Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Never the Dane, but Uncle Monty you were still the best

Richard Griffiths
Richard Griffiths

Chin, chin Uncle Monty. You were the best. Your words, phrases and philosophies will live on, repeated by future generations of film fans stumbling across one of the finest British movies ever made.

You will never be forgotten as long as someone, somewhere rejoices in your passionate, forlorn poetic thoughts on lost times and chances. Your weekend in the country with Withnail and I will forever stand as beautiful testimony to that peculiar yet triumphant British cocktail of nihilistic genius and glorious, debauched failure.

A mixture that provides spirit and insight beyond the reach of any god or guru. That you three represent the quintessential British characteristic of the caustically, hedonistically doomed is beyond doubt. A pox on Jane Austen, 007 and Four Weddings; it is you who more accurately depict the kind of people we are on these windswept isles.

That you were gay at a time, the end of the 60s, when society was not quite ready for it paradoxically gave you an emotional depth that allowed the rhetoric to soar. And you were funny, Uncle Monty. Half aware that your pompous, queenly soliloquies lurched from Shakespearean to Kenneth Williamsian.

Let us examine one such example. Take the post Sunday lunch walk with Withnail and I stumbling along after you in the hills above your ramshackle Lake District holiday home. You tell them of your "sensitive crimes" at Oxford with your first love the red-headed Norman clutching his "poetry book stained with the butter drips from crumpets".

"I often wonder where Norman is now," you say. "Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink and both bars on. But old now, there is no beauty without decay."

All spoken in sighing, rolling Received Pronunciation and what a picture you paint. Of dreams turned to suburban tedium, the replacing of promise for the mundane that is Vim under the sink, the need for both bars on the electric fire to ward off the ice-cold grip of disappointment that has Norman now. It is exquisite.

Here again as you scoop up the hands of "my boys, my boys" after too many glasses of the "finest wines known to humanity".

"We are at the end of an age," you tell them. "We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour and here we are, we three... perhaps the last island of beauty in the world." Delusional, pathetically so perhaps, but also defiant.

You told the boys that you could not touch raw meat while cooking. "As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops." That you preferred vegetables to flowers. "The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts, prostitutes for the bees. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about a firm young carrot."

A failed actor yourself, you urge the boys on to fulfil their dreams. While Withnail is likely to crash and burn like a spectacular Vesuvius of a firework, I just might make it.

Hamming it up for England you tell them: "It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, 'I shall never play the Dane'."

Uncle Monty, you may not have made a decent Hamlet but your place in the pantheon of British greats is assured.

• Actor Richard Griffiths who played Uncle Monty in the 1985 film Withnail and I died last week aged 65. The film, written and directed by Bruce Robinson, centred on two dissolute out-of-work actors played by Richard E Grant and Paul McCann who escape London for a weekend in the country. It was a flop on release but has since become a cult classic. Griffiths was asked to shout out Uncle Monty quotes wherever he went. He rarely refused.

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