THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE CLASSIC FILM REVIEW
1st May, 2020
It has been reported that our prime minister, Boris Johnson, beguiled his convalescence from Covid-19 with puzzles and re-running favourite films, including Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s cult movie about two unemployed actors spending a weekend in the country. This revelation caused dismay on Twitter. Many Twitter SJWs said the film they loved had been spoiled for them by its association with Mr Johnson, in their estimation a tory/fascist/racist/posh boy/meanie (who incidentally just happens to be digging this country a bigger socialistic money pit than even the Momentum Maoists of Islington could dream of). Perhaps even its director, Mr Robinson, was dismayed: he is on record as linking the word Tories with a certain noun beginning with c and ending t.
Nevertheless, Mr Johnson demonstrated a bit of taste, something rare in contemporary politicians, many of whom appear to have little inner cultural life.
I first heard about Withnail and I the week it was released in April 1987. In those far off days I would buy City Limits, a long-defunct radical London listings magazine, each week. In it I spotted a review of the film, which received a very limited release. I made up my mind to see it and years and years later I still was telling people that I saw it the week it came out until I looked into the matter carefully to find I did see it, but at a rep cinema a couple of years later – when it was still something of a connoisseur’s item. This shows how memory can trick you. However, it premiered for me on video not long after it came out, and I became an evangelical fan, forcing it on all my friends and hiring it out of the video shop several times before securing a ‘pirate’ copy as they were known. Before long I and many in my circle knew all the words to it like an album.
We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here and we want them now.
It starts with a nauseous speed comedown and finishes in grey rain. What is the appeal of this film? It has no women – apart from, strictly speaking – Miss Blennerhassett during the infamous fracas in the Penrith Tea Rooms, and its story, such as it is, is driven by a threadbare farce plot involving an old homosexual’s desire to sleep with a younger man.
No matter. The appeal for teenagers back then was clearly the mix of anarchy, drugs and booze: we had never seen anyone drink lighter fuel and smother themselves with embrocation ointment as a method of keeping warm. We had not encountered people like Danny, the mind-fried hippy trafficker in ‘rare herbs and proscribed chemicals’, but we would do in due course. We didn’t know that Withnail’s taste for boozing, which we shared, could have more consequences than a hangover making you feel like ‘a pig shat in my head’. We would also come to know the sharper end of narcotics; what the good and bad side of Camberwell Carrot, the monster joint smoked by Withnail (Richard E Grant), Marwood (the ‘I’ of the title, played by Paul McGann), Danny (Ralph Brown) and ‘Presuming Ed’ (Eddie Tagoe) at the end of the film, could really do.
Looking back from the other side of three decades you instantly see that what has made Withnail last is the writing. Of course the acting and direction is great but if you haven’t got the script you’re heading for history’s dustbin. It is one of those works, as Orwell said of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, slowly matured in obscurity, by people who know what they have got to do.
It was first a novel written in 1969 by the young Robinson, himself an unemployed actor. That first draft ended with the title character’s suicide by a shotgun, its barrels filled with Margaux. This hara-kiri was later dispensed with, tragedy being replaced by a more appropriately melancholy finish. Then it became a film script, one in which Robinson admitted to producers he broke screenplay rules with colloquial English and other no-nos. With half the production funding found by the mid-Eighties, the green light for shooting came when the ex Beatle George Harrison’s Handmade Films agreed to stump up the other half. Good old George. His While My Guitar Gently Weeps appears on the soundtrack.
It was still a close run thing. A Handmade producer almost closed down the shoot because he didn’t think it was funny and was badly lit. Funnily enough, its murky quality is one of its most endearing features. Far too many films purporting to show the past actually present what amounts to a shiny, overlit stage set, with costumes and props far too polished. Withnail’s camerawork, by Peter Hannan, brilliantly evokes the dowdy squalor of bohemian poverty as the drug-addled unemployed actors Withnail and Marwood manoeuvre round each other in their tatty Camden Town flat and later in a wind blasted cottage in Cumbria.
Forty years after Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (25 in script time) these two almost seem like Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte for the fag end of the Sixties. Withnail, clearly a minor public schoolboy with a massive drink problem, is of course Flyte minus the teddy and the slightly more sensible Ryder is Marwood, grammar school in this case and with one foot still in reality. However, there is no Christian God here to be seduced by and the only intrusion of homosexual sentiment comes through Withnail’s scandalous lies to his Uncle Monty and Monty’s subsequent pursuance of Marwood.
As with all cult films you feel you have discovered, there is a moment when ‘everyone is doing’ the lines and you move on without even realising it. I hadn’t seen Withnail for at least 20 years when I came across it on late night cable TV a few years ago. Obviously my life was very different from the days when I had discovered it. I had recently left a stressful job on one of Britain’s more notorious tabloids and was in that phase of your forties where you find yourself wondering what it’s all about and where it all went. Revisiting Withnail that night proved to be emotional. It stirred up embers. This time round the soundtrack, by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth, which I had previously regarded as almost perfunctory (largely because it was up against tracks by Jimi Hendrix and King Curtis), really got to me and I realised what a good counterpoint to the songs it was. Everything in the film that worked the first time round still worked, but a new layer, or filter, enriched it. For now I was older than the characters, had been through various mills of experience and perspectives. Thus one bit that I didn’t much like 30 years ago, the denouement, now packed an emotional charge.
Marwood has found a job playing a part in a production of RC Sheriff’s Journey’s End. He’s had his haircut and is moving out of the flat. Withnail, nervy, insists on walking with him through Regent’s Park while sharing a bottle of wine (‘Fifty-three Margaux, best of the century’). Eventually Marwood tells him to turn back because of heavy rain. Left alone, he recites Hamlet to the wolves in the zoo.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Then after this wine and rain-sodden valediction, he turns from the camera and slowly walks away through the rain clutching his bottle.
My eyelids pricked and couple of stray tears ran.
Do I risk a trip to the pillory of Pseuds’ Corner for feeling that there is code of Dionysus and Apollo flickering in that ending. Probably. Still, I felt that in my time I had been both Marwood and Withnail. And the latter’s lonely walk back to the flat is one many of us have taken in our time. Still, you live to fight another day. I hope Withnail did.
A few days later I found myself near Regent’s Park and easily found the location of his performance. I gave it a sort of mental salute and reflected that they, ‘they’ meaning the increasingly infantile, tasteless and politically skewed people involved in film production, could not make a film like Withnail now, nor anything near it. It is the product of a good literary mind, something the screenwriting trade is badly in need of in today’s world of overproduced and flabbily written films.
What of Robinson? All things considered we should have expected more from him. He did follow up with the eccentric and clever How to Get Ahead in Advertising, an attack on Thatcher’s Britain, but it’s a didactic curiosity you don’t really want to see again. Thereafter he picked up Hollywood money in various jobs but to no great effect. He appears to have spent years writing a massive book about Jack the Ripper. Given the available works on the subject, that must rank as an almost lunatic waste of time. But talent goes its own way and, who knows, the book may be good.
In 2011 Robinson told the Guardian: ‘I’ve always been that contemptible thing, a luxury communist. Sure, you can drive around in a fucking Ferrari in my politics, provided somebody else isn’t hungry. But all of this nonsense, Tory, Labour, Liberal, leaves me cold, what’s the difference. It’s a pejorative phrase, champagne socialist, and probably rightly – I can’t drink champagne and I certainly hate fucking socialism – but I also hate the idea of me being OK and some other fucker being unable to feed their family.’
If I was Robinson I would make a sequel to Withnail and I. Heresy? Of course. Will it be as good? Of course not. But it would still be very funny I’d wager and would make a ton of money, which Robinson could then give away to charitable causes so ‘other fuckers’ in need could eat. Just a thought.
In his now sadly out of print Film Guide, the waspishly concise Leslie Halliwell, my favourite film critic, sums up Withnail and I in a grudging sentence: Deliberately seedy comedy that contrives to be hard to forget.
Too right. But I’d go further and call it a classic; a souvenir of two lost Englands, the Eighties and the Sixties – even if a Tory prime minister enjoys it.
Bovo Zeugma is writing a book about British Cinema