Apologies to John Keats for mangling the title of his poem on King Lear, but it seemed very appropriate. This blog has always covered an eclectic mix of subjects to say the least, breaking basic rules of blogging (know your niche, focus, give readers what they want etc) but one thing I rarely talk about is film. Yet I had ambitions – I took an Arvon Course on screenwriting eight years ago, when Jane Campion had recently stolen my thunder and come up with an idea for a biopic of John Keats that wasn’t about Keats and announced Bright Star. So I was hoping to focus on adapting a short story I had written about my great-uncle (that went on to inspire my book, Shell Shocked Britain) into a short film. On the first evening the course leaders went round the gathered company asking each of us to name our favourite film.
Now this was a challenge to me as I rarely sit down to watch a movie. My husband and I have very different tastes and although I will happily watch a two-hour episode of Inspectors Morse, Lewis or Montalbano, I am not a ‘movie night’ kind of gal. I often lose patience mid way through a DVD, and trips to the cinema are infrequent. I do love some films – Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and the aforementioned Bright Star; Love Actually is a favourite at Christmas largely because Emma Thompson is so brilliant in it, and at the same time of year the Muppet Christmas Carol is an annual treat.
But when asked the question there was really only one real contender – Withnail and I. It is a film that divides my friends. A couple simply don’t get it, but most are, like me, rolling about with laughter within 5 minutes. It is by turns funny, cruel, and full of pathos, reducing me to a choked up mess by the ending. I felt utterly vindicated in my choice when one of the screenwriters taking the week said it was one of the best screenplays ever written. I have seen it about twenty times.
Made in 1987, it is set in the late sixties and focuses on two ‘resting’ actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (the ‘I’ of the title played by Paul McGann). The Internet Movie Database offers a great summary of what passes for a plot:
“fed up with damp, cold, piles of washing-up, mad drug dealers and psychotic Irishmen, [Withnail and ‘I’] decide to leave their squalid Camden flat for an idyllic holiday in the countryside, courtesy of Withnail’s uncle Monty’s country cottage. But when they get there, it rains non-stop, there’s no food, and their basic survival skills turn out to be somewhat limited. Matters are not helped by the arrival of Uncle Monty, who shows an uncomfortably keen interest in Marwood…”
That barely scratches the surface of the film’s appeal. Richard E Grant is fabulous as the deluded, cowardly, lying but utterly charming Withnail, and Paul McGann as the anxiety ridden but sensible at heart Marwood, is beautiful. They are the perfect pairing in a film that made only a ripple when in first came out but has since become a cult hit. Pilgrimages are made to the locations; London, Lake District and Stoney Stratford nr Milton Keynes ( which pretended to be Penrith). It is so difficult to properly describe why it is so funny, but it is definitely in the delivery. It is now one of those films that people can quote verbatim, each scene almost a short, memorable, sketch. My favourites include:
Look at this; accident blackspot? These aren’t accidents, they’re throwing themselves into the road! Throwing themselves into the road gladly to escape all this hideousness. [Heckles pedestrian] Throw yourself into the road, darling, you haven’t got a chance!
I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.
And of course, they went on holiday by mistake…..
The language is unremittingly bad, so if that is offensive to you, don’t go near it. However, this, the official trailer, can give you a (perfectly clean) flavour of what you will miss..
We have recently watched the film again and it never fails to absorb, despite numerous viewings. You are bound to have at least one friend who is devoted to it, and another who can’t see why you love it and wants Bridget Jones on instead. If you haven’t seen it, do give it a try.The soundtrack is fabulous, as is the clapped out Jag, and Paul McGann’s coat is as gorgeous as the man in it (forget The Matrix, Marwood wore it first…). And if at the end of the film you can get through Withnail’s delivery of a Hamlet soliloquy, in the pouring rain, through a fence to the wolf enclosure of London’s Zoo you have a harder heart than I have……
Are you a Withnail lover or loather? Have you a favourite quote? I would love to hear from you!