ANDY: Withnail and I (Robinson, UK, 1987)


How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!

There isn’t a single line in WITHNAIL AND I that you could edit. The unfortunate consequence of writing such a perfect script is that the wankers will quote it back at you incessantly until you die.

Nonsense, this is a far superior drink to meths. The wankers don’t drink it because they can’t afford it.

The more I watch the film (and I’ve probably seen it an unhealthy number of times) the more I find myself laughing at lines that I’m not even sure were supposed to be funny. Richard E Grant’s outraged “You’ve got soup. Why didn’t I get any soup?” floors me every time when the punchline is clearly supposed to be Paul McGann’s “Coffee.” Part of its brilliance is that lines enter your vocabulary without you even consciously realising that you’re quoting the film, “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake” and “my thumbs have gone weird” being chief amongst them. Since moving to London eight years ago, “Listen, we’re bona fide. We’re not from London.” also crops up with alarming regularity on trips back up to the glorious North.

There is, you’ll agree, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ oh so very special about a firm, young carrot.

Monty has vegetables in his flower pots. It probably took me twenty viewings to notice that. When I started university there was a rumour that Bruce Robinson had been to my college and the character of Uncle Monty was based on an eccentric Professor of Latin from whom many a male classics student (and they were all male, invariably) had narrowly avoided a buggering. I fully believed this and for the next few years felt a frisson of excitement and fear when walking past him in the quad until the rise of the internet revealed that not only did Robinson not even go to my university, but had freely admitted that the character was based on Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who he worked with during the filming of Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET (1968). Elsewhere Robinson has commented that Withnail was his ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. One of my prized possessions was my VHS case with the magnificent Ralph Steadman art, relegated to a bonus postcard for the DVD version.

They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.

RIP Woolworths. The sense of loss in the film is palpable, from Monty’s reminiscences about “his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Norman” to a sense of a loss of traditional British identity in both town (“These aren’t accidents! They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly! Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!”) and country (“Not the attitude I’d been given to expect from the H.E. Bates novel I’d read. I thought they’d all be out the back, drinking cider and discussing butter.”), the choice of year, 1969, could hardly be more apt. The soundtrack is provided by dead pop stars: King Curtis who was stabbed to death a few days after he recorded the version of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ that plays over the opening credits, Jimi Hendrix accompanying the destruction by wrecking ball of a block of Victorian apartments, or the haunting strains of Al Bowlly, previously so effective over the zoom into the impossible photograph at the end of Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980). Jerking us back into the eighties for a moment, the sign that inspires Withnail’s roadkill rant reads ‘Accident Black Spot – London Borough of Finchley’ – the borough that elected Margaret Thatcher.

You don’t want to go to Manchester anyway. Play a bloody soldier?

Marwood gets the lead part in R.C. Sherriff’s play ‘Journey’s End’, Stanhope, played during its original run by the original Frankenstein, Colin Clive. For his very first motion picture the great James Whale would direct the movie adaptation with Clive reprising his role. Set in the trenches towards the end of the First World War, Stanhope has begun drinking heavily to cope with the stress of the conflict. He is idolised by a young lieutenant who joins their company in the first act and is killed in the third, his body entombed alone in the dugout as a mortar hits the trench. The book Marwood packs into his suitcase at the end is Joris-Karl Huysmans’ ‘À Rebours’, the tale of a jaded aesthete sequestering himself away from human contact and indulging in synthetic pleasures due to his loathing for bourgeois society. And that “I”: before the film’s even begun we’re asked to regard Marwood as an audience identification figure. We laugh at all the misfortunes visited on his head at the hands of Withnail because they’re not happening to us but ultimately we, as well as Marwood, have to get on with our lives.

Bastard asked me to understudy Konstantin in The Seagull. I’m not gonna understudy anybody, especially that little pimp. Anyway, I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.

It mystifies me that anyone could ever regard this film as glorifying booze and drugs. Life is passing you by, this is what migration represents in Chekhov. Withnail is the provincial Russian housewife waiting for the spring, his ego and sense of entitlement preventing him from ever leaving the house. Too many people remember the lighter fluid and the Camberwell carrot, but what I remember when I think about WITHNAIL AND I is that strong sense of wistfulness. It’s a tragedy about failure, a paean to the road never trod. Notice how many times the word “time” is used. “Time change. You lose, you gain.”, “TIME please gentlemen”, “No, I’m making time. Here comes another fucker.”, “Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day.”

WITHNAIL: But I’ve got us a bottle open. Confiscated it from Monty’s supplies. ’53 Margaux. Best of the century.
I: I can’t Withnail, I’ll miss the train.
WITHNAIL: There’s always time for a drink.
I: I haven’t the time.

3 responses to “ANDY: Withnail and I (Robinson, UK, 1987)

  1. An interesting post. I saw WITHNAIL on its release at a time when I aspired to a life in the theatre and was surrounded by the types depicted in the film.

    I have only seen it twice yet, as you say, it’s one of those films that has infiltrated the every day idiom.

    I think I’ve avoided it due to some the painful memories (not Uncle Monty episodes) because Withnails in real-life are a pain in the arse!

    The best posts are the ones that make you want to watch the film again. I will be seeking out my DVD that came free with a newspaper and watching it, looking out for those ‘time’ references.

    By the way, it’s ‘wEIrd thumbs’ as the beard rule applies in this instance. Sorry to be picky.

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