Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in director Amma Asante's period drama, which is based on the true story of Georgian Britain's first mixed-race aristocrat, Dido Belle.
On Film4: 23 Jan 9:00PM
"We just ran out of wine. What are we gonna do about it?" Two unemployed actors go on holiday by mistake, in this classic British comedy
"Withnail And I touches a chord in people" says Ralph Brown, aka Danny the Dealer. "It makes people feel sad while making them laugh." It couldn't have been otherwise: for a so-called 'comedy', Withnail (and just about everybody connected with it) has been on the end of some of the unfunniest treatment imaginable.
Take its troubled creator Bruce Robinson. As a boy, he'd pile saucepans behind his bedroom door to act as an alarm in case his brutal stepfather, who kept a revolver by his bed, came to murder him in the middle of the night. Actor Richard E Grant's baby girl died 13 weeks before shooting began - possibly accounting for the intensity of his performance; co-star Paul McGann suffers from stage fright (not ideal for an ex-RADA student); while Richard Griffiths, the son of a deaf-mute couple, was kicked out of school for being a "trouble-maker." (His weight, the result of childhood radiation therapy, had prejudiced his teachers.)
The movie was almost shut down three days into the shoot by Handmade boss and co-producer Denis O'Brien for having no discernible 'jokes', while Robinson was forced to shell out £30,000 of his own money for scenes of Grant and McGann travelling back to London after their delightful weekend in the country - shots O'Brien deemed unnecessary.
The movie's publicity people decided to preview it to a bunch of non-English speaking German students, and it was withdrawn from cinemas three weeks into its first run. The production company Handmade went bust, executive producer George Harrison was subsequently fleeced for millions by O'Brien and, after narrowly escaping being stabbed to death by a stalker, prematurely lost his life to cancer - along with Vivian MacKerrell, upon whom the character of Withnail was modelled, and in 2004, the film's casting director Mary Selway. (Jake the Poacher, Michael Elphick, had succumbed two years earlier to an alcohol-aided heart attack).
As far as the soundtrack goes, King Curtis, whose heart-wrenching version of 'A Whiter Side Of Pale' from 'Live From Filmore West' opens the movie, was stabbed to death in 1971; Jimi Hendrix, whose music bookends the flight to and from the Lake District, choked to death on his own vomit, while Uncle Monty's favourite wartime crooner Al Bowlly was killed by a Luftwaffe mine during the Blitz. Meanwhile, Bruce (who must be looking over his shoulder every day) was paid a one-off director's fee of £80,000, hasn't made a penny out of Withnail, is still owed £30,000, hasn't made anything half as good since, and really wishes everyone would stop bugging him about the movie. Kind of understandable, really.
Like a slow-burning Camberwell Carrot, Withnail And I (in novel, script and movie form) has been passed around intoxicated fans for decades. And, like a good joke and a fine wine, the story improves with age. The movie's belated resurrection through university halls, on video and DVD, scooping up legions of dialogue-quoters, copycat drinkers, and trivia fiends in its wake, has seen it become one of the most beloved films of the past 20 years, owing to its pitch-perfect performances (Grant, in particular, has reluctantly coasted on his splenetic debut ever since), the unshowy direction (no "jokes"), the music - and, of course, that fantastic (and fantastically quotable) dialogue, much of which has since entered the language.
Withnail And I has entered the pantheon of true British classics, surpassing even its original cult status; a rare accolade. Yet for all the glorious bad behaviour and gleeful antics associated with the movie and its devotees, it's profoundly melancholic; the ending, one of the most moving ever seared into celluloid.
Much of this sense of sadness undoubtedly springs from Robinson, whose personal history (and the story, in fact, behind Withnail And I, for the two are indelibly linked) has since passed into legend. There can't be many people unfamiliar with the mythos, but for the yet uninitiated (and how we envy you!), the heavily autobiographical Withnail begins with an unpublished screenplay called 'Private Pirates'.
In the late 1960s, Bruce, then a most reluctant student at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, along with his Camden flatmate Michael Feast, had found an ad in the 'Times' for an "idyllic cottage" in the Lake District for a tenner a week. There, they'd imagined they'd write their 'Private Pirates' script, about a bunch of people who didn't know they were pirates, in beautiful surroundings. Having driven up in actress Lesley-Anne Down's dilapidated old Jaguar (Bruce was dating her at the time), all they discovered was a freezing barn with a leaky roof. They'd had to burn the furniture just to keep warm, and tramp around with polythene bags on their feet because they'd neglected to bring Wellingtons. For food, they'd half-brained a chicken with an axe. The decapitated bird had strutted around without a head, so they'd had to whack it again until it stayed down. After driving Lesley's Jag into a ditch, a passing farmer hoisted it to the back of his tractor and pulled the entire front of it off. The pair couldn't wait to leave.
Bruce's boozy flatmates gradually moved out, until just Robinson and an upper-class, perennially resting rake called Vivian MacKerrell were left behind in the squalid flat. For Robinson, the ranting Viv was a revelation, introducing the wide-eyed secondary-modern boy to the delights of Keats, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Baudelaire, fine wine and scotch before breakfast. In 1968 Bruce found himself pursued by Franco Zeffirelli to play the part of Benvolio for the director's Romeo And Juliet, propositioning Robinson with the now immortal chat-up line: "Are you a sponge or a stone?"
Then, in the winter of 1969, Vivian left. Remarkably, he'd got a job. Bruce was left penniless and starving, with just a gas oven, a box of matches and a single light bulb, which he'd carry from room to room. One snowy day, alone in his room, Bruce began to weep and scream at the floorboards, "begging the god of Equity, or any fucking god, to help me".
It was such a ludicrous, hopeless situation, that Bruce began to laugh. Hysterically. Maniacally. And, grabbing the old Olivetti typewriter he'd used to try and write poetry on, sat down and poured it all out - the story of the aborted country retreat, the predatory homosexual, his outrageous friend, his leave-taking - everything. As he said later, it was the first time he'd truly found his voice. Conflating characters and incidents, Bruce would limit his leads to just two people - the sensible, if panic-prone Marwood (Bruce, in other words), the eponymous 'I' of the title, and his friend Withnail (Viv, to all intents and purposes). Zeffirelli became Withnail's predatory Uncle Monty, owner of the Lake District cottage, who has designs on his nephew's best friend.
The result is a tragi-comic masterpiece, an incisive essay on male companionship, suffused with a peculiarly English sense of schadenfreude; and befitting its origins, gilded in grief throughout. Withnail And I is a deliberately crusted over paint pot: in place of the psychedelic colours of the 1960s are the colours of mourning and loss - autumnal browns, lethargic greys and dismal blacks, stippled into the frame on Robinson's insistence.
Aside from the legend 'Camden 1969' at the film's beginning (and signs for the M25 accidentally finding their way into the picture), Withnail also has the curious distinction of being both timeless, and a comment on its time - meaning the time it was first released, the 1980s, a decade when heritage films proliferated; period pictures such as Chariots Of Fire and the Merchant-Ivory productions harked back to the Tory ideal of England, a patriotic escapism from the troubles of Thatcherism. Robinson refuses to buy into the fantasy: poverty, drugs, housing problems, homophobia, racism and unemployment were all fixtures of the 1960s - and the 1980s. Retreating to the English pastoral won't help Withnail and Marwood. Apart from one rare moment of stillness, a beautiful country dawn rising over the lakes, the pair find only horror there. Bulls run amok, locals greet their overtures with suspicion, the rain is constant, the darkness blinding. Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes similarly subverts any notion of a peaceful wood beyond the world - where even a glide down a sun-dappled provincial river is fraught with potential danger.
Robinson says that the symbolism of Marwood's haircut at the end of the film was prompted by the horror of Thatcherism coming along, and in Uncle Monty's post-prandial diatribe and Danny's stoned soliloquy there's much that resonates with the era's malaise. Danny's portentous musing is precipitous indeed; the stock market crash and inevitable recession was just around the corner. (Robinson's follow up, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, bombed at the box office, having replaced Withnail's subtle digs with a steamrolling anti-Thatcherism polemic.)
Withnail ends the film howling Hamlet's soliloquy, the greatest performance he'll ever give, to a couple of disinterested spectators in the rain. For 170 years this little corner of Regent's Park, an overspill from London Zoo, housed a pack of wolves. During full moons, sad souls would congregate to listen to the creatures as they howled at the silver disc. Bram Stoker came to study them for 'Dracula', while Ted Hughes sought solace here following the death of Sylvia Path, empathising with their lonely moans. In 1998 the last two ageing inhabitants - presumably the ones from the movie - were removed, having outlasted Withnail himself, Vivian MacKerrell. Through Withnail And I, his mischievous legacy, for good or ill, lives on.
The best British comedy ever made? Possibly. A masterpiece? Unquestionably.
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