Drifting into the arena of the unwell
A Withnailian Rant and DVD Review of The 20th Anniversary 3 Disc DVD of WITHNAIL & I by Camus
 
"Dostoyevsky described hell as perhaps nothing more than a
room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs."
Bruce Robinson's sublime stage directions in
the original screenplay for Withnail & I

 

You want the screenplay for Withnail & I? Do not download any old transcribed version from the net. Buy it. Robinson's stage directions alone are worth the effort and expense. I say this because the transcribed version does his prodigious talent a wondrous disservice. Do it a service.

Can comedy, like a deeply planted bulb, embed itself and sneak up on you, vine-like, in later life? Can you experience a movie, appreciate a movie, laugh and snort at a movie and then twenty years down the line you shockingly find it's funnier than ever? How is this possible? I consider Monty Python's Life of Brian one of the most perfect works in the comedy genre. But it is so good, the film is remembered too swiftly so its ability to stand up to repeated viewings is jeopardised because of how blazingly perfect it is – as dumb as that sounds. Withnail & I is a character piece and while still achingly funny, it still pulls out and forks you with that cattle prod of recognition. Anyone having lived any kind of comparable life or 'holiday by mistake' that these two miscreants endure is taken back to that time, our noses rubbed in its exquisite, firewood-less, chicken throttling awfulness. Of course, this 'thing' that's changed in those twenty years, is you, or in this case, me.

I have the greatest visual image of imaginative conception on file in the spider web-as-washing line strewn organ I call my mind. It's an image of the very precise moment of the birth of a genuine artistic creation. Please note that this image will not be revealed until several paragraphs later. My apologies. I'm 'Withnailing' this review... I don't have to demand booze. By some cosmic stroke of luck, there's a large alcoholic beverage sitting very close to me. There. What do you mean, you can't see it? Why is this stuff so excruciatingly difficult to deny access to my mouth?

Back to the moment. It's the instant a character becomes art, leaps off the page in an insane, Steadmanesque pirouette – despite its authors' trenchant disbelief. 'He' is made up. 'He' is fictitious. It's a fecking shame 'He' is not God. Can you imagine Withnail as God? Oh, joyous, heavenly joy. Get arseholed for Jesus as a religious requisite. On Sundays! He'd belabour his son for gladly throwing himself on the cross to escape all this hideousness. We'd all hunker down to his majesty and on every cross, the literal bastard will have a smile on his face. It's a church I am already warming to – the others I warm to because if they were burning I would be comfortably snug in the mild heat of the flames. In human history when exactly did reason emigrate from our collective consciousness?

We'd eat porky pies as Christ's body and down-swallow the Grand Cru Classé Saint Julienne as his blood. How fecking insane is that – especially in the 'real' world? Is there any other more outrageous example of how screwed up mass superstitions really are? And they teach kids that! They teach children unconfirmable, rampant bullshit. And the doctrine insists this is no metaphor. Why is there no humour in religion? Because laughter is real truth so it's a rival. Here's the body and blood of our saviour? Go away. Read a book. Make a gargantuan effort to treat sanity as something to strive for not something to ditch the moment 'hell' takes any resonance in that addled, anti-logic, anti-reason, fracked up brain of the believers. We were monkeys, get over it. And I saw her face and now I'm a believer. I'm being mugged by pop-culture word association.

Can you imagine the Bible as written by Withnail? To hell with stealing the apple from the tree in Eden. Withnail would use the snake to squeeze the apple and ferment the fucker into cider. With ice. Oh, for a Withnailian religious world view. Suicide bombers? How about Skewed Cide(r) Bombers, those gallant souls who know everyone else as 'fuckers' but just want to drink. And drink. And drink. But there is a proviso. You must drink with wit and coruscating criticism. You must sparkle in your gin soaked garb. You cannot, and yea, must not be a fecking bore. Neither shall ye be violent (because I have a heart condition and if you hit me, it'll be murder). "MacFuck!" indeed.

I'm getting ahead of myself. What about that 'image' I have of the act of artistic creation? It is a once pretty-boy actor who discovered that words in his thirties were more his forté than his twenties' stagecraft. It's an image of desperate creation, one witnessed by his wife in the early hours. Bruce Robinson (bless him to Heaven's bar and back) performs his own scripts as he writes them. He also drinks (used to drink. I believe he has worked out that another semi-lifetime of alcoholic violence – 'abuse' is a mild word for what Robinson did to his liver in his Withnail days – may rob his kids of their father way, way too early). So, you create creatures on the page (in those days definitely using a typewriter – just think computer with printed back up) but your chosen poison befuddles your brain and your body gives in to the red as longingly as petals to a bee's advances. Such whores, petals. You cannot physically type. You are a pile of wilted, dirty washing with human matter dispersed and distributed within. How do you get those fecking words down when inchoate with booze? Get this. And artists take note. You do what you have to do. What do you do?

You type with your nose.

Do you know how much pleasure I had just typing those words? Bruce Robinson typed with his nose. No, I cannot be certain that Withnail was born that way but fuck it, I'm creating my own urban myth. Like mucus, Withnail was born from his creator's nostrils, his writer's nasal force, the Roman strength from an aquiline countenance pounding into existence a character who could not possibly exist 'in real life'. But exist he did. Bless Vivian MacKerrel. Bless him. He was named like a fish, could drink like several dozen and was a whole different kettle of the beggars entirely. He couldn't write, couldn't act, couldn't do anything except three important things. He could drink, he could rant and he could be the best Vivian MacKerrel the world has ever seen. We shall not see his like again. Marwood (or 'I' or Bruce Robinson) survived. Vivian (or Withnail) died from throat cancer. There's your benevolent God for you. Create a creature of rare widespread beauty and kill the fucker before he can fully unfurl. OK, his lifestyle probably had something to do with his demise. Maybe... If Withnail is accurate, I'm surprised he got through puberty.

To those un-Withnailed, the movie's synopsis reads like a cheap, student road movie. Two chronically unemployable actors live in squalor in London at the very tail end of the 60s. That's the 1960s – the human race's last chance to make any kind of difference. Overly dependent on alcohol and each other's company, they decide to take a break and motor up to the Lake District to stay at a rich uncle's weekend retreat. Desperate for the basics in life, they plead to neighbouring farmers and landlords to help them survive their holiday. They run afoul of a local poacher and the uncle arrives with very obvious sexual designs on one of the boys. A telegram is received; one of the two has been offered a part. Back in London, the drug dealer sounds the death knell of the greatest decade in human history and the two of the title split up.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? A knowing grin...

Ralph Brown playing drug dealer Danny, remarks that Withnail & I proves you don't have to have a plot to make a fine movie. So what's the toy in the middle of the egg? Two things and they are two things comedies (ah hell, any movie) should never live without – great character and great dialogue. There is not a single line in Withnail that has not been crafted, mined, tested and dropped and replaced and re-inserted. This screenplay's dialogue is so rich, so dense, so peppered with favourite quotable babble, it's an absolute joy to suddenly find lines you now pick out that eluded you the first (and tenth) time around. Imagine you're in front of one of those tennis ball guns. Let's say each time you connect with a ball, you get a five second physical high. They are aimed right at you so they are easy to hit. In 'ordinary movies' or good comedies you get about ten to fifteen hits. With Withnail, you are still reeling from Geoff Woade's steroid abuse and you miss a "gang of cheroot vendors" which goes hurtling by unstruck by cat gut. With Withnail, these pleasures come at you so fast and so frequently that it is possible for me to pick up on a line I missed on my eleventh viewing. I kid thee not.

It's also terribly emotionally affecting. With regards and a nod to a great friend of mine now many miles away, Withnail and Marwood (I's script name) are two broken men who are both leaning on each other for any form, any shred of human discourse or warmth. These are not gay men but straight and crooked at the same time. They are leaning and one day, one day, one of them will release themselves from their domestic horror and stand up straight. What happens to the other? In the novel that Robinson wrote actually during the time he and MacKerrel were living like cash-poor rabid dogs, the ending is far more unjust. Withnail goes back to the flat in Camden, pours a fine red down two shotgun barrels, drinks and blows his head off. It would sit at the end of a movie like an evangelical defeatist's full stop. The rare but essential Withnails go on in our imagination so he must be seen to go on in the movie. His real-life inspiration was taken early by cancer. Not only is the friendship ending, so is the world as far as these two are concerned. The 60s are over. Despite the drink and drug addled shenanigans, Withnail and Marwood are very close and Robinson's film is as good a study of a particular relationship as any film out there. It's almost just that it cost a mere one million. Can you imagine a world without Titanic and fifty plus more Withnails? Yes, there was some deft dollar-pound shtick going on there but, adjusting for inflation, I think I got there in the end.

I had an assistant in the early 90s who used to quote "I'm an trained actor reduced to the status of a bum," whenever I asked him if he'd do anything he deemed beneath his dignity. So I got to know the line really well. His name was Grant and he hailed from South Africa. Before you start genuflecting to my seemingly obvious link to acting greatness, it wasn't Richard E. although I have shaken the real thing's hand and thanked him for Withnail as he did a voice over for a colleague of mine. The real Richard E. Grant, after a brief stint on a TV movie Honest, Decent and True, auditioned for Withnail and the line "Fork it!" got him the role.

The monster that is Withnail is a true original. He's cultured and gross, alcoholic dependent but more dependent (and less likely to realise or acknowledge this) on his best friend. He's spectacularly rude, effortlessly offensive to all and sundry and he lives only in the moment as long as the moment doesn't have a 'bastard behind the eyes'. Grant nails Withnail with a breathless and overwhelming arrogance and a gentle talent that surfaces with affecting concern twice in the movie – the two times he acknowledges the end of his lifestyle. His fellow 'thesbian' (thanks Monty) acknowledges in one of the commentary tracks that Grant's finest moment is when he first acknowledges the beginning of the end and it's stunning if only a paltry, perfectly pitched "Well done..."

Let's not put Paul McGann out to thesbianic pasture. The man is a strung out delight and the only thing between Withnail and oblivion. Lost to me (and I know he's not really a perfumed ponce), his face is a beautiful one according to most including my own partner and as he is essentially playing Bruce Robinson, that's just as well. McGann's role is crucial. Extraordinary cannot exist without a convincing ordinary. He's the movie's anchor. McGann's 'I' is also our entry to the film. It's no shock that we are introduced to the squalid 60s situation by a slow track in to a rapidly descending into paranoia, Marwood. McGann's evocation (yes, they are Robinson's words) of his terrible social degradation is wonderful in all conceivable measurements.

Ralph Brown's Danny (oh, that stupider-than-thou lisp based on a real drug dealer and a terminally thick movie hairdresser) and Richard Griffith's Uncle Monty are caricatures, yes. But they are fleshed out by such superb skill that in a movie of essentially two characters, these two cats scratch the sofa arms of the movie enough that it's impossible to imagine Withnail & I without their two finely judged performances.

In all, Withnail & I is a sublime character study, a riotous comedy and a quote fest of quite staggering fecundity that it fair makes nature blush. I urge you to revel.

sound and vision

Presented in anamorphic 1.77:1 ratio, the main feature looks fine, like bread is fine if it has no green mould on it. But only to toast. The interiors (studio based one assumes apart from Crow Crag and Monty's house) look slightly soft and muted. Could this be a transfer from an inter-neg and not from the original negative? But then the location stuff looks finer (go figure). The entire movie is shot in muted colours (this helps the movie but not the DVD transfer) and has an overall drab look (one must assume this is deliberate) so Withnail & I is never going to win any Three Strip Technicolor awards. But who cares when you have lines like "My thumbs have gone weird…"

The myriad (OK, OK, three) choices of straight sound are straightforward. The Dolby 2.0 version is "Here it is, what more do you want?" The Dolby 5.1 is obviously richer but just sends slighter versions of its front speaker fare to the rears. The DTS (kneel, you bastards!) version is richer, more profound but feck, we are talking about a movie about talking. If you can hear the words, you are quids, nay, millions of quids in. One odd detail. It had a 15 Certificate but there is something in the Extras (it has to be the Drinking Game) that demanded a hastily stuck on 18 Certificate.

extra features

OK, a plethora. For a start there are three discs.

DISC ONE

The Score: The first disc sneakily hidden under the intriguing sleeve notes is a music CD. Be aware that there is no Jimi Hendrix here. This is the effective score written by David Dundas but all tracks written for the movie so not quite as in your face as the iconic 60s tracks used. That said, there is almost something Elfman/Betelgeuse-ian about the Withnail Theme. It's fitting and memorable and scoring this kind of film must have been a real challenge. Withnail is no Star Wars. What is its musical identity? Dundas does a fine job.

The Sleeve Notes contain a lot of repeated info but with the net now becoming a normal and somewhat essential research tool in our lives, sleeve notes are becoming just one way of localising specific information. Any Withnail fan would know all this stuff.

DISC TWO: The Movie & Commentaries

Commentaries: (a) Bruce Robinson. Good stuff from the man himself but for some reason the recording comes out of the middle speaker and has to be turned way up to be heard comfortably. Technically it's odd and slightly distracting. Robinson's reminiscences are teased out of him by an interviewer. This is something of a downer (one expects directors to engage without prompting but the interview on Disc 2 tells you perhaps why this is the case). All in all, a pretty fun experience for Withnail fans.

Commentaries: (b) Paul McGann & Ralph Brown. This one's a hoot but again, appears only from the left speaker this time and you have to crank it way up to hear it. But it's worth it. Marwood and Danny's actor-egos are obviously engaging and likeable folks who both adore the film and that comes through every time. It seems that even they didn't know what was really in the lighter fluid...

DISC THREE: The Extras

Postcards From Penrith (20:53): A 21 minute home-made documentary about two fans wanting to replicate certain images in the film via the Penrith location and those places that still stand. This is the perfect 'extra' for the 21st century that has become de rigeur because of the democratisation of the film-making gear. In short, we can all afford good quality gear now so EVERYONE'S A FILM-MAKER!!! It's moot. There is a palpable sense of amateur hour in Postcards despite these men's passion. It's OK but it seems too much like a video blog to make any real contribution to the Withnail oeuvre. It's 'circumstantial' Withnailism...

Interview with Bruce Robinson (14:18): Many gems to be unearthed here not least the man's experience on his final night of not being a film director. He needed to get drunk ("So I could sleep...") but despite the vast quantities of red wine and vodka, he could not make his body obey the usual natural laws. I can fully sympathise. The night before my first professional directing assignment, I drank iced Kaluha as if it was real coffee and felt nada. Mind you, it helps that I have not suffered one hangover, biblical or otherwise. I am either blessed or destined to tap out at 49 (all those hangovers in debit).

Robinson's story is not complete without a David and Goliath tale. Dennis O'Brien (George Harrison's accountant) took it upon himself to be comedy's auditor and so clashed with artist Robinson in a big way. Here's Bruce's problem. He loves his movie but the more he bigs his movie up, the more money his ENEMIES make... Now that is a moral dilemma like no other. His insight about how movie shoots really work is revealing (here's a clue – lady luck) but all told, here is a great writer, a humble director and a real mensch that you'd want at any dinner party. And you have to admire this guy's nose...

Withnail and Us
(24:47): This is the professional contribution and a good one it is at that. At just under 25 minutes, WAU takes us through cast and crew interviews and reveals the real Withnail via 60s home movies and a tacked on (but not tacky) run through the W to L of Withnail to give the doc some structure. One aspect of the production that comes through loud and clear is the fight between Robinson (who quit on day one not wanting to acquiesce to Executive Producer Dennis O'Brien's demands) and the afore mentioned O'Brien. One dip into the volume Very Naughty Boys (Handmade Films' story) will tell you that if a film strikes gold, it is folly indeed – as an accountant – to believe you know why it struck gold. O'Brien passed himself off as the curator of comedy and wanted Richard E. Grant to impersonate Kenneth Williams as Withnail and – somewhat absurdly – insisted that comedy was always very brightly lit. The accountancy software Excel didn't hold any sway over O'Brien anymore. His judgements on creative collaborations seemed ludicrous. Richard E. Grant offers the following (after Withnail's entry into pop-culture) "..stupid fucker got it all wrong, didn't he?" That he did, Richard. That he did.

The Withnail & I Drinking Game (14:55): The reason for the change of certificate methinks. Actor, Peter MacNamara (effective whether supposed to be as sad as a workless actor or not) demonstrates the drinking game – match Withnail's drinks. If this is a fake, the make up artists are to be commended. If it's for real then get that man to a hospital...

The Withnail & I Swearathon (1:12): I admit, this is amusing but it shouldn't be. Taken out of context, Robinson's cuss words all edited together should be less funny than being stabbed by a piece of cheese. But they defy the odds. But what is 'cunt!' without "Monty, you terrible..." You decide...

Trailer (1:25): To what must be Mozart, our anti-heroes strut their stuff.

Photos by Ralph Steadman: Black and white snaps of the principals in rehearsal, all 20 of them. Is Ralph a mate of Bruce's? Must he most obviously be?

summary

Buy this disc. On second thoughts, don't. You see, the folks making money from your well earned cash are those who opposed creator Bruce Robinson's original vision. Here's the ultimate rub. Withnail & I – great movie. To buy it on DVD you must line the pockets of those who were originally opposed to its conception.

I leave you with that moral dilemma.

Enjoy!

Withnail & I
20th Anniversary Edition

UK 1987
107 mins
director
Bruce Robinson
starring
Richard E. Grant
Paul McGann
Richard Griffiths
Ralph Brown
Michael Elphick

DVD details
region 2 .
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby Surround 5.1
Dolby DTS 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Commentary by Bruce Robinson
Commentary by Paul McGann and Ralph Brown
Sleeve notes
Postcards from Penrith featurette
Interview with Bruce Robinson
Withnail and Us documentary
Withnail & I drinking game
Withnail & I swearathon
Trailer
Ralph Steadman photos
distributor
Anchor Bay
release date
Out now
review posted
11 November 2006