I saw 'Withnail and I' sixteen hours after throwing up on Bond Street station platform, which is probably the right thing to do. The station manager or one of his lackeys rather crossly told me to be sick over the rails rather than near the blocked up bins (or whatever I thought were bins), obviously he preferred announcing delays due to decapitation rather than cleaning up sick with a mop.
I think it is one of my most public outbursts of sick but lacked the art and choreography of my friend Alex Thomas's sick when he ate too many fig rolls on the way to London Zoo and went to a bin and proceeded to throw up, sadly the bin had no insides, so he was merely sick through a metal tube saying 'Keep Britain Tidy' directly onto his own suede shoes.
Anyway, the day after being admonished for staining the London Underground I went to see a film I knew very little about apart from the fact that Ralph Steadman designed the poster, so I expected something surreal or with a lot of rum in it. What I didn't realise was that I was watching a film that would become one of the most tiresomely quoted in the history of studying for some kind of arts degree at a provincial university.
Withnail and I, despite being up to its neck in human waste, still somehow manages to romanticize total failure, dry retching and sledgehammer hangovers.
I realise that it is pretty pointless retelling the story (I know you know it, in fact, you've got a coat a bit like the one Paul McGann wears that you bought in Camden Market), but here it is.
There are two out of work actors, one is from the fallen rich, the other apparently, is more middle class (maybe even lower middle), they spent a lot of time drinking and trying some drugs. The rich one is a selfish shit, the poorer one may not be, but he is an actor, so it's quite likely. They borrow a cottage in Wales from a gay uncle who grows root vegetables in flowerpots. The cottage and the countryside is not all it was cracked up to be. The rich gay uncle arrives unexpectedly and tries to rape the middle class boy. Middle class boy gets part in RC Sheriff's Journey's End, leaves rich unemployed one to recite Shakespeare in the direction of London Zoo (not far from the bin where Alex Thomas was sick).
That's it, it was very good, and made Richard E Grant a star, but also made it impossible for him ever to top his performance. Withnail and I is one of the UK cinemas most perfect films, it is witty, dark and very English (at no point does Bruce Robinson appear to flirt with Hollywood as so many first time directors do
- "Look I've done a flashy thing, I know it doesn't look very good in this tinpot British thriller set in Docklands, but imagine if you let me come to Hollywood, I'd be great directing adaptations of video games.")
On its initial release there was some debate caused, mostly because there were those that found Richard Griffith's Uncle Monty a homophobic stereotype (mainly in defunct London listings magazine City Limits), but overall it was well-received and word of mouth meant that within two years people would be re-enacting it in bars across the country.
The film's popularity beyond its wit and flawless performances is simple: it appears to celebrate the culture of drugs, drinking and vile sinks, all the things that young people like. The problem with the cinema screen is that it has a way of making the most unpleasant things seem palatable, even heroic, by framing it
(come on, don't you all wish you were next to Tom Hanks getting your guts blown out and holding them in your outstretched arms every time you watch Saving Private Ryan?)
So when people watch Withnail and I they think, oh to be like that, living in squalor and in pain from overuse of booze everyday of your life, that must be wonderful (and as we know from the real Withnail, Vivian MacKerrell, who inspired Bruce Robinson to create the sniveling self-serving coward, you die young and unfulfilled).
Diehard fans of the film not only often say "I feel like a pig's shat in my head" or "Get in the back of the van", but also arrange a rather amusing drinking competition, where they have a drink everytime Withnail and 'I' do. Firstly, there are few excuses in life for drinking cider (approximately once every five
years, on hot summer day, people go: "oh I haven't drunk cider for years" - they order a pint, sip it, smile at the memory of being 14 on a bench in a rundown town, take a second sip and then remember how disgusting it is) and secondly, the film is set over a few days, therefore it is quite unlikely that any of these diehard fans have seen more than the first 30 minutes before standing up, shouting, laughing and bursting into tears. Oh, and if you are going to play this game, then you must also drink lighter fluid (at least a pint of it). Note: if you enjoy this drinking game, then why not play the 'Pink Flamingos' game, which is where you must eat dog shit every time Divine does.
Admittedly that is only once, but that should be enough.
Bruce Robinson's only crime was to create a film whose every line is quoteable (well nearly); a Rocky Horror of plughole detritus. Sadly his career quickly fizzled out, with How To get Ahead in Advertising being too packed full of ideas and Jennifer 8, a perfectly reasonable thriller, vanishing into the back row of the Blockbuster drama shelves. It seems his best story is the one that was his own (or thereabouts). I'm guessing that my first feature will be about Alex Thomas and some fig rolls.
I expect to be disappointed every time I watch Withnail and I, but every time I am struck by its excellence. Sadly, I am a snob, and as much as I hope that my favourite bands try hard not to graze the Top 40 (or at least avoid CD:UK) I pray never to be in a room with someone who says "Look, I can roll a Camberwell Carrot."