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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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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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