Thursday, 16 June 2011

Withnail & Me

As a student I rarely lasted until the end of a night out. Without telling anyone I would slope silently away from whichever nightclub or hostelry we were revelling in. Quite why I did this remains a mystery even to me. Perhaps boredom? A little bit of attention seeking? Or just not wanting people to nag me into staying out*? More likely it was the desire to indulge in my favourite solo pleasure...

That pleasure was, of course, Withnail & I. God knows how many times I woke up - fully clothed – to the DVD menu illuminating my room as the soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower blared away. Having drunkenly fallen asleep shortly after putting the disc in the drawer I would rarely get beyond the first few scenes - which I can still recite word for word to this day. I’ve probably seen the opening around a hundred times. And the remainder of the film around fifty.

For the uninitiated, Withnail & I is quite simply the greatest film about drinking, friendship and the Lake District ever made. Set during at fag end of the sixties, it tells the tale of two unemployed actors struggling to make ends meet. They lather themselves in Deep Heat to stay warm, drink epic quantities of alcohol and lighter fluid and eventually go on holiday by mistake. Along the way they meet Withnail’s voraciously homosexual Uncle Monty, Danny the demonic drug dealer and ‘the fucking farmer’.

It’s almost certainly the most quotable film ever made. Any student who has never walked into a bar (or tearoom) and ordered ‘the finest wines available to humanity’ is both a disgrace to his family and the educational establishment he represents. Almost every scene contains a one liner, a witticism, or a gem of dialogue which can be reproduced in any social situation – and given that many of them concern the imbibing of gargantuan quantities of alcohol or drugs it’s little wonder that young men have embraced and popularised many of them. Amongst the phrases which pepper my everyday speech are corkers such as:

I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze.

I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!

I feel like a pig shat in my head.

Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can't.

I want something's flesh.

You terrible cunt!

These phrases (and many others) were the language I used to communicate with my housemate Rich for approximately the first three months of his tenancy. We rarely had a conversation without slipping a line of Withnail dialogue into it. And that was fine with me – it convinced me that he was on my wavelength.

Of course, Withnail & I has also spawned an infamous drinking game. There’s nothing sophisticated about it – you just match the characters drink for drink. True aficionados might even go as far as drinking lighter fluid when Withnail does. Clearly this is not recommended. Famously, during the filming of this scene director Bruce Dickinson (for whom the film is semi-autobiographical) switched the water in the tin for malt vinegar. Completely unaware, actor Richard E Grant knocked back the whole can - giving rise to an entirely natural reaction which made it into the final cut.

It’s Grant who carries the film, despite absolutely flawless performances from every single cast member. Famously tea-total, he got absolutely plastered drinking vodka before filming began and has never touched another drop since. But that one drinking session provided the material for arguably the finest screen drunk of all time. He’s a magnificent creation: embittered yet melancholy; passive aggressive; intelligent yet troubled. In the 25 years since Grant has come nowhere near the genius of his performance (one of the finest accounts of the movie-making process I’ve ever read is Grant’s autobiography With Nails).

But not many of those associated with the film have. Bruce Dickinson never achieved much further directorial success , Paul McGann failed spectacularly as Dr Who and the rest of the cast became character actors or played bit parts in soaps. Uncle Monty is the exception to this – on both stage and screen Richard Griffiths has endured.

I’m not sure it’s possible to put into words how good this film is and I certainly haven’t done it justice. The story is slight, and out of context the quotes make little sense. But context is key. Watch it with a beer. Watch it with your mates. Just watch it. I’m not sure it changed my life but it definitely changed my drinking habits and has influenced my vocabulary ever since. It’s the funniest film ever made, features the greatest characters ever committed to celluloid and should be part of every self-respecting film fan’s collection.

*In truth I still do this. Probably for the same reasons.

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