Withnail and I: cult film restored and rereleased
Withnail and I: restoration brings the 'Camberwell carrot' and more of the best Withnail and I quotes to a new generation says Tom Palmer
‘Father hated the thought of me being on stage,’ bemoans the lovingly stereotyped and eccentric Withnail, a hopelessly out-of-work actor. ‘Then he must be delighted with your career… you rarely are,’ quips our unnamed protagonist, known to cult obsessives of the film simply as ‘I’.
Set in Camden at the end of the Sixties, Withnail & I follows the desperate travails of two unemployed actors at their wits' end. With a leaking flat, no work and no heating (Withnail is resorted to rubbing Deep Heat on himself for warmth) the two decide to escape London to the Lake District and the cottage of the reclusive and sexually predatory Uncle Monty. A simple enough plot when laid out on paper but this British cult classic is greater than the some of its parts. With career-defining performances from Richard E. Grant (as Withnail), Richard Griffiths (as Uncle Monty) and Paul McGann (as I), Withnail & I has become one of the nation’s most fondly remembered comedies. This may be down to the film’s total authenticity; it is based on writer Bruce Robinson’s time in London as an unemployed actor. Poetically, his decision to part from acting and become a writer brought about the film itself.
Withnail is one of the most quoted (if not over-quoted) movies of its time. ‘I must have some booze! I demand to have some booze’ is a firm favourite, whilst drug dealer Danny, renowned for his self-created ‘Camberwell Carrot’ spliff is given a succession of hilariously understated one-liners: ‘Don’t get uptight with me man,’ he warns Withnail, ‘Cos if you do I’ll have to give you a dose of medicine. And if I spike you, you’ll know you’ve been spoken to.’ Its cult status is unrivalled and over the years fans of the film have developed a range of competing theories about McGann's character's actual name. At one point writer Bruce Robinson had to intervene when a rumour spread that I’s name was in fact Peter, a theory based on a particular line where it was thought Withnail said, ‘Peter’s had an audition for rep’. Robinson felt compelled to clarify that in fact the line read, ‘He’s had an audition for rep’, disappointing many a Withnail nut.
But the film’s glorified status is not exclusively down to its comic sensibilities. This is a story with a bitter sense of pathos, and when Withnail’s wingman I informs him that he has finally been cast in a play as the lead role, things take a sorrowful turn. After a heartfelt farewell, Withnail is left to face destitution on his own. In Regent's Park, in the pouring rain, eyeing the wolves in London zoo, Withnail starts to recite Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man!’, gradually becoming absorbed in the speech. ‘It is the performance of his career,’ the shooting script states, ‘yet his only audience are the wolves’. The final words of the script are as follows: ‘The wolves are unimpressed. Withnail exits into the rain.’
The limited edition and newly restored DVD of Withnail and I is released on 3rd October 2014