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.
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
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain