Withnail & I Comes Of Age This Year – If Only The Fans Would Too

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.

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 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…"

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