Destined from the very start to be the student film of choice, Withnail and I spawned a generation who would hold this film as the benchmark for on-screen drinking.
From this revisiting of Bruce Robinson’s much-misspent youth sprung forth a collection of fabulously quotable one-liners – “You can shove it up your arse for nothing and fuck off while you’re doing it!” – and great performances from both Richard E. Grant as Withnail and Paul McGann as the more innocent “I” (he is never called by his scripted name, Peter Marwood).
Impoverished and growing increasingly demented in London in 1969, the hapless duo of unemployed actors borrow a cottage in Cumbria from Withnail’s eccentric Uncle Monty (a magnificent Richard Griffiths).
But far from the pastoral bliss portrayed in other English films, they find the country a rapacious, hostile environment and matters are not helped by the arrival of urbane, gay Uncle Monty, who has fallen for “I” and won’t take no for an answer: “I mean to have you boy”, he tells him. “Even if it must be burglary”.
The bulk of the laughs are courtesy of the outlandish Withnail, whether he is smearing liniment on his body to keep warm, drinking lighter fluid, or searching for child urine in a bid to outwit the drink-driving tests.
But bedecked in John Lennon glasses and sporting a nervous disposition, McGann instils his role with an inner strength and confidence that Grant’s blustering Withnail could never have.
Further colour is added by Michael Elphick as a sinister poacher, and Ralph Brown as Danny – the duo’s parasitic dope dealer and the self-aggrandising inventor of the “Camberwell Carrot”.
The original script called for Withnail to commit suicide at the end, but this was sensibly rejected. The truth is that this blistering Teflon drunk is a bit too tough to kill.
Who could believe from this film that Grant is both a confirmed teetotaller and non-smoker – and that was from before, not as a result of filming. Certainly, this is the only film that could turn Penrith into a cult destination for film fans and dope heads the world over.
Utterly, utterly brilliant.
Richard E Grant
“I” (Peter Marwood)