Exactly thirty years ago this week, Withnail and I received a low-key release. Three decades on and Bruce Robinson’s black comedy is rightfully regarded as a timeless masterpiece and regularly hailed as one of the funniest and most quotable films of all time.
Withnail launched the acting career of Richard E. Grant. Interestingly, other actors in consideration for this role were Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. The unhinged hilarity of Grant’s performance is now firmly embedded into celluloid history, and it’s absolutely impossible to envisage anyone else pulling it off.
Withnail and I is also a fascinating portrayal of a bygone England. Partially set in Camden town in 1969, Withnail’s Camden was not any swinging epicentre of Britpop, but an impoverished and deprived area in north London years before its world-famous market opened.
A drunken Irish man calls Withnail a ponce in the Mother Black Cap pub, which was filmed in the The Frog and Firkin in Notting Hill. This landmark boozer got knocked down years ago. In 2017, pubs, music venues and nightclubs all across London and the United Kindgdom are being demolished to make way for luxury apartments.
“We’re not from London,” Withnail pleads to a suspicious farmer in Cumbria. In the New Statesman last month, Ben Myers identifies this as a very pertinent scene.
“After last year’s EU referendum, metropolitan liberals laid the blame for the result at the feet of thick voters in the provinces and rural communities,” Myers writes. “This was born of a historic misunderstanding that the film explores, in which country folk distrust the elitist power base in the capital, while urbanites patronise their country cousins.”
Myers maintains: “Perhaps it is this sense of a nation in spiritual crisis that makes Withnail and I resonate today.” Indeed, Uncle Monty, terrifically played by the late Richard Griffiths, mourns that England has become a country “shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour.”
On a more hedonistic note, Withnail and I also spawned several drinking games. If you fancy getting completely plastered during an anniversary week viewing, the most infamous game involves keeping up drink for drink with every single beverage Withnail consumes. This comes to a total of nine and a half glasses of red wine, half a pint of cider, one shot of lighter fluid, two and a half shots of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen measures of Scotch, plus half a pint of ale.
While alcohol and drugs are undeniably a big part of Withnail and I, it would be a pity if Robinson’s classic film was only remembered for student drinking games and drama society luvvies quoting lines ad nauseam.
Withnail has aged miraculously well since 1987. Indeed, Grant’s co-star Paul McGann (‘I’) still meets many people who believe it was shot in the 1960s.
“It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record,” McCann said. Repeat viewings confirm just how sparkling a script Robinson wrote, which was then acted and brought to life by a sensational cast.
Happy birthday, Withnail and I. Who knows what further resonance you’ll have in 2047?