described hell as perhaps nothing more than a
room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs."
Robinson's sublime stage directions in
the original screenplay for Withnail &
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
type with your nose.
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.
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.
sound like much, does it? A knowing grin...
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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…"
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.
a plethora. For a start there are three discs.
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.
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.
TWO: The Movie & 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
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
THREE: The Extras
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
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.
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...
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...
(1:25): To what must be Mozart, our anti-heroes strut their
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
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.
leave you with that moral dilemma.