"London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there's going to be a lot of refugees".
It's 1969. The fag-end of a decade forever known as 'The Swinging Sixties'. In Bruce Robinson's feature debut, two out of work actors are living - make that existing - in a small flat in London's vibrant Camden Town. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) stagger through life with booze, lighter fuel and pills playing an important part in their struggle against a system seemingly stacked against them. Worn down by squalid living conditions (self-inflicted, I might add), the pair are granted temporary respite when Withnail's Uncle Monty (the splendid Richard Griffiths) offers them the use of his country retreat. Upon arriving at this haven of solitude, our two would-be thespians find the countryside to be a hostile place, with unfriendly locals and wayward livestock forming a united front of oppression. Add to this the amorous attentions of a rampant Monty, and Withnail's assertion that "We've come on holiday by mistake" proves to be entirely prophetic as the film progresses.
Best experienced on the big screen as part of a packed audience, WITHNAIL AND I is a cult film in the truest sense of the term, with a loyal audience built up over the 20 years since it's release. This legion of die-hard fans can often be found drunkenly spouting lines of deliciously quotable dialogue in bars all over the UK en route to their next DVD viewing. Anchor Bay UK's wonderful 3 disc tin boxset is currently the finest home video incarnation of this film, boasting a nice remastered print and some nifty extras. Here, the films troubled production history comes under the spotlight, revealing that WITHNAIL was almost shut down inside the first 4 days of filming after Dennis O'Brien (one of the producers) declared it simply wasn't funny. More power, then, to director Bruce Robinson who fought tooth and nail to get his debut off the ground and onto our screens. The film itself is partly autobiographical, with Robinson using McGann's character to paint a picture of his own life in London, while Withnail was inspired by Vivian Mackerrell - a close friend of Robinson who died at an absurdly young age. Amazingly, WITHNAIL also marked the feature debut for Richard E. Grant, and is almost certainly the film he'll be remembered for. Grant is superb as the flamboyant Withnail; a cowardly, drunkard who places the arse of his friend in mortal danger in order to further enjoy a class distinction that is fast leaving him behind. In the supplementary section, Robinson tells how he instructed Grant - a non-drinker - to get rat-arsed drunk so he would know how it felt to be under the influence and boy, did it work! This is probably the finest portrayal of a boozer in British cinema and on a par with Jeremy Irons' sad, inebriated figure in BRIDESHEAD REVISTED (cf to DEAD RINGERS), though there's a lot more to this role than simply acting drunk. Witness the final scene where an emotional Withnail gives a magnificent reading of lines from HAMLET to a pack of wolves in London Zoo. It's a supremely moving moment, and suggests that perhaps Withnail really does have it in him to progress in his chosen career. Of course, his friend Marwood seemed the more likely to secure gainful employment, but it's Withnail who possesses all the qualities needed if only he would just believe. Wide-eyed Marwood is a perfect foil to his exuberant friend being introverted, inexperienced in the art of life-and-how-to-live-it and capable of the most brilliant cutting humour : "I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering and come in here with the express intention of wishing the same on you". Thank God that Robinson relented and re-instated McGann after firing him.They do make for a marvellous double-act, but strong support is forthcoming from both Griffith and Ralph Brown who plays Danny; a wise fool with a hilarious knack of making utter nonsense seem profound.
Delve into the extras and you'll find some wonderful stories concerning this dream team of actors, and there's also a featurette, 'Postcards From Penrith'. Here, Richard Sparkes and Mark O'Connor head out to the Lake District - one of the wettest places in the UK - to revisit our favourite locations. We get to see the phonebox where Withnail called his agent (and they even reveal the phone number -no I didn't try it!); the famous Bull's Gate; the stream where Withnail went shooting fish, and the lovely Haweswater where Withnail told the world "I'm going to be a star!" We are even taken inside Monty's Cottage, now a dark, eerie ramshackle place where fans have made a pilgrimage to visit and scribble their favourite lines of dialogue on the front door: "As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops" being just one of those lines from a film with more quotable chunks than any Tarantino production. This 3 disc set (including a truncated soundtrack) really is a testament to one of our national treasures, but why has this film stood the test of time and ingrained itself into our imaginations ? Well, even those who worked on both sides of the camera seem at a loss to explain. Ultimately, I think many of us can identify with the two lead characters; particularly those who once had a dream and gradually realised that, maybe, things would probably not work out as they had hoped. And, there are many who will nod sadly at the moment the pair realise circumstances dictate that a longstanding friendship has come to an end. That golden moments will become memories that can never be repeated. Whatever, WITHNAIL AND I continues to weave its spell, and will probably outlive the bloody lot of us! Perhaps a sequel will eventually appear, but I doubt it. The continuing adventures of Withnail and I are probably best left to the imagination, though I for one occasionally have a yearning to discover where they are now, some 20 years on/