After 20 years, 'Withnail and I' stars are reunited on screen

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is 20 years since Paul McGann and Richard E Grant filmed Withnail and I, a tale of two out-of-work actors that became a cult classic for generations of students.

They went on to forge illustrious careers but have never starred together - until now. The two actors, pictured below in Withnail, have been reunited for a short film, Always Crashing In The Same Car, where they play new characters but ones with some of the manic idiosyncrasies which made their Withnail personas so popular.

Duncan Wellaway, the short film's writer-director, said: "I've built on what I think made Withnail and I a cult success. Withnail fans will see some of the same extreme character traits and idiosyncrasies, but I've moved things forward and planted them into a twisted version of London today."

Unwilling to give away the full plot, Mr Wellaway describes the story as a black comedy about two influential men who hate each other but find the balance of power reversed when one takes a wrong turn.

McGann was at the top of Wellaway's casting for the film which he had just finished writing when they met by chance at the Dinard British Film Festival in France last year. The actor read the script and watched the young director's previous award-winning short, Letters of Service, and agreed to take part.

McGann suggested that Grant co-star in the 11-minute short, a combination of actors that the young director never dared to hope for.

Mr Wellaway said: "Richard is so perfect for this character and I was over the moon when he said he'd do it. I didn't think starting out with this project that I would succeed where so many other directors have failed, reuniting Withnail and I 20 years on."

The film has been produced by Zoe Ball, the radio and television presenter who has made short films herself, and agreed to be involved because she is a massive fan of Withnail, which contains much-quoted lines such as "I've some extremely distressing news."

And when Mr Wellaway had almost given up on getting funding in London, Ball discovered that HandMade, the company founded by the late Beatle George Harrison, which made Withnail, was back in the producing business. A meeting was arranged and David Ravden, the chief executive of HandMade, agreed on the spot to give £25,000 to the short-film project. "I just couldn't believe it," Mr Wellaway said.

The film was shot over four nights in September and is in post-production.

"There was a real kind of sense from both [McGann and Grant] that they were very happy to be working together again. They were quite un-egotistical. It was quite sweet really," Mr Wellaway said.

Even at points where some actors would have asked for stand-ins, such as the filming of one end of a telephone conversation, both actors played their part. "Actors don't get anything out of doing shorts. It's just a way of giving something back to new talent," Mr Wellaway said.

"I think that's how Paul probably sold it to Richard: 'This is a young director and I think he's talented and it would be really good to give him that kind of profile'."

Mr Wellaway, 35, hopes the film will be nominated for next year's Baftas. And talks are under way about re-releasing Withnail and I in cinemas next year - its 21st anniversary - with the short film as support.

"Because of the Withnail and I audience, there are potentially thousands of people who would be interested in seeing anything that they have done together since and it's a good film," Mr Wellaway said.

In the original, Richard E Grant plays Withnail, a pill-popping unemployed actor who shares a house with Marwood, played by McGann, in 1969. The two escape to the country to try to get their lives in order but things go from bad to worse.