Last week it was the 30th anniversary since legendary cult classic Withnail and I hit the cinemas in the UK – that’s April 1987 for those of you with dismal mathematical abilities (like us). We first saw it in 2001 and have to say, along with Monty Python’s Life of Brain, it’s the funniest British film, like, ever.
Its status has only grown over the years, so there’s a small chance you may have heard about it by now. Starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths (who passed away in 2013), there isn’t much of a plot: the former two are unemployed actors in 1960s London, barely avoiding poverty and scraping by on an existence of alcohol and cigarettes. Utterly fed up with this, they scrounge a weekend in the Lake District from Uncle Monty (Griffiths)… and that’s when it all goes a bit wrong.
Withnail and I at 30
Ironically, in the film, the scabrous Withnail is a month away from hitting 30. Apt, eh? Well Richard E. Grant almost dominates proceedings as the flamboyant actor in waiting, who has been driven to the brink of desperation in his unemployment and his behaviour is now erratic – downing lighter fluid, outraging most people he meets, and generally bemoaning his lot.
I is Withnail’s, seemingly, best and only friend (referred to as Marwood in the screenplay). Although he is more level-headed, this is spoiled somewhat by his bouts of severe, delusional anxiety. Ultimately, it’s Withnail’s uncle, the boisterous, ridiculously camp Monty (performed so brilliantly by Griffiths), who the duo turn to for a weekend in Penrith.
This decision is fueled by incidents such as the one below. I, having scrubbed Withnail’s vomit off his shoes from a previous scene using essence of petunia, inadvertently infuriates a very large, angry, half drunk man in the local pub, triggering off the duo’s sense of unease and the need to escape.
It’s one of those dumb decisions young people make – going off on holiday with little resources to make anything of the trip. There’s really no point in going on holiday if you’re only able to sit around at your destination doing nothing, but Withnail and I, upon reaching Penrith, find their idyllic weekend in the country is only going to be a disaster. This it promptly is, which is where the film’s dark humour kicks in.
We have to say, whilst the film is highly amusing thanks to the incongruous humour (two Londoners chasing down a farmer with a gammy leg in the heaving rain of Northern England, before later outraging the farmer’s randy bull etc.), there’s also an overriding sense of sadness which is often overlooked by fans, particularly students eager to enjoy their youthful hedonism.
The real triumph of the film, though, is with Bruce Robinson’s writing, which is unbelievably inspired, relentlessly quotable, and seems to so perfectly capture the nature of his era. Robinson, a failed actor from the ’60s, had intended it all to be a semi-autobiographical book, but eventually decided it would work best as a film. Indeed it did – it’s a cult classic, one of the best films ever, and we can highly recommend you all watch it.
A Dash of Poignancy
Withnail and I truly has reached legendary status. 10 years back, on the 20th anniversary, Mr. Wapojif was living in London, rather aptly, and the special occasion for the film was marked by a steel casebook DVD release, badges, and a radio debate with the film’s stars and director.
10 years on, the popularity of the film hasn’t abated. Students have, unsurprisingly, latched onto it as some sort of rights of passage. At one stage of many a young person’s life, your existence is mirrored in Withnail and I. You’re broke, you feel as if your talent is squandered, the world seems out to get you, and the only real option available for entertainment remains in local pubs. To this extent, there’s a popular drinking game which goes with Withnail and I, but these antics shouldn’t detract from what is a poignant tale.
Withnail’s antics, in particular, are rock and roll, but it’s all born out of his frustration with his situation. As you can see in the clip above, he proves his acting chops in fine style, but he seems to be doomed to failure. It’s a state of affairs particularly reflected in the modern era, where simply bagging a job stacking shelves, or clearing muck out of a toilet, is astonishingly difficult and requires endless bouts of firing out hundreds of CVs, for jobs at minimum wage, with the joyous realisation the retirement age is now 70+. Still… at least we can take selfies!
Anyway, the last time we watched it was in 2014 when, at Manchester’s legendary Cornerhouse Cinema (which was about to shut down), there was a special screening. We’ll be watching it again soon. Time to wrap this up, but if you’d like to learn more about the film then this BBC article, with input from Richard E. Grant, will help you along: Withnail and I: Cult classic hits 30.