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Withnail & I Comes Of Age This Year - If Only The Fans Would Too
Luke Turner , July 15th, 2008 11:10

Withnail & I celebrates its 21st year this summer. Yet, argues Luke Turner, its fans ought to come of age too, and realise that there's more to the film than a drinking game.

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Withnail & I

It was the 1990s that began to ruin Withnail & I. Specifically, the fault lies with that cheekily prattish figurehead of the gormless and garish braggadocio of that decade’s lad culture, Chris Evans. I’d long loved the film as much for its sensitive depiction of doomed male friendship (in the vein of Vladimir and Estragon or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that I was reading at school at the time) as its aesthetic, its commentary on the failed ‘revolution’ of 1960s culture, and its brilliant dialogue. It therefore felt like an affront when grinning pillock Evans bought Withnail’s coat from the film for £8,000, and promptly destroyed it in a quad biking accident. This symbolic desecration of a relic was just the start of a long, slow appropriation of one of British cinema’s finest achievements by a bunch of dribbling goons who see Withnail & I as providing the opportunity for some kind of cinematic karaoke piss-up.

The true horror was revealed when I saw a DVD special feature (produced, incidentally, in conjunction with Anchor Bay films who, unlike anyone involved in the creation of Withnail & I, have enjoyed it as a cash cow), that included a 15 minute special on the Withnail & I drinking game. Presented (oh, the hilarity) by a (rightly) "resting actor", the 'special' opens with a warning that director Bruce Robinson's friend Vivian (on whom Withnail was based) met an early grave, and that Robinson himself was a heavy drinker. That bit of Health and Safety out of the way, the jowly Window Twanky then remarks that Robinson's next film is to be The Rum Diaries, neglecting to realise that it's an adaptation of the Hunter S Thompson novel.

It's more Matteus Rose than '53 Margaux, all this making a hoot out of alcoholism. One fan website suggests, "Clearly this drinking game is a pretty stupid one to attempt by anybody! Why not try a different version - and post your ideas here in the guestbook." LOL! You can now buy a cheap looking t-shirt bearing a monochrome print of Richard E Grant and Paul McGann that features the legend ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity’. "They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man" as a great man once said.

Withnail... might look beautiful and noble, but he also cuts a tragic, pathetic figure.

The drinking in Withnail & I is not carried out by two undergrad lads on a subsidised three year binge before they settle down to a life of admin. Withnail, in his pants and coat and a slick of embrocation, holding a can of lighter fluid in his rubber gloved hands might look beautiful and noble, but he also cuts a tragic, pathetic figure. He is, after all, 30 in a month with a sole flapping off the bottom of his shoe, unable even to land a part in a cigar commercial. When Withnail rants about Jake the poacher after the run-in in the Lakeland pub, his desperate cry of "I'm going to be a star" echoes back unheard from the dark, surrounding hills.

Yes, Withnail and Marwood approach their boozing it with a devil-may-care insouciance, but that is more to do with a sadly deceased English bravado, the kind of mentality that had a member of the famous expedition to sink German warships on Lake Tanganyika in World War One packing enough Worcester Sauce to sate his addiction to shots of the stuff.

Withnail & I depicts a Britain astride of the final death throes of the Edwardian era (represented by Uncle Monty and Raymond, the addled landlord of the Crow and Crag pub), post-war austerity and a modern age of scandal and tittle tattle delivered by the mass media: "I HAD To Become A Woman" screams the headline in The People being read in the opening cafeteria scene, “Nude Au Pair's Secret Life” roars the News of the World.

The world Withnail and Marwood inhabit is a hostile one, "shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour"

It was a time where men and women still found each other somewhat alien, where homophobia was rife (being a caught as a "toilet trader" in an "arrest on the Tottenham Court Road" would have serious consequences) and gay men, like Uncle Monty, could never find happiness and fulfilment. The world Withnail and Marwood inhabit is a hostile one, "shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour", where policemen are chain smoking, screeching Nazis, where the countryside is a foreign land hardly changed in centuries, where pubs are frequented by psychotic mounds of Irishmen and misanthropic poachers. And, in a more salient point, it exposes, brutally, how the hedonistic sixties dream was but a sham - the soundtrack fixes the film firmly in that decade, but Robinson holds it up for scrutiny, and finds it sadly lacking.

In many ways, Withnail & I has been a victim of its own success. Bruce Robinson's superlative script is why the drinking sounds so romantic - but the drinking game is a terrible abuse of the dialogue that makes Withnail & I a film of indescribable verve and panache. Unfortunately, this means that, like every other cult flick, it's entirely quotable. I may, I confess, have occasionally been guilty of this, shouting "scrubbers" from the window of the old Morris Minor, but you only have to see the final, poignant recital of the Hamlet soliloquy to recant and repent. No-one quotes that passage because it's the uncomfortable truth of the fragility of dreams and the human condition. For unlike Withnail (in front of an audience of wolves in the driving rain, alone save for a bottle confiscated from Monty's cellar), neither jobbing actors on DVD extras, nor the disgraceful student fans, shall never play the Dane with such brilliant, tragic conviction.

Withnail: "I have of late, wherefore I know not..."

Tim Cowlishaw
Jul 15, 2008 4:36pm

Bravo Luke, I couldn't agree more. Great article!

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Ben Myers
Jul 16, 2008 7:54am

What a great piece about a film that I agree is misunderstood/misrepresented.

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Joel McIver
Jul 16, 2008 9:38am

Very true Luke, the drinking game to which you refer was pathetic. The new DVD (with Robinson's invaluable commentary) also includes a featurette with two student types revisiting the locations of the shoot -- why couldn't they have got Grant and McGann to do it instead?

Withnail's final speech is always devastating. I was shocked when I found out a couple of years ago that Robinson had originally written an alternate ending -- in which Withnail pours red wine into Monty's shotgun, places his mouth over the barrel, drinks and shoots himself. This would have been the cruellest film ending in modern cinema.

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Unknown
Jul 17, 2008 11:11pm

hurm. Having a go at actual student fans for behaving like students is a little redundant. I look forward to future articles explaining how songs used to have melodies, not clang clang clang like nowadays. Still, I do agree with the central thrust of your argument. DVD special features are often shite.

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Unknown
Jul 24, 2008 7:29pm

good stuff luke, though i have on occasion been tempted to essay the drinking game. whatever happened to bruce robinson? i watched 'how to get ahead in advertising', it was awful. sigh...

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Unknown
Jul 25, 2008 12:29pm

Muchos in agreement with you. I thoroughly enjoy Withnail but I'll rarely admit to liking it because it just makes people think you love a good drinking game, rather than a good film.

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Gavin Howells
Sep 18, 2008 12:07pm

The line "even a stopped clock is right twice a day" is still a brilliant bit of insight. And couple that with "my heart is beating like a fucked clock" and you've covered your bases when it comes to needing a quote about time...

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Arash Ebrahimifar
Dec 14, 2008 1:06am

Hi there, thanks for your enlightening article, which i enjoyed very much.
I'm a 23 year old boy, from Iran, have been a great fan of this movie ever since i was 18.
I'm a boozer, but i cannot understand this " Withnail and i DRINKING GAME! " thing. and im against it. of course drinking habits are different in my country, yet reducing a piece of art to junk is intolerable.
with no doubt, this movie has many other features, technically. The narrative, characters and their cultural backgrounds, and some other items, can be discussed in this movie. Im writting a paper on the above topics, and Id be glad to know whether ure interested in making dialogues on them or not. thx again.

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Luke Turner
Dec 15, 2008 12:01pm

Hullo Arash,

thank you for your comment, do email me at luke at the quietus dot com,

thanks

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James Broad
Feb 2, 2012 6:50pm

Get over it

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Bruce Lord
Jul 12, 2012 7:36pm

Fantastic. I had no idea the movie had become a "Hangover"-type "let's get right shittered" party movie in the UK. I'm not going to lie and say that I've never loudly yelled "I assure you, officer, I've only had a few ales", but there's so much to take from the movie it'd be a shame to reduce it to that. Like you point out, everyone's settling in for a terrible, culture-wide, morning after the fin de siecle hangover (the newspaper headlines and horrifying sandwich pointing out that there's more going on than just the ache in Marwood's head).

Apparently Grant was so worried about tackling the soliloquy that he begged Robinson to let him play it as though Withnail was actually a shit actor, but Robinson understood that the tragedy of the film would be stronger if played more lightly: the world is shit, Withnail's a wreck, but he is a good actor and despite all his attempts to block it out, he does understand the world. In another time, in another place, he could have cracked the boards as well as anyone. At least the animals got a good show.

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Nick
Jul 13, 2012 10:11am

"The drinking in Withnail & I is not carried out by two undergrad lads on a subsidised three year binge before they settle down to a life of admin."

I've never wept at my desk before. Thanks Luke.

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Heide
Jul 27, 2012 12:03am

I totally agree with your assessment, especially the bit about Hamlet's soliloquy. It actually makes me cry.

I'm a relatively new Withnail addict, having only seen it for the first (second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) time this year. All thanks to Anthony Bourdain, who picked it as one of his all-time faves when he guest hosted on Turner Classic Movies with Robert Osborne.

Were you serious about someone buying Withnail's coat and destroying it? That's just criminal. I'm in the process now of trying to find one like it, as I don't at the moment have over a thousand dollars to have the movie clothing designer do me a custom one...

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Patrick Rea
Dec 25, 2013 12:27pm

This movies devastating beauty makes me want to weep for cinema could be and isn't.

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