Withnail & I has unfortunately, turned into a somewhat obnoxious cult. I said cult. It’s unfortunate when a sublime piece of work gets piggybacked by a cluster of self-conscious and squirmy students who delight in the brassy crassness of drinking a lot and reciting lines to each other in the university bar. Perfect lines delivered by an actor can only wilt and fade beyond parody when repeated by nineteen year olds after six pints. Many films are released into their biggest audience viewing at the cinema, and then viewings descend, as if on a graph year-by-year, decade-by-decade. Withnail & I, in perversion, has done the opposite. It opened with a whimper, and seemed to be banging away on DVD ever since, collecting up new fans with every passing year, and shows no signs of letting up.
The film itself doesn’t open with a whimper, of course. It can’t really, with Richard E Grant’s Withnail claiming in the first five minutes “Right you fucker. I’m going to do the washing up.” Bruce Robinson’s script of two, down-at-heel actors, high on desperate drinking, flailing in a decrepid flat and low on their luck, was written when Robinson himself was a desperately poor out-of-work actor, sharing a Camden house with fellow drunken out-of-work actors, in what he has called the most miserable time of his life. At this stage, Robinson seems something of a hybrid, having trained as an actor but was filling his time writing to establish his authorial voice and develop characterisation. The process of writing Withnail was what led him to the undeniable truth that he wasn’t meant to be an actor at all, and that writing was his true vocation. Having originally started life as a novel, Withnail emerged into a screenplay and eventually received the production money to enable the film to be made after George Harrison read the script on a transatlantic flight. The production was an anxiety-making one – the film resisted an attempted shut-down by production on its third day, Robinson had never directed a film before, and when the film needed an extra £30,000 to continue being made Robinson ploughed his own money back into it, thereby reducing his fee. True to say, production companies are a bunch of neolithic arsewipes who can’t be trusted to buy toilet paper – but the film, by hell or high water, got made. And then it sort of grew legs.
By the mid-1990s, about the time when the cringeing quoting game begin in pubs up and down England, no student video collection was complete without it. Students are nobly devoted to the films that, again and again, resurface in the definitive student film canon. When a film – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs - enters the passionate student mindset, the posters can stay up on student walls for another 15 years after initial impact. Images of Richard E Grant and Paul McGann festered on bedsit walls next to Betty Blue and Trainspotting as the appropriate student picture du jour by the time I became a drama student in the mid-1990s. Withnail & I had all the elements that appealed to the young, the drunk, the gothic, the artistic, the thespian flamboyance, the surreal humour. I lost amount of the number I times I heard “Of course he’s the fucking farmer!” and “Don’t threaten me with a dead fish” in my student years. At drama school, of course, the Withnailian element was heightened to hysterical levels. Most of the boys thought they were Withnail, or at least desperately wanted to be him. With the shortsightedness of the vain young, they didn’t see him as a man with a disease, but a loveable old soak, a great debunker of myths and an inspiration for social posing. The irony of this was that Withnail became a life guide rather than a film. Some of them literally fulfilled Withnail’s indignant : “I’m a trained actor reduced to the states of a bum!… What do you want to go to the countryside for? I’m in a park and I’m practically dead.” I shouldn’t think they’d find Withnail that funny any more. The view is too close and it stings; the tragedy of unrealised professional hopes is only funny from a vantage point far removed from the world of drunken, unemployed actors.
Nothing ever takes away from the strident unemployability of Withnail; his callousness, his attempts to make a virtue of snobbery, his mercenary pimping of his best friend – who he suggests to his rabidly homosexual Uncle Monty may well be a “toilet trader” -, his tenacious and mean self-preservation. His only actorly audience is a couple of animals in London Zoo, who end up being the unwilling onlookers to his speech from Hamlet in the last scene. We’re left with the impression that this is the only kind of performance he will ever give. The character who Robinson based Withnail on never worked after he left drama school.
What it does capture, away from the urbane wit of Withnail and the bitterly funny anxiety of “I”, who has an undeservedly torrid time at the hands of his housemate, is the loneliness of the long distance actor. Sitting about is what many actors have to do. The world shapes itself by whether or not the audition will take place, if they’ll like you when it does, whether you have the right hair, the right eyes, whether the phone will ring and meanwhile, the life of the yong actor is marked by a disinclination to do anything else. Because, as the Gods are against you (and they surely are if you’re “resting”) the minute you book a holiday or take a day job is the minute your theatrical destiny will realise itself and the National Theatre will come calling. The lack of career structure, the absence of any ladder that could be climbed is, to most people, unimaginable. This film captures the louche nothingness of sitting about on drugs that young actors seem particularly good at doing. Whilst I am not negating the efforts of other young professionals at getting deliriously out of their heads, actors are student-y long after the rest of the world has stopped behaving like students. At 30 years old, they can still be 19, sitting around in T-shirts in Hornsey building bongs and – whilst their contemporaries are signing off mortgages, wearing trouser suits and turning up to meetings – the out-of-work actor has yet to work out what the drycleaners is for. In Withnail & I our two leads are less than a year out of drama school, but Robinson knows it is very possible that Withnail will stay in the same festering, poverty-stricken, wine-addled state for the next decade. Withnail is a actor of the can’t work, won’t work, variety, who won’t understudy anybody, thank you very much, because his self-worth is so exorbitantly high that he won’t do anything. “I” on the other hand, the character assumed to be based on Robinson himself, ends the story by leaving to take a job in theatre in the provinces. It humourously imparts the lifestyle of the kind of out of work actor who waits for the pubs to open so he can keep warm, whilst never trivialising it’s tragedy.
The script is irresistibly good – who can resist Uncle Monty’s musings over the delights of a “firm young carrot” and his memories of a former male love, who he now imagines to be “wintering in Guildford, Vim under the sink and both bars on….”? The film serves to debunk the myth that a film needs a good plot because Withnail basically doesn’t have one. Actors in Camden Town prepare to go to the country. They go. They come back. Nothing happens, but yet it does. The film starts with two people fragmenting, one into vicious alcoholism and the other into marajauna-induced panic attacks that leave him grappling with the undiagnosed “matter” clogging up their communal sink. Only in the last ten minutes does one of them possibly find a way out of the “matter” and make a bid for freedom. The other will only fester back into it. This is the tragic beauty of the film. It is a masterpiece of dialogue - but why do people feel the need to belittle it by sitting and repeating the lines in that unfunny way? And don’t get me started on the nuttiness of the Withnail drinking game, which has been rated by medical experts as “likely to be fatal”.
Withnail is a superlative piece of work. Just as there are more and more Elvis fans with every passing year since the King’s death, Withnail is breeding with fecundity. In about 20 years the whole planet will be composed of people who love Withnail & I and I don’t doubt the world will be better for it. Robinson has just written and directed his first film in 18 years (The Rum Diary) at Johnny Depp’s insistence, which will be released later this year. I hope to be delighted by it. But please, people, if you do like it, resist yourself from repeating the script.
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