‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’
WITHNAIL & I
In the thirty years since it hit cinema screens Withnail & I has achieved major cult status. It is recognised as one of the best black comedies the British film industry has ever produced. A word of warning: it is definitely not for those with a prudish disposition or an aversion to colourful language.
The script by Bruce Robinson – who also directed the film and whose semi-autobiographical story this is – harks back to adventures in 1960s Cumbria and London and relates the tale of two unemployed thespians. Withnail and his flatmate Marwood (“I), who spend what little income they have on booze, cigarettes and drugs.
Robinson drew heavily on his poverty-stricken days as a drama student in an unheated London flat with only one light bulb which he’d to carry from room to room. For warmth he depended on a gas oven, in front of which he sat with the door open.
He insisted there were to be no jokes or attempts at humour in the film. Instead the entertainment had to be generated by skilfully illustrating Withnail and Marwood’s hideous efforts to stave off hunger, numbed by a self-inflicted substance haze.
The handsome Richard E Grant, whose first film this was, had faced stiff competition from Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighey and others. His character, said to be loosely based on Robinson’s flatmate Vivian, is a member of the gentry fallen on hard times. He conveys his lines with snarling rancour as though his pathetic lot is no fault of his own.
To portray himself as Marwood, Robinson chose Paul McGann, once he’d proven he could ditch his Scouse accent in favour of a Home Counties one.
The tale starts in their squalid flat. Rancid matter festers in the sink, drawn curtains block out the daylight and, as the opening titles roll, a morose McGann needily drags on a cigarette, setting the scene of obvious despair.
Withnail & I is peppered with some of cinematic history’s most quotable quotes, starting when they run out of alcohol. The script calls for Withnail to quaff from a can of lighter fuel but, unknown to Grant, the props people have filled it with vinegar instead of water. Despite the resultant shock the actor delivers his lines admirably and then asks Marwood for anti-freeze. “You shouldn’t mix your drinks,” yells the lad.
Withnail and Marwood decide that a breath of country air is needed, and suck up to Withnail’s lecherous gay Uncle Monty at his luxurious Chelsea house. Monty – brilliantly played by the late Richard Griffiths -owns a Lake District holiday property named Crow Crag, for which they cadge the key.
“Crow Crag” is really the 18th century Sleddale Hall near Shap. The isolated former sheep farm grows out of the watershed’s landscape above Sleddale reservoir, although instead of incorporating its very own stretch of water the film features Haweswater instead. An important scene takes place here when Withnail, who has permanent bad hair days and continually wears a sodden floor-length tatty overcoat coat, throws his arms flamboyantly upwards into the downpour and his voice echoes round the mountains as he shouts “I’m gonna be a star.”
Withnail and Marwood were clearly never Boy Scouts. Their ignorance of the great outdoors makes for entertaining absurdity as they paddle and splash through the monsoonal muddiness (for which rain machines were used in the dry weather during shooting).
Their plight prompts Withnail to address a farmer with the line “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake” as they beg for fuel. In another scene, threatened with starvation, and in a fit of pique, Withnail attempts to kill a fish under Sleddale packhorse bridge with a double-barrel shotgun. Matters improve eventually, when Monty – gifted with cooking skills and generosity with wines – arrives to spend time with “my boys, my boys”.
In the wake of the film, Sleddale Hall, owned by United Utilities, was auctioned twice; the deal falling through initially. Then Withnail & I fan, Tim Ellis, an architect from Kent, who had under-bid the first time round, obtained the property at the 2009 auction. He has since turned part of the buildings into a private residence.
“The exterior of the house has been gentrified using local sandstone, but this gentrification is based on how the elevation was ‘dressed up’ for the film. The principal rooms used in the film have been retained with little alteration, but Uncle Monty’s pink sitting room is pink no more but Pugin Red. Unfortunately the cast iron range from the Victorian kitchen extension was stolen around 2000. I’d love to see it back as it belongs to the house – but otherwise, the room remains as it was in the film.”
Picnic Cinema, run by Eden Arts, occasionally shows the masterpiece to enthusiastic audiences in the farmyard of Sleddale Hall. In July this year fans who attended their shrine were treated to four showings, with all the tickets being sold inside twenty minutes of their release.
The telephone box in Bampton, near Shap, provides another of the film’s iconic locations. It was from here Withnail rang his agent and turned down yet another offer of understudying. Inside today is a journal, in which visiting fans can leave messages.
An outrageous scene in The Penrith Tearooms emphasises the sheer professionalism of the actors, with Withnail’s drunken swaggering delivery of probably the most famous quote of all “We want the finest wines available to humanity; and we want them here and we want them now.”
The film’s nostalgic soundtrack includes music by Jimmy Hendrix, Charlie Kunz and a rare example of a song by The Beatles being used in a movie. Permission for the use of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was only granted because its composer, George Harrison, was an executive director of the film. Ringo Starr, who also visited the set in Camden, was credited as “Special Production Consultant” under his real name, Richard Starkey MBE.
Withnail & I’s stars went on to even greater success. Richard E Grant, Paul McGann and Ralph Brown – stunning as Danny the Drug Dealer – have lengthy filmographies and many television appearances to their credit.
In my opinion though, the crown must surely go to non-smoking teetotaller Richard E Grant for his incredible portrayal of Withnail. “Chin, chin”……
Thanks to Jean Scott Smith, Tim Ellis, Luisa Bockmeulen and Eden Arts
Published December 2017 in Cumbria magazine
Photograph © Tim Ellis