Withnail and I is a British black comedy film made in 1986 by HandMade Films. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, it is based on his life in London in the late 1960s.
The main plot follows two unemployed young actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) who live in a squalid flat in Camden in 1969 while waiting for their careers to take off. Needing a holiday, they obtain the key to the country cottage in Cumbria belonging to Withnail’s flamboyantly gay uncle Monty and drive there. The holiday is less ‘recuperative’ than they expected.
The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career. The film also featured performances by Richard Griffiths as Withnail's Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer.
The film has tragic and comic elements (particularly farce) and is notable for its period music and many quotable lines. It has been described as "one of Britain's biggest cult films."
The film depicts the lives and misadventures of two "resting" (struggling and unemployed) young actors in 1969 London. They are the flamboyant alcoholic Withnail (Grant) and "I" (named "Marwood" in the published screenplay but not in the credits, played by McGann) as his more level-headed, anxiety-prone friend and the movie's narrator.
Withnail is filled with indignation over life's injustices, despite his privileged background. He rages against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all the more because he blames others for the adverse consequences of his exuberant arrogance and habitual lying.
Withnail sets the tone for the friendship, with Marwood going along with whatever Withnail wants to do. They live in a filthy Georgian flat in Camden Town. While they wait for a part, daily life revolves around getting coins to use in the meters that provide gas or electricity, going to collect Social Security payments, and waiting for the pubs to open so they can sit somewhere warm alongside being able to drink.
The film begins with Marwood smoking in the darkened flat. When he has finished he goes to a café and reads disturbing articles in a newspaper. He then returns to the flat, Danny (Brown), a friend and drug dealer, turns up and informs them of his new toy-making business, showing them a doll, the head of which comes off to reveal hidden drugs.
Needing a change of scene, Withnail and Marwood decide to take a recuperative holiday in the countryside. Withnail secures the loan of the country cottage belonging to his eccentric and homosexual Uncle Monty (Griffiths). Monty is an old boy of Harrow School, and it is suggested that Withnail is one too. Monty is told that Marwood went to "the other place". Monty is an aesthete nostalgic for a by-gone age of beauty and poetic friendship among young men, and, fancying himself an actor, is fond of quoting Charles Baudelaire and reciting passages from Hamlet. His only companion in the large luxurious Chelsea house in which he resides is a pet cat which he is seen constantly rowing with.
Withnail and Marwood get into Marwood's battered Jaguar Mark 2, which is parked next to a scene of demolition of some old houses (significant for the time period) and set off north along the motorway. The holiday doesn't quite go according to plan: although the countryside is beautiful, the weather is cold and often inclement, the cottage is run-down and dusty, they have little food or supplies and the locals are surly and unwelcoming – in particular a threatening poacher, Jake (Michael Elphick), whom Withnail offends. Then an intruder breaks into the cottage in the middle of the night. Withnail and Marwood are terrified, believing that the intruder is Jake. Comically, the intruder turns out to be Monty, who has been stranded for "aeons" with a punctured tyre. They greet Monty with mixed emotions. Monty brings them ample supplies of food and wine, but it soon becomes clear that – having been falsely told by Withnail that Marwood is homosexual – he has designs on Marwood and will not be deterred by politeness. In a farcical scene of bedroom-switching, Monty eventually corners Marwood, bursting into his room and proclaiming his desire to "have [him] even if it must be burglary." Terrified, Marwood manages to stave off Monty's overtures with the excuse that he has a permanent relationship with Withnail that he is afraid to reveal. Monty, who believes in love and loyalty, accepts this excuse as the whole truth and apologizes for coming between them.
Rebuffed, Monty leaves the cottage in the night for London. The next morning, Marwood finds Monty's gracious note of apology and reads it aloud, feeling sympathy for him. Withnail, who is eagerly drinking Monty's fine wine, takes no responsibility for the chaos he has caused, and Marwood begins to distance himself from his friend. Marwood receives a telegram that confirms that he has an audition for a part, and he insists that they go back to London immediately.
After adventures on the motorway, the film returns to the Camden Town flat, to find a man lying in their bath. Danny, who is squatting at the flat, opines that the oncoming end of the 1960s is the end of the "greatest decade in the history of mankind" and that "there are going to be a lot of refugees." The three, and Danny's friend Presuming Ed (the man in the bath), get high smoking a "Camberwell carrot" (cannabis joint).
Marwood calls his agent and discovers that the production company now want him to play the lead part in the play. He gets his curly hair cut short, packs his bags, and prepares to leave for the station for what he hopes is a new and more mature phase of his life. He wants to leave by himself, but Withnail insists upon accompanying him at least part of the way, while drinking from a bottle of Monty's wine; "'53 Margaux, best of the century."
Marwood leaves Withnail in the rain in Regent's Park. There, for the first time, Withnail sincerely reveals himself, declaiming "What a piece of work is a man!" from Act 2 Scene ii of Hamlet to an uncomprehending pack of wolves behind a fence in the adjoining London Zoo. Then, the camera remains still as he turns and walks further and further away into the distance, swinging the bottle, as the credits start to roll.
The film is an adaptation of an unpublished novel written by Robinson in the winter of 1969. Actor friend Don Hawkins passed a copy of the manuscript to his friend, the wealthy oil heir Moderick Schreiber in 1980. Schreiber, looking to break into the movie industry, paid Robinson a few thousand pounds to adapt it into a screenplay, which Robinson did in the early 1980s. On completing the script, producer Paul Heller urged Robinson to direct it and found funding for half the film. The script was then passed to Handmade Films and, after George Harrison read it, agreed to fund the remainder of the film.
Robinson's script is largely autobiographical. Marwood is Robinson; Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend with whom he shared a Camden house, who died young; and Uncle Monty is loosely based on the unwanted attentions he received from an amorous Franco Zeffirelli when he was a young actor. He lived in the impoverished conditions seen in the film and wore plastic bags as wellington boots. Robinson threw four or five years of his real life into the script, condensing them into two weeks.
The narrative is told in the first person by the character played by Paul McGann, named just once in passing in the film (see below) as Marwood, and only credited as "... & I".
Early in the film, Withnail reads from an article headlined "Boy Lands Plum Role For Top Italian Director" and then goes on to imply that the director is sexually abusing the boy. This is a reference to the sexual harassment that Robinson alleges he suffered at the hands of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli when, as a young man, he won the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
The end of the novel saw Withnail committing suicide by pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel of Monty's gun and then pulling the trigger as he drank from it. Robinson changed the ending, as he believed it was "too dark."
Denis O'Brien, one of the movie's producers, nearly shut the film down three days into the shoot. He thought that the movie had no "discernible jokes," and was badly lit.
The film cost £1.1 million to make. Robinson received £1 for the script, and £80,000 to direct it, £30,000 of which he reinvested into the film to shoot additional scenes, such as the journeys to and from Penrith, which HandMade Films would not fund.
Paul McGann was Robinson's first choice for "I", but he was fired during rehearsals because Robinson decided McGann's Liverpool accent was wrong for the character. Several other actors read for the role, but McGann eventually persuaded Robinson to re-audition him, promising to affect a Home Counties accent. He quickly won back the part.
Actors who were considered for the part of "Withnail" included Daniel Day Lewis, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. Robinson claims that he told Richard E. Grant that "half of you has got to go", and put him on a diet in order to play the part. Grant denies this in the 1999 documentary "Withnail and Us" The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career.
Though playing a raging alcoholic, Grant himself is a teetotaller, who had never been drunk prior to making the film. Robinson decided that it would be impossible for Grant to play the character without having ever experienced inebriation and a hangover, and thus "forced" the actor on a drinking binge. Grant has stated that he found the experience deeply unpleasant.
During the filming of the scene in which the lighter fluid is consumed, Robinson changed the contents of the can, which had been filled with water, to vinegar. While the vomiting is scripted, the facial expression is purely natural.
The period setting of this film in 1969 is consistent, apart from a few details:
* "I" packing a visibly late 1980s Penguin Classic edition of Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature (À rebours) in the penultimate scene.
* The record that "I" plays at the beginning of the film is King Curtis' Live at Fillmore West, an album which was released in 1971.
* In the first driving scene cars from the 1980s can be seen in the background, motorway signs for roads constructed well after the sixties are also visible, including a sign clearly showing "M25" (filming took place on this motorway before it was fully opened in 1986).
* Barcodes can be spotted on cans in the kitchen.
* One shot shows the characters driving on the wrong carriageway, with the hard shoulder on the right.
* In the scene where Withnail and Marwood flee from the Mother Black Cap, you can see the cars driving on the Westway, which wasn't completed until 1970, and you can also see the Trellick Tower, which was completed in 1972.
* Additionally, in this scene, "Provo" can be seen written near the bottom of the pub's outside wall. The Provisional IRA was not founded until December 1969 and the film was set in late September/early October 1969.
Although the first name of 'I' is not stated anywhere in the film, it is widely believed that it is 'Peter'. This myth arose as a result of a line of misheard dialogue in the scene where Monty meets the two actors, Withnail asks him if he would like a drink. In his reply, Monty both accepts his offer and says "...you must tell me all the news, I haven't seen you since you finished your last film". While pouring another drink, and downing his own, Withnail replies that he has been "Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff". Then pointing at Marwood he says "He's just had an audition for rep". Some fans hear this line as "Peter's had an audition for rep", although the original shooting script and all commercially published versions of the script read "he's".
The "I" character's name is given as 'Marwood' in the original screenplay . It has been suggested that it is possible that 'Marwood' can be heard near the beginning of the film: As the characters escape from the Irishman in the Mother Black Cap, Withnail shouts "Get out of my way!". Some hear this line as "Out of the way, Marwood!", although the script reads simply "Get out of my way!".
There is, however, one occasion in the film where the name 'Marwood' is given, though not stated. Toward the end of the film a telegram arrives at Crow Crag and as Withnail reads the note, the name 'Marwood' appears to be visible, upside-down, on the envelope. 'I' is now widely accepted as 'Marwood', as this was the name that was used, in the script of 'Withnail and I', but due to the fact that the story is told from Marwood's point of view, he is considered as 'I'. It should also be considered that in the ending credits and all media in relation to the film the character played by McGann is referenced solely as "...& I."
However, in the supplemental material packaged with the Special Edition DVD in the UK, McGann's character is referred to as Peter Marwood in the cast credits.
The film had a domestic gross of £565,112. Its US gross was $1,544,889, giving it a rank of 4,871 for "all time [US] domestic" gross at Boxofficemojo.com. DVD and VHS sales have been quite strong throughout the years, and the film has gained cult status with a number of websites dedicated to the film itself. In 2000, readers of Total Film voted Withnail and I the third greatest comedy film of all time. In 2004 the same magazine named it the 13th greatest British film of all time. Withnail & I was 38th in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Films poll. As of June 13, 2009, the film holds a 96% "fresh" rating, and an average rating of 8.4 out of 10 from critic website Rotten Tomatoes. In August 2009 The Observer polled 60 eminent British film filmmakers and film critics who voted it the second best British film of the last 25 years.
In 2007, a digital remastered version of the film was released by the UK Film Council. It was shown at over fifty cinemas around the UK on September 11, as part of the final week of the BBC's "Summer of British Film" season.
* Oxford band Ride referenced the film in their 1992 album Going Blank Again. The song "Cool Your Boots" contains the excerpt "Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day", which is said by McGann's character early in the film. The title of the song - Cool Your Boots - is a direct quote of the phrase used by "Danny the drug dealer" telling the two actors to calm down.
The film has been released in several countries world wide.
The first DVD edition of the film was a 4:3 pan-and-scan version released in Canada by Seville Pictures. The film ran to 104 minutes. Although the sleeve claimed that the original cinema trailer was included as an extra, it was omitted from the disc. At the time the sleeve was printed, Seville believed they had access to the trailer but later discovered it was not in their library.
The second DVD release of the film was in North America as part of the Criterion Collection. This was the first widescreen release of the film and was remastered under the supervision of the film's Director of Photography, Peter Hannan. Although widescreen, the film was actually presented letterboxed in a 4:3 raster rather than anamorphic.
UK (1st Edition) (PAL)
The first UK release was by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2001. It included a number of extras, such as the original trailer, the Channel 4 documentary Withnail and Us, a commentary by Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The main feature was converted from the North American release and exhibited some picture and compression artefacts as a result. Like the North American release, it was also letterboxed. This edition was later re-released by Anchor Bay in February 2007.
UK (2nd Edition) (PAL)
The second UK release was a budget edition by Anchor Bay in 2005, under their Bay View label. It featured an un-remastered version of the film, identical to the original cinema release in 1987 (later editions of film had several minutes of cut footage reinstated). No extras were included.
UK (20th Anniversary Edition) (PAL)
The third UK release, again from Anchor Bay, came in 2006 to coincide with the film's 20th Anniversary. For this three-disc release the film was remastered in high definition and released for the first time in anamorphic format. It included all the extra features from the first UK edition, plus an additional commentary by Bruce Robinson, a featurette on the Drinking Game, a brand new interview with Bruce Robinson and a locations featurette called Postcards from Penrith. A bonus CD was also included, featuring all of the music specially composed for the film, because the soundtrack was no longer in print and had become rare.
A DVD of the film was given away with the Sunday Times newspaper on 14 June 2009 to celebrate 40 years since Robinson first conceived the idea. The BluRay trailer was also included.
One of very few releases (if not the only) of the film outside anglophone countries. The DVD features besides the original English audio track a German dubbed one (stemming from a TV screening from the mid 80s) and several extras from the UK releases, such as the audio commentary by Bruce Robinson.
On 31 July 2007 Channel 4 put the entire film up online as part of their 4oD video-on-demand service. It was available to download free of charge from 4oD until 12 August 2007 after which a fee was chargeable.
The soundtrack for Withnail & I, while out of print now, was available on Silva Screen Records, Silva House, 261 Royal College Street, London NW1 9LU, England.
It is claimed that the soundtrack album was discontinued and deleted by the distributors because of the actions of the estate of Jimi Hendrix whose tracks are featured in the film. The family will not allow any of his music to be used to glorify or promote the use or abuse of drink or drugs.
The film also features a rare appearance of a recording by The Beatles, whose song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" briefly plays as Marwood and Withnail return from Crow Crag. Although the surviving members of the group rarely licensed the use of their original recordings for feature films (cover versions were often substituted, as in the case of The Royal Tenenbaums and I Am Sam), George Harrison happened to be one of the film's producers, and allowed its inclusion in Withnail & I.
1. "A Whiter Shade of Pale (live)" – King Curtis - 5:25
2. "The Wolf" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 1:33
3. "All Along the Watchtower (reduced tempo)" – Jimi Hendrix - 4:10
4. "To The Crow" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 2:22
5. "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (live)" – Jimi Hendrix - 4:28
6. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" – The Beatles - 4:44
7. "Marwood Walks" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 2:14
8. "Monty Remembers" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 2:02
9. "La Fite" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 1:10
10. "Hang Out The Stars In Indiana" – Al Bowlly and New Mayfair Dance Orchestra - 1:35
11. "Crow Crag" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 0:56
12. "Cheval Blanc" - David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 1:15
13. "My Friend" - Charlie Kunz - 1:28
14. "Withnail's Theme" - David Dundas and Rick Wentworth - 2:40
The film was not shot entirely on location. There was no filming in the real Penrith, the locations used were actually in and around nearby Shap and Bampton. Monty's cottage, "Crow Crag", is actually Sleddale Hall, located near the Wet Sleddale Reservoir just outside Shap, although the lake that "Crow Crag" apparently overlooks is actually Haweswater Reservoir.
Sleddale Hall was offered for sale in January 2009; a trust has been created by fans who wish to collectively purchase the building for its preservation as an iconic piece of British film history. It was sold at auction for £265,000 on 16 February 2009. The starting price was £145,000. It was bought by Sebastian Hindley, who owns the Mardale Inn in the nearby village of Bampton, which did not feature in the film. Hindley, however, was unable to raise the necessary finances and in August 2009 the property was resold for an undisclosed sum to Tim Ellis, an architect from Kent, whose original bid failed at the auction.
The bridge where Withnail and Marwood go fishing is located at the bottom of the hill below Sleddale Hall, a quarter of a mile away. The telephone box where Withnail calls his agent is beside the main road in Bampton.
Although exterior and ground floor interior shots of Crow Crag were shot at Sleddale Hall, Stockers Farm in Rickmansworth was used for the bedroom and stair scenes. Stockers Farm was also the location for the "Crow and Crown" pub.
The "King Henry" pub and the "Penrith Tea Rooms" scenes were filmed in the Market Square in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes at what is now the "Crown Inn" and Cox & Robinsons Chemists.
"The Mother Black Cap" pub in the film was in reality the "The Frog and Firkin" pub situated in Tavistock Crescent, Westbourne Green. This was the very first bar of the Firkin Brewery chain, and as of 2008 it is called "The Tavistock Arms". For some time after the film, it was in fact officially called "The Mother Black Cap". Withnail and Marwood's flat was located at 57 Chepstow Place in Bayswater (W2). The shots of them leaving for Penrith were filmed at Ansleigh Place. The cafe where Marwood has breakfast at the beginning of the film is located at the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road. The scene where Withnail and Marwood are ordered to "get in the back of the van" was filmed on the flyover near John Aird Court, Paddington. The final scene was shot in Regents Park. Uncle Monty's Chelsea town house is actually Glebe House, Glebe Place, in Kensington (SW3).
Police Station interior was shot at the studios.
The coat that Withnail wears throughout was purchased at auction by the British DJ Chris Evans.
There is a drinking game associated with Withnail & I. The game consists of keeping up, drink for drink, with each alcoholic substance consumed by Withnail over the course of the film. All told, Withnail is shown drinking roughly nine and a half glasses of red wine, half a pint of cider, one shot of lighter fluid (vinegar or overproof rum are common substitutes), two and a half shots of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen glasses of whisky and half a pint of ale. It may be presumed that this quantity of alcohol, if consumed during the course of the film, would prove fatal.