It might be set 50 years ago this month, but RICHARD LUCK says Withnail and I has a lot to say about Brexit-bound Britain
“Ah, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecast and breakfasts that ‘set in’. Shat on by the Tories. Shovelled up by Labour. And here we are. We three. Probably the last island of beauty in the world.”
So says Montague H Withnail with regard to the United Kingdom at the arse end of the 1960s. It’s late September 1969 – the final year of “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” – and Monty’s nephew and his flatmate Marwood (never referred to as such in the film) have convinced their fellow ‘thespian’ to loan them his cottage in the Lake District. Monty gatecrashes the party – and all but crushes Marwood – and so the trio set out to enjoy a delightful weekend in the country.
That all this takes place against a backdrop of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and anti-social licensing hours very much ties Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I to a specific time in our nation’s history – exactly 50 years ago.
At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. As the writer-director convincingly argues in Alistair Owen’s unputdownable Smoking In Bed: Conversations With Bruce Robinson, “without Danny [Ralph Brown’s drug-wielding hippy], the film would have no time frame at all. Danny is very much anchored in the age and [Withnail and Marwood] are not. Uncle Monty has nothing to do with the sixties, has he? The whole thing, there’s a timeless quality to it.”
Indeed there is, and it’s this that means that, when a new generation discovers Withnail and I, they’re free to compare it to their own time and place. Part of the reason the film is so popular with students is that they can relate the picture’s portrayal of squalor, poverty and permanent drunkenness to their own circumstances.
But what of now? “Shat on by the Tories. Shovelled up by Labour” – it would superficially appear that Withnail and I has something to say about the era of Brexit and political collapse. Set in the ’60s, made in the ’80s (1987, to be precise), elevated to cult status in the 1990s, Bruce Robinson’s film has never felt more poignant, nor more melancholic. “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” recites Withnail. Haven’t we all?
Dostoyevsky described hell as perhaps nothing more than a room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs.
It’s a measure of Robinson’s brilliance that Withnail and I’s stage directions are as funny as the film itself. Withnail and Marwood’s flat is indeed more purgatory than apartment, a place where chip paper blocks up the U-bend and there’s something alive in the crockery-strewn sink.
The outside world is not much better mind you, what with its derelict buildings bound only for the wrecking ball. And then there’s Withnail himself, proof of what happens when your sole dietary demand is booze.
Based on Robinson’s friend and fellow actor Vivian MacKerrell and played by Richard E. Grant, Withnail is a coward, a thief, a user, braggart, and bone idle. He is also the hero of our film. ‘I’ (aka Marwood), meanwhile, is Robinson himself as essayed by Paul McGann, the naive, vulnerable young man who nevertheless manages to free himself from the oomska in the film’s final act. We in 2019 might like to think we’re Marwood but we’re really Withnail. More’s the pity.
Withnail and Marwood have neither jobs – they’re both very well rested actors – nor friends. Their sole acquaintance, the aforementioned Danny, is a walking pharmacy and yet the dynamic duo don’t have enough money for drugs. They can’t afford girlfriends, either. So much for sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – hell, they don’t even listen to the music of the age.
With the world going to s**t, you can’t blame Withnail and Marwood for wanting to get away from it all. Accomplishing this feat means buttering up Withnail’s Uncle Monty. Richard Griffiths’ greatest screen creation, Monty is a glutton who will later seek to bugger Marwood. Nevertheless, he remains the film’s most likeable character. An age in which heroes have rarely been less distinct and craven acts have become the norm – there’s a parallel to be grasped but my arms aren’t quite long enough.
“Okay,” you sigh, “we get it. Their world’s in a helluva state and so is ours.” Only it isn’t, at least, not entirely, and nor is Withnail and Marwood’s. Upon arriving in the Lake District, we’re immediately reminded of what a beautiful country ours is. And when Monty joins the pair, what with his crates of ’53 Margaux, his bags of gourmet food and his abundant bonhomie, the film is briefly a celebration of hail-fellow-well-met Britishness. That it can’t last is a shame but it’d be wrong to think that Withnail and I wants to stick a fork in the country and say its done. The writer-director clearly loves Britain and is therefore that much angrier about what was becoming of it in the age of Margaret Thatcher.
The film’s affection for Britain is at times expressed quite subtly – check out the Charlie Chaplin poster in the boys’ flat and the copy of David Copperfield that Marwood presses into his suitcase. It even extends to some of the casting choices – publican Noel Johnson was radio’s Dick Barton: Special Agent long before he became landlord of The Crow And Crown. And then there’s the music. Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale (albeit sublimely performed by American jazz great King Curtis), Al Bowlly’s Hang Out The Stars In Indiana, The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps – it’s just enough to point up the brilliance of British song without overstating the fact. The use of two Hendrix numbers also feels significant, what with the guitarist having arrived in the UK a supporting artist only to return to the US a star.
If there is true beauty to be found in the world of Withnail and I, ugliness is never far from the surface. While I agree with Robinson that his film isn’t anti-gay, anti-black or anti-Irish, all three sentiments are expressed by characters at some point. And then there’s the rain, a constant companion during the pair’s jaunt to Cumbria and the perfect accompaniment to Withnail reciting Hamlet to a pack of wolves outside London Zoo.
They don’t have wolves at London Zoo these days. Were Richard E. Grant to perform the “What piece of work is a man!” monologue in Regent’s Park today, it would be to an audience of giant anteaters. There’s no denying that world in which Withnail and I is set is a different one to the one in which it was made and the one in which it can now be enjoyed. But damn it if its fin de decade concerns aren’t magnified by the current state of affairs. Little wonder that the movie now provides many internet memes reflecting on UK politics and Brexit.
It was Peter Cook who remarked that England was in danger of “sinking giggling into the sea”. After years of – admittedly often superb – satire, there’s no denying that the tide is coming in fast. But what of hope? “There’s none,” Bruce Robinson remarks when Alastair Owen asks him about what the future holds for Withnail. “There’s nowhere to go. He hasn’t got anyone to play off. He’s going to spend his life drinking himself to death.”
Stare into a glass or stare into the abyss – it’s not a pretty thought but it’s the one that faces Withnail and even the most optimistic optimist might concede that something similar confronts the United Kingdom. Bleak as that sounds, it’s worth remembering that Robinson actually showed the audience some mercy – in the original script, Withnail returns to the flat, pours the remaining Margaux into the barrels of Monty’s shotgun and then puts it in his mouth – for there are still small mercies to be savoured, such as watching Withnail and I.
“Withnail is rather like an old friend,” Paul Henderson remarked in Hotdog magazine. “You don’t see each other often enough but whenever you do, you’re delighted to spend time together.” Like the closest of friends, however, Withnail and I tells us the truth. And while we might like to deny it, right now, it really does feel like “this place in uninhabitable”.