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Withnail and I: 30 years on, it's the perfect film for Brexit Britain

It was set in the Sixties, made in the Eighties and claimed by the Nineties, but 30 years on Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I is a film for our times.

When it opened to little fanfare 30 years ago next month, Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut, Withnail and I, drew as much attention as it did commercial revenue: very little. It was a difficult time for home-grown cinema. The decade might have begun with Colin Welland, who wrote the screenplay for Chariots of Fire, claiming, “The British are coming!” when he picked up his Oscar but, up against television and the VHS market, box-office sales nearly halved between 1980 and 1984, and production companies were downsizing. Margaret Thatcher’s government was unsympathetic to the industry.

The odds of a film with an unknown cast and director, minimal plot and a budget of little more than £1m succeeding were thin. Yet in the years following its release Withnail and I gained a dedicated following through word of mouth, video rentals and late-night screenings, becoming the definition of a cult classic.

Partly set in Camden Town in September 1969 as the dream of a decade dies with the onset of autumn, it follows the Beckettian dilemmas of two unemployed actors (Richard E Grant’s Withnail and Paul McGann’s “I”, named in the screenplay as Marwood). As the pair approach 30, they try to get it together in the country while evading the sexual advances of Withnail’s predatory uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) – and attempting to stay drunk the entire time.

“If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there,” the saying goes, but Bruce Robinson did and chose to depict it not as swinging, but as an era of fried egg sandwiches, tabloid headlines and steamed-up windows, or, as Marwood describes it: “murder and All-Bran and rape”. Camden Town, which later became the epicentre of Britpop, was then a largely working-class area: its ­tourist-trap market, peddling cyber-Goth togs and king-size Rizlas, didn’t open until the mid-Seventies.

When the cynically constructed notion of “Cool Britannia” emerged in the Nineties and commentators rushed to draw lazy comparisons with the cultural explosion of the Sixties, Withnail and I, with its big spliffs, all-day drinking and memorable one-liners, was perfectly placed to be picked up by a new generation drawn to its excesses but caring little for its ­maudlin poetry. Chris Evans, a figurehead of the dumbed-down culture, bought Withnail’s coat for £5,000 (and mangled it while tooling around on a quad bike), while Kate Moss reportedly attempted to buy Uncle Monty’s remote Lake District cottage. Withnail and I had transcended its outsider status and lost its emotional depth. It became the film that launched a thousand student drinking games. In 2008 the Daily Mail sent a repor­ter to re-create the characters’ journey.

If Withnail and I is a Sixties film at all, it is thanks mainly to the presence of the frazzled drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown). Danny is the sort of character you might have found on the fringes of the Ladbroke Grove underground scene, inhabited by Hawkwind and Mick Farren’s group, the Deviants, who had little time for peace and love and puckish dilettantes, and whose appetite for rabble-rousing and biker-cooked amphetamine later informed punk. Although Withnail and I featured Hendrix on the soundtrack and was funded by George Harrison, it is as much an Eighties film concerned with the commodification of countercultural ­ideals (“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man,” Danny laments) and with the malignant effects of the ideology that took their place: Thatcherism.

A postwar, kitchen-sink sense of hopelessness pervades. The main opening scene is a grinding speed-pill comedown (“like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane”), set against a city seen in psychic free fall. The wrecking ball of gentrification that demolishes buildings as Withnail and Marwood flee swings even more viciously today in a London made unaffordable by property developers.

In the late Nineties, I lived in a vast squat in Kennington, south London, beneath a smack-dabbling wit with an aristocratic family name, for whom every day presented new drinking opportunities. His one-room flat contained nothing but a mattress, a swing and a gun. When eviction was imminent, this bulwark of bohemianism climbed on to the roof, took a glug of champagne and swan-dived to his death. His flat is now on sale for £730,000. Robinson’s original ending for the film had Withnail drinking Margaux through a shotgun barrel before blowing his brains out.

Where would we find a young Withnail today? Almost certainly not in our capital. The duo’s local pub, the Mother Black Cap (in real life the Tavistock Arms in Notting Hill), was demolished in 2010 and its north London close namesake the Black Cap in Camden was recently shuttered for redevelopment. And good luck to anyone who thinks today’s benefits system will support their creative endeavours.

For all its freewheeling surface energy, Withnail and I is framed by societal restrictions representative of the old order: policemen, tutting tearoom customers and the labour exchange thwart the pair’s lives. Withnail is selfish, but he is the antithesis of the incoming Thatcherite individualists who lurk behind Brexit today: his penchant for long lunches and fine wines is distinctly European in sensibility. You just know he smokes unfiltered Gauloises.

 

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The seeping, existentialist sense of melancholy in Withnail and I can be read more broadly as an elegy not only for a Sixties dream, but for the end of empire. “It sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann said in 2010. “Its provenance is from a different era.”

It’s there in the wistful soundtrack and the dusty clutter of the characters’ existence – in the cracked glaze of the tea service, in Withnail’s Savile Row suit and flapping brogues (from Jermyn Street, one would guess), the old Jag, and Marwood’s reading of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End. And it’s there in the elegiac tone of older characters such as Raymond the retired army major-turned-publican, seeing out his final years sharing war stories in a self-pickling haze, and in Uncle Monty’s Noël Coward-type soliloquies. Monty pines for bygone days of hot buttered crumpets and sexual trysts in punts that appear to have drifted straight out of Brideshead Revisited.

Indeed, Withnail and I closely mirrors Evelyn Waugh’s interwar novel. With its dreaming spires and languid boozing, the hit TV adaptation had, a few years earlier, reintroduced an Arcadian vision of an aristocratic England to a real country troubled by race riots, rising unemployment, the Falklands conflict and a looming miners’ strike. In Brideshead’s narrator, Charles Ryder, we see a middle-class foil for the doomed dipsomaniac young lord Sebastian Flyte, who is burdened with familial expectations, Catholic guilt and ineptitude. He is Withnail with money and a wine cellar; he is many Tory ministers. Monty, meanwhile, is the outlandish aesthete Anthony Blanche in later years.

Waugh’s description of his novel as being “infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language” could equally be applied to Robinson’s depictions of dole-queue indulgence. Both employ a gay subtext – implicit in Waugh’s work but played for awkward comic effect in Robinson’s. Accusations of homophobic characterisation are redeemed slightly by the film’s asexual conclusion, as poignant an on-screen parting as any I can think of: a sozzled and stranded Withnail left quoting a Hamlet soliloquy in the rain as a freshly groomed Marwood departs to take up a plum lead role, adulthood and respectability. “What is this quintessence of dust?” Withnail asks. “Man delights not me – no, nor woman neither.”

In 1987 there were several big-screen adaptations of explorations of quintessentially English male friendships, including J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, E M Forster’s Maurice and the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears. All consider the promise of youth corrupted by the intrusions of the real world, the end of innocence and squandered potential.

Perhaps it is this sense of a nation in spiritual crisis that makes Withnail and I resonate today. After last year’s EU referendum, metropolitan liberals laid the blame for the result at the feet of thick voters in the provinces and rural communities. This was born of a historic misunderstanding that the film explores, in which country folk distrust the elitist power base in the capital, while urbanites patronise their country cousins. “We’re bona fide,” Withnail pleads. “We’re not from London.”

This fear of the rural – arising when poncey city sorts enter into a world of which they know little – was explored to great effect in earlier folk-horror films and TV plays that have enjoyed a recent resurgence. “Eerie England” works explored tensions similar to those at the heart of Brexit Britain: scapegoating, historical ignorance, post-imperialist entitlement, the existence of two Englands, the existence of infinite Englands. Robinson made direct reference to Nigel Kneale’s overlooked folk-horror TV drama Murrain by casting Una Brandon-Jones as the hostile, crone-like farmer’s mother who offers the pair their first encounter in the Lake District. “Not the attitude I’d been given to expect from the H E Bates novel I’d read,” Marwood says. Elsewhere, the pair’s fears of the rural are personified by Michael Elphick’s Jake the poacher, whose furtive appearance in a flat cap and overcoat is akin to a woodcut from an antiquarian book about old country ways.

Landscape and the elements take centre stage, too. Partly shot near Shap in ­Cumbria, Withnail and I employs mud and lashing rain as a reminder that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Even after a century or so of continued migration from the countryside to the cities, the film’s misunderstanding of this other England stands true today. City-dwellers look for succour in cosy TV shows such as Countryfile, or in nature books that are, for the most part, blood-and-afterbirth-free.

Withnail and I’s portrait of Britain – “just an old European country apt for travel and study”, as one Chinese state-owned newspaper recently described it – comes across as astute and prescient as the future of the Union hangs in doubt. And, like Withnail, we are largely powerless. Perhaps Uncle Monty says it best when he eulogises a land “shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour”. How right you are, dear boy. How right you are.

Ben Myers’s novel “The Gallows Pole” will be published by Bluemoose Books in May

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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