunk on set was enough.

Although he had only ever appeared in one small TV film, the struggling actor Richard E Grant made a huge impression on the filmmakers. Arriving soaked for his audition, hair swept back wildly, he launched into the "Fork it!" scene (where Withnail discovers "matter" in the festering sink), and accidentally hurled his script at Robinson's face. They had found their Withnail.

Grant's life changed overnight. But, as he movingly documents in his film diaries, With Nails, the film also coincided with a time of great tragedy in his life. His wife, seven months pregnant, had a still-born child. There was little time to grieve. Less than a fortnight later, he was in front of the camera. And Grant is nothing like Withnail. When Loaded turned up to interview him in 1996 they were astonished to find that he is a life-long non-smoker and teetotaller.

"I know Richard admits that he thinks it's been the greatest blessing ever, but sometimes a little bit of the curse," says Paul McGann, who played Marwood, "in that every time he's performed afterwards, people have wanted that same thing. It was easier for me, probably because the character I played - the straight role - was less flamboyant. It never dogged me, not like it dogged him."

Part of the cult of Withnail is working out how much is fact, and how much fiction. The "I" of the film is Robinson himself, while Withnail is based on his actor friend Vivian MacKerrell, who died young of throat cancer. The two shared a house in Camden. Danny the hippy is an amalgam of two hairdressers Robinson knew. Uncle Monty is based on the unwanted attentions Robinson received from the director, Franco Zeffirelli, when he was a young actor on the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Withnail is a classic British disaster story. When he first directed it, Robinson was flushed with success having written the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Killing Fields (1984). George Harrison read his Withnail script on a plane and loved it. But the money men at HandMade turned his life into a nightmare.

Although it has made a fortune all over the world for the distributors, the original cast and crew have never benefited from its re-releases. Even though Robinson received £1 for the script and £80,000 to direct it (£30,000 of which he reinvested in the film to shoot key scenes that HandMade wouldn't fund), he never got his money back - particularly painful when it was his life story. He is still ambivalent about the film, although he has been persuaded to contribute a new interview to the DVD.

The film is also dark. Not only is there is a strong sense that all the characters fear change, but Withnail marks the passing of the golden age of the 1960s.

And, of course, says McGann, Withnail and I are over. "It's very bitter-sweet, this odd couple is running down, it isn't the Swinging Sixties, it's right, right at the end. And you know that one of these people might be OK, the other one might not, but progress of a sort has been made. There's a scene at the cottage where my character gets a postcard saying he's got a job, and within 20 minutes everything starts to accelerate back to London. But it's been over, it's being played out, all the way through."

The film has always appealed to the cool crowd because of its visuals. Ralph Steadman created the poster art: its grubby-chic costumes the work of Andrea Galer. Withnail's coat - a sweeping cloak of soft Harris tweed - is one of those screen garments up there with Judy Garland's ruby slippers.

In 2000, Grant held a charity auction of Withnail memorabilia to raise funds for his old school in Swaziland. The writer and film director Richard Curtis bought the manuscript of the original Withnail novel for £6,600 (which he returned to Robinson with the note, "I think you should keep this"). Chris Evans snapped up the Withnail coat for £5,000. And there are rumours of a West End production next year but Robinson has not given permission.

Robinson thinks the Withnail phenomenon stems from our love of looking back on the worst of times, secure in the knowledge that life does get better. "Perhaps it's easy to identify with if you're a 21-year-old male with not much money and living in squalor, which is what you tend to do at that age, because it isn't pulling punches or being condescending to that life. Also it can be said, '20 years later Bruce Robinson made a film about it, so it may be awful now, but it won't be awful later'."

The 20th anniversary edition of 'Withnail and I' is released on DVD on 2 October

THE KEY PLAYERS

Bruce Robinson (writer/director)

Went on to direct How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jennifer Eight and write scripts for Hollywood. In 1998, disillusioned by the business, Robinson wrote an autobiographical novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman (effectively the early life of Withnail's 'I'). Slated to direct a film version of Hunter S Thompson's The Rum Diary.

Says: "I'm immensely fond of Withnail and I, but one of the reasons I don't like having a lot to do with it is that I'm so angry with the people that own it [Handmade Films]."

Richard E Grant (Withnail)

Starred in Bruce Robinson's follow-up to Withnail and I, How to Get Ahead In Advertising, then worked with Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Recently directed his first film, Wah-Wah, about his childhood in Swaziland.

Says: "Bruce Robinson described this character as a lying, mendacious, cowardly, prancing, posing, utterly charming old darling - so you go home with that and think how do I fit all that into saying one line?"

Paul McGann (Marwood/I)

Went on to star in Ken Russell's 1989 adaptation of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow and Empire of the Sun. Now more famous for his TV work which has included Hornblower and a small screen Dr Who movie, although he will soon star in British film Gypo about asylum seekers. Says: "Marwood was that little grain of sand, that little portion of your sense that gets you home when you're out of your head."

Ralph Brown (Danny, the drug dealer)

Other roles have included playing in The Crying Game, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, Wayne's World 2. Last year he appeared in Coronation Street and also acted alongside Julia Davis in the dark BBC hit comedy Nighty Night.

Says: "There isn't a crap bit in it; there isn't a bad moment. It's a lesson to all film-makers everywhere that you don't need a good plot."

Michael Elphick (Jake, the poacher)

Elphick's televsion roles include those in Private Schulz and the long-running ITV detective drama series Boon. After illness brought on by his on-off battle with alcohol, Elphick's last major role before his death in 2002, aged 55, was as Harry Slater in EastEnders. He also had a small part in the 2001 movie Dead in the Water. Elphick knew Bruce Robinson from London's Central School of drama where they were both students.

Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty)

Perhaps best known for his roles as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films and the chef Henry Crabbe in the TV series Pie In The Sky. An acclaimed stage actor, he won a Tony Award this year for his role in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, which is now also a forthcoming film.

Anthony Barnes

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