Withnail’s 30th Birthday

Film

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Whenever a low-budget British film screened at our office, we virtually had to hold a lottery to find anyone who’d sit through it. Most of them were so astoundingly bad that we gave them to the junior staffers to handle. Anyone remember ‘Car Trouble’, in which  air traffic controller Ian Charleson is so annoyed with his wife that he starts  letting planes fall out of the sky? Or ‘How To Get Ahead in Advertising’, in which an ad executive grows another head?

But George Harrison’s company Handmade films was different. With the exception of ‘How To Get Ahead’ and a few other films like Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais’s painful ‘Water’ and Madonna’s ‘Shanghai Surprise’, most of their features turned out well and made a profit. And it was a nice company to work with. Even so, nobody ever thought ‘Withnail & I’ would be a success.

The script that landed on my desk seemed ordinary and had no female roles at all. Two scruffy out-of-work actors mooch about, spend a horrible holiday in the countryside and come back. It was period-set in the fag-end of the sixties, and was directed by a former actor, Bruce Robinson. Yet the film, grungy, dark, straight-faced, hilarious, turned into a huge cult hit that spawned its own drinking game and a thousand student quotes.

What could have been a depressing, unfunny, homophobic mess turned into gold, thanks to the quality of its cast. Everyone, from Danny the drug dealer to Richard Griffiths’ wonderful Uncle Monty is damaged and memorable – but crucially there’s a heartfelt sadness behind the humour.

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This reaches a peak in the Regent’s Park scene at the end where Withnail delivers a Hamlet soliloquy to a pack of wolves and we realise that the wrong one of the pair has landed the successful career, mainly because of his looks, and that Withnail, because of his honest but confrontational nature, will never achieve his aim despite his talent.

The script was based on an autobiographical novel and its end originally saw Withnail committing suicide by pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel of Monty’s gun and then pulling the trigger as he drank from it. Robinson changed the ending because it was too dark.

Robinson wrote a good thriller, ‘Jennifer 8’, a brilliant biography, ‘The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman’, and then went mad with his Ripperology volume ‘They All Love Jack’. But ‘Withnail & I’ remains his lasting testament. Perhaps if Handmade had stayed in business he would have continued in films. It’s a great shame he didn’t make more before he became so sclerotic.

NB The original Gerald Scarfe poster for the film has an anomaly on it; there’s a Sony Walkman on the floor by Withnail’s bed – they hadn’t been invented when the film was set.

 

9 comments on “Withnail’s 30th Birthday”

  1. Ness says:

    There’s nothing alive in my kitchen but this is my joint favourite comedy of all time.

  2. Roger says:

    The trouble with ‘How To Get Ahead in Advertising’ is that it could have been a great film. A giant pimple takes over a man’s life and has a much more successful career. The trouble is that it just isn’t savage or imaginative enough. As with Withnail, Robinson lost his nerve. He also needed a deranged director and/or cameraman.

  3. David says:

    Don’t forget that along the way Mr Robinson also wrote the screenplay for The Killing Fields.

  4. Steveb says:

    I was trying to remember the name of another Handmade flop: after a lot ofgoogling, Venom.
    I remember going with gf, actually pulling her, to see a film with Helen Mirren, called Hussy. I was convinced it would be good. Not terrible but disappointing. Typical for Brit films of the time. I would say Water is the same.
    Anyway: Very cool to have been involved with Withnail!!!
    .

  5. Steveb says:

    Roger, +1 on ‘how to…’

  6. Helen Martin says:

    My library has Withnail on CD and the filmscript. Hoo boy, I could watch and follow the script at the same time – or is that like people who take playscripts to performances and rustle around to find the end of the omitted passage?

  7. Chris Webb says:

    I read Film Freak a while ago and was impressed by your past life running a film promotion company. Did you “do” Mona Lisa?

    In the mid 80s I was working in Bishopsgate for the accounts department of an insurance company, which is even cooler than working in film promotion. (Oi, stop laughing.) A couple of disused shops up the road from our office were refitted, one as a sex shop and the other as Wonder Burger, the W being an inverted McDonalds style M. We were baffled. Would the po-faced suits who ran the City of London allow a sex shop in the square mile? And would the po-faced suits who ran a big American corporation allow somebody to blatantly rip off their trademark? Anyway, it turned out that they were just temporary sets for Mona Lisa. We saw a bit of filming and somebody in the office claimed to have seen Mr Micklewhite himself. Strangely I had never seen the film until a few months ago when it was on late one night on London Live, and I thought it was brilliant, although the best HandMade film will always be the one the company was formed to make.

  8. Jan says:

    Chris I worked at Holborn for a time and had so many locations for that film pointed out to me by colleagues. Places up at the Cross, blocks of flats in Bloomsbury even inside sets entrances the lift with the pull across cage door, halls. I’ve spent a fair amount of time up the Cross which I appreciate has been massively altered in the decade I have been away but in its way in its time. it was it was a place all its own.

  9. admin says:

    I must do a piece on London film locations – it’s been a while…

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