Withnail and I, a British cult classic

Withnail and I, a British cult classic

Withnail and I (1987)

Withnail and I, a British cult classic

Directed by Bruce Robinson

Written by Bruce Robinson

Starring • Paul McGann
• Richard E. Grant
• Richard Griffiths

Cinematography Peter Hannan

Withnail and I, a British cult classicWithnail and I is a 1987 British black comedy film and cult classic written and directed by Bruce Robinson and set in Camden Town, London in the late 1960’s. It is a simple story of two struggling young actors living as bums, Withnail (Richard E. Grant ) and “I” (Paul McGann), who yearn to take a break from their squalid run down flat and fed up with the hectic life of the city, decide to escape to the countryside on the cheap. Withnail manages to persuade his rich eccentric uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths) to let them stay in his country cottage in Penrith in Cumbria, North West England, for a weekend RnR. This is to be a “holiday by mistake”, one in which anything that can go wrong, does go wrong!

Withnail, is the flamboyant alcoholic who comes from a privileged background, and, as a struggling actor, is unable to get work hence is angry and resentful with the world. Marwood (“I”), the film’s narrator, on the other hand, is the relatively more level-headed of the two and somewhat timid and neurotic. You get the sense pretty early on, that he just wants out of this life of drunken squalor and rage, even if that means separating from his friend for good.

Withnail and I, a British cult classicAlthough the countryside is beautiful, the location is anything but idyllic. What looks like constant rain, the boys are cold (“Warm up? We may as well sit round this cigarette,” They end up burning some furniture) , the cottage has no running water or light, they are low on food and the locals seem a bit strange and not very hospitable, in particular a poacher called Jake, who takes an instant dislike to Withnail. Its a long long way from Camden Town and the two city boys are hopelessly out of their depth for country living. Trying to cook a chicken (“I’m starving, how can we make it die?”) in an oven balanced on a kettle, attempting to shoot fish with a shotgun, or using plastic bags as boots to trod around in the muck, are just some examples of their inadequacies.

The arrival out of the blue of Monty himself, who joins halfway through their stay is good for Withnail, as he brings with him good wine and food, but not so much for Marwood, as the flirtatious Monty has his eye on him! (“I mean to have you even if it must be burglary!”). Uncle Monty, the eccentric middle-aged homosexual, tries and eventually fails to seduce Marwood. Monty was under the false impression from Withnail that Marwood was a “Toilet Trader!”. With all these shenanigans, Withnail and Marwood’s friendship is at breaking point.

They hurriedly return to London as Marwood received a telegram informing him about a part in a play. Possibly too quickly, since they are pulled over by the Metropolitan Police as Withnail is arrested for drunk driving. (“You’re drunk”,  “I can assure you I’m not, officer, honestly, I have only had a few ales”)

On their return home they find their drug dealing “friend” Danny (Ralph Brown) and a stranger lighting up a huge cannabis joint, a Camberwell Carrot (“This ought to make you very high”)

Withnail and I, a British cult classicMarwood learns they have received an eviction notice for unpaid rent, thus preempting the splitting of the two companions. Marwood leaving for the station, turns down Withnail’s request for one last drink. “There’s always time for a drink?” But Marwood, with his newly cut hair and looking smart, is a man changed. He has finally got an acting part and needs to move on. They part company, likely for the last time. All alone, and quoting Hamlet and with a bottle of wine in hand, naturally, Withnail cries out in the rain “What a piece of work is a man!” The end!

The film is based on Bruce Robinson’s friendship with Vivian MacKerrell, an unemployed actor and alcoholic friend with whom he shared a house in the late 1960’s. Both were disillusioned with the acting scene and the lack of work, and of money, just about surviving in a dilapidated house in Camden Town.  Robinson penned the story when he was in the depths of despair and during a particular harsh winter in 1969.

The film was made on a small budget of  £1.1 million, with some help from George Harrison who produced the film through his HandMade Films.  But three days into the shoot, Denis O’Brien, the main producer, nearly shut the film down as he thought that the film wasn’t funny enough. As he was American perhaps the British dry humour didn’t bounce off on him.

Robinson’s script is amazing, full of dark humour and intelligence, full of quotable one liners that are widely remembered, and even though its funny, there is tragedy running the whole way through, as we know that its not going to end well at all, but still enough of a shock when the separation does happen. It takes a certain skill from a writer to make such a simple story, plot wise, into a British classic. Excellent.

Withnail and I, a British cult classicThe script is one thing, but you need actors to bring it to life.  The acting in the movie is superb. Definitely true to say that Richard E Grant hasn’t done anything as good, at least nothing I have ever seen. (‘I’m a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum!’). But Paul McGann, the foil to the craziness of Grant, is also excellent and as good as Grant. His part is more measured, but he plays the character so well that you actually feel sorry for poor old Marwood having to put up with Withnail all the time.

Paul McGann was Robinson’s first choice for Marwood, but he was fired during rehearsals because Robinson decided McGann’s Liverpool accent was too strong for the character. Kenneth Branagh was considered for the role, but McGann eventually persuaded Robinson to re-audition him, promising to drop the scouse accent. He quickly won back the part.

Daniel Day-Lewis, was considered for Withnail, but Grant luckily got the part in the end. But when you learn that Grant is in fact a teetotaller and allergic to booze, getting physically sick when he drinks alcohol, it is even more amazing how so convincing he is as Withnail. To get into character Grant was forced to drink and be drunk.

Richard Griffiths as Withnail’s Uncle Monty also impresses and Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer has some memorable scenes.

The music in the film is particularly fantastic……..especially the scene where a big wrecking ball is knocking down a house, while Jim Hendrix’s, “All Along the Watchtower” is playing. Brilliant.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” by King Curtis also sticks out in the memory, great song to use for the opening scene as it really fits as Marwood is coming down from the night before, looks depressed, and is contemplating his future, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, another great tune, by George Harrison, who provided much of the financial backing for this unlikely project.

Withnail and I, a British cult classicThere was no actual filming in the real Penrith, and Sleddale Hall, just outside Shap in Cumbria, is the location used as Monty’s cottage. What strikes me from the county location is the never ending rain, and toughness of countryside life. As for the time period, the movie is set in the 60’s, even if it was made in the 80’s without any set design, which goes to show that parts of London looked pretty dire at this time. Grit I think is the word I’m looking for!

I like this film. Enjoyed it, classic, great acting, good dialogue, well set scenery, with a good soundtrack. Its actually a very clever movie, deep meaning and melancholic. It is a comedy, but it is also a tragedy. Friendship can bring you down, can be chaotic and can destroy. Or when adulthood creeps up on you, when its time to give up on your dreams and settle down into a respectful life of normality, to grow up!

Really sad in the end when they depart. You just know that it is going to go downhill for Withnail without his friend Marwood, but you also feel that Marwood needs this break if he is to restore his sanity. A friendship built on booze and experience and that feeling of invisibility is hard to maintain forever, but the memories will live on.

And then there is all the booze, and large quantities of it! It is definitely a classic movie amongst the drinking fraternity.  They cover all aspects of drinking……from the morning after the night before opening scene, the binge drinking, the care free feckless attitude when drunk, the scurrying around for some more alcohol, to the hangovers from hell……..rarely has alcohol got such star quality treatment on the big screen!

The film wasn’t a hit when it was released in 1987. It only became well known as a video release much later as word of mouth made it a cult classic, and even today its legacy endures.

List of drinks consumed in Withnail and I, or at least as best I can garner, as there was a lot of alcohol consumed in the story!

Withnail and I, a British cult classicThe rules for the Withnail and I drinking game are very simple… just match what Withnail drinks

But please bear in mind that the events of the movie take place over a couple of weeks, so if you do match them, and especially if you drink lighter fluid, you will probably die.

In order to drink along with Withnail and Marwood, you will require:
• Gin
• Cider
• Beer
• Sherry
• Scotch
• Red Wine

• 1 x bottle lighter fluid (You’re allowed to substitute this for vinegar… this is what they did to Richard E Grant to the film the vomiting scene..but I think that is bollix since I am sure he didn’t drink alcohol on set all the time either…..)
• 1 x Camberwell Carrot (good luck with that!)

All told, Withnail drinks nine and a 1/2 glasses of red wine, 1 pint of cider, 1 shot of lighter fluid, two and a 1/2 shots of gin, 6 glasses of sherry, 13 Scotch whiskeys and a 1/2 a pint of ale throughout the film. Here they are in order:

  • Mouthful of red wine
  • Ronsol lighter fluid – large squeeze from can
  • Double gin – glass
  • cider with ice – pint
  • sherry – glass
  • sherry – double swig from bottle
  • sherry – glass
  • sherry – glass
  • scotch – swig from bottle
  • scotch – swig from bottle
  • scotch – swig from bottle
  • scotch – swig from bottle
  • large scotch – glass
  • large scotch – glass
  • large scotch – glass
  • large scotch – glass
  • sherry – glass
  • beer – pint
  • red wine – glass
  • sherry – glass
  • wine – glass
  • wine – glass
  • gin + mix (pernod?)
  • wine – glass
  • wine – swig from bottle
  • wine – swig from bottle
  • scotch – glass
  • scotch – glass
  • swig from bottle (“’53 Margeaux”)
  • swig from bottle (“’53 Margeaux”)
  • swig from bottle (“’53 Margeaux”)
  • swig from bottle (“’53 Margeaux”)
  • swig from bottle (“’53 Margeaux”)

Well – that’s the list. Enjoy the piss up, CHIN CHIN!

Famous Lines

Withnail and I, a British cult classicWithnail

• What time is it? It is 8, four hours to opening time, God help us!
• We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.
• I demand to have some booze!
•I’m a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum
• We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now!
• I assure you I’m not [drunk], officer, honestly. I’ve only had a few ales.
• The only programme I’m likely to get on is the fucking news!
• All right, this is the plan. We get in there and get wrecked, then we eat a pork pie, then we drop a couple of Surmontil-50s each. That means we’ll miss out on Monday but come up smiling Tuesday morning.
• I feel like a pig shat in my head.


•When Withnail starts looking for antifreeze, Marwood shouts out: “Don’t mix your drinks!”

• A coward you are, Withnail! An expert on bulls you are not!                                                            Imagination! I have just finished fighting a naked man! How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader?!

Uncle Monty

• It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, “I will never play the Dane.”
• 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.
• Oh my boys, my boys, we are at the end of an age! We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in, shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour, and here we are, we three; perhaps the last island of beauty… in the world
• I can never touch raw meat until it’s cooked. As a youth, I used to weep in butchers’ shops!

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Beer drinker and all round annoyance. Likes drinking, football, cricket and having a good time.

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