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Here's to you, Mr. Robinson
So what now, imprisoned as we are with ‘social distancing’ having denied the warmth of human interaction? Many of us have realised that this enforced lifestyle is a little too familiar. So, home entertainment! Camus has a recommendation that has kept him laughing for a good few hours…
  “They were all saying the lines, laughing. We had that with Withnail, too. Gaffers and electricians, saying the lines. And no corporates, no box-ticking. If I'd tried the BBC today with Withnail, it wouldn't tick one box. They'd want every scene worked over with the question – why is that funny?"
  Euan Ferguson interviewing Bruce Robinson about his
working on The Rum Diaries in The Guardian*


Yes, you’ve seen the film. OK, I get that. If you’re a fan, you’ve seen the film a dozen times or more. Its comedy actually grows and matures with repetition. It is such a dense work that it’s almost impossible to fully appreciate with only single figure viewings under your belt of hideous, late 60’s Camden squalor. But all the viewings in the world will not open the petals of what other comic pollen live and thrive on the pages of its original screenplay. I saw the film on its first run and many times subsequently so why am I still dropping the script to my lap to laugh out loud after every other page? It’s not just the dialogue though we must pause in some awe of that… “Warm up? We may as well sit around a cigarette!” It’s also specifically the rarely appreciated stage directions. Robinson has left no line of his remarkable screenplay unpolished. None of this “Exit, pursued by a bear,” malarkey with Bruce. How about “This bathroom is a psychological deterrent to cleanliness.” His screenplay is packed to bursting with les mots juste and juste mostly hilarious. I know I hinted at all this in my DVD review but it hits even harder the older I get. It’s a source of continual fascination and awe to me, the power and grace of the divinely written word. Bruce Robinson was brought up (“like vomit,”) in Broadstairs, Kent and for reasons lost in the fog of alcoholic oblivion, I find that fact almost unbearably exquisite. It must be something to do with ex-Tory PM Edward Heath being born there. Opposites detract.

A scene setter (goodness, more irony) is in order.

There is an ironic irony (stay with me) begging to be pasted onto the billboard of global culture at the moment. Are you are familiar with the expression “May you live in interesting times”? It’s supposedly a curse often credited as being of Chinese origin, one that came to light, alluded to in a 1966 speech by Robert Kennedy. Truth came in books back then, valued and respected but even without broadband, lies were still very much part of the global political engine’s oil. The phrase’s cultural origin seems to be completely erroneous. You give a newly minted phrase a cachet if you can make people believe it came from (a) far away where the cows are small and (b) aeons ago. But there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that China is now the source of these ‘interesting times’ we find ourselves trying to cope with today. Chopping up exotic animals for highly dubious and unscientific medicinal reasons has had a catastrophic effect on the entire world. I hope it’s not perceived as racism to note that Wuhan, China was the source of this nasty strain of coronavirus we are all at war with today. Facts, I still like to believe, have no ideology. I consider it a public service to remind you to wash your hands and to restate that facemasks should be for medics and sufferers only and not for those healthy enough to be that concerned. There are conflicting reports on their effectiveness but the healthy should not deny the sick or the medics… Just saying. With a soon to be 90 year old sharing our cottage, I have to be more mindful of the consequences of simple and potentially lethal human contact. So lockdown of a sort it is for the foreseeable future. And if my two main jobs for this year have been effectively cancelled, I’m going to need an outlet of some sort. “I’m a film professional reduced to the status of a bum!” This is hardly the case but it feels pretty precarious out there and my heart goes out to those with more pressing financial commitments than my own. How are we going to get through this? Some how. May be.

With the tumbleweed itching in the wings to start blowing through our deserted urban hives and alleyways, we all peer into a monumentally uncertain future. Danny Boyle would find it significantly easier to shoot 28 Days Later today with London’s semi-deserted streets. Employment and incomes have ceased, shelves stripped and the very bedrock of society’s foundations are, for the first time in my entire life, in some ghastly flux. Home entertainment has never been so important. So, I may be still on the fence about Star Trek: Picard (it’s not really Trek anymore, is it?); I’m enjoying the seriously dreadful characters of Succession (but to hell with those mini-zooms that infect its mise-en-scene like a near-fatal case of utter irrelevancy); I’ve also been flummoxed by why Avenue 5 couldn’t make me crack a single smile despite Hugh Laurie’s angular intensity, a nod to Mr. Fawlty. So. I turned to my bookshelves. Oh, what joys to revisit.

Screenwriter William Goldman (RIP) said once that the screenplay was almost an unreadable format. All those awful stage directions to follow. It’s easily believable that most people read screenplays by just stone skipping scene directions to cover the dialogue only. I know I’ve been guilty of that myself but if you know there is a frequently sozzled genius providing you with gleeful entertainment between the superb dialogue moments then do what I did and start reacting to the not so hidden gems. Here is the source of much of my recent mirth.

Withnail & I screenplay book cover

Yours probably won’t look like that as mine was a 1995 freebie from Sight and Sound. It’s available commercially for under a tenner. Be aware trying to find it for free. Some screenplays online are simple transcriptions. Transcribe Withnail and I and compare it with the original and the lamentable cliché of chalk and cheese barely illustrates the abyss betwixt both. In fact you might say it’s the difference between a thin, cracked layer of sweet icing which has its pleasures and a thirty-tiered cake ready to light up your buds when you least expect it. I just read a piece of dialogue that had me heaving with laughter and I can’t tell you why. Withnail has purloined Marwood’s newspaper and is getting into the story about shot putter Jeff Wode who took anabolic steroids to cheat in his sport. He says “Jeff Wode is feeling better! And is now prepared to step back into society and start tossing his orb about.” How does that zinger on the end deliver such power? No idea. My usually stone-set shoulders are now curiously relaxed. Prescription? The surfeit and immensity of delight that is Bruce Robinson at his most energetically gifted.

I offer a final observation. It is said that the best film editing is invisible. If you do not notice the cuts, the story is working. That’s fine until you encounter filmmakers and editors who offer cuts of such vivid “Look at me!” characteristics that your appreciation is in direct proportion to their startling quality. So what if the story is briefly derailed? Just look at that cut! Robinson, seemingly without effort, writes like a neon angel. It’s really hard for him to lurk in the narrative shadows. He writes fully aware that an audience knows his words are crafted and no human being could possibly speak this eloquently. This isn’t reality he’s after. To cliché-club you senseless, he’s after truth – very different things. And with Withnail, nail smashed firmly on the head. I offer the following three stage directions that reduced me to helpless laughter. If you don’t share my sense of humour then I apologise but when I’m laughing this sincerely, it’s hard to be sorry about anything…

In trying to convince Uncle Monty to let the boys stay at his country retreat, Monty has a problem with his recalcitrant cat…

“Ill-charted maps of the Orinoco Delta throb in MONTY’s temples.”

Withnail and Marwood (aka ‘I’) have moved into a tiny, freezing country cottage. Their first impressions are hardly encouraging…

“In the instant before the match goes out, they see crumbling walls and stale shadows and giant atlases of damp on the floor.”

I mean, what a gift to source the ragged shapes of an atlas on which to base the distribution of damp. Genius.

Withnail stands by the fireplace.

“Blasts of icy intensity rocket down the chimney. Withnail could be standing on a cliff.”

I have to say, I had to take a moment’s break after that image was conjured up.

Here’s to you Mr. Robinson…



Withnail & I Collector's Edition Blu-ray cover

Withnail & I
UK 1987
107 mins
directed by
Bruce Robinson
produced by
Paul Heller
written by
Bruce Robinson
Peter Hannan
Alan Strachan
David Dundas
Rick Wentworth
production design
Michael Pickwoad
Richard E. Grant
Paul McGann
Richard Griffiths
Ralph Brown
Michael Elphick

article posted
23 March 2020

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Withnail & I (DVD review)

See all of Camus' reviews