Withnail’s 30th Birthday
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.
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.