Belfast Telegraph

Withnail and I: Bruce Robinson has hit a peak just once... but what a peak it was

By Mike Gilson

What if the best thing you ever created was 38 years ago? Wouldn't that be a source of regret? That a peak point of your life was almost four decades ago. Wouldn't you always be struggling to recapture that moment, top it with something else?

If you're Bruce Robinson, I'd guess not. Because if what you did 38 years ago was and remains peerless shouldn't you just go with it? Robinson was the writer and director of a film called Withnail and I. It is a work of utter genius, possibly the best British film of all time.

I wrote about it last year when one of its stars, Richard Griffiths, who plays queenly Uncle Monty, sadly died. I received a lovely letter from Griffiths' widow, a native of Northern Ireland, who told me that her late husband knew the film was a classic from the start even though he only spent two weeks on it.

It is not an exaggeration to say that virtually every line of Withnail and I is a standalone gem, a perfectly crafted love note to British nihilism, fecklessness, but also some kind of love, all quoted verbatim by generation upon generation of new converts who stumble across the DVD.

Virtually ignored when released in cinemas in 1987, its slow-burning life has turned it into a cult. Brad Pitt says it's among his top three films of all time. Now it has been remastered and is back on the big screen for the first time since two men and a dog watched it.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket to the cinema (the QFT is showing it next week) if you've not seen it before. I've watched it scores of times and it is always as fresh and as funny and as poignant as it was when I saw it at the flea-bitten Gravesend Roxy in 87.

Richard E Grant and Paul McGann play two out-of-work actors who escape end-of-the-Sixties London for a weekend in the Lake District at the aforementioned Uncle Monty's cottage.

Monty's disastrous attempt to seduce McGann's character (I) and Grant's fantastically doomed Withnail rants and monologues is all there is by way of plot. It's all that's needed.

Robinson intrigues me. A handsome jobbing actor turned scriptwriter, his Withnail and I is autobiographical. There's a little of Withnail in him, but that character is mainly based on a failed actor and glorious fantasist he used to live with in Camden squalor called Vivian MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995 aged just 51.

Robinson wrote a book about his experiences shortly after he and MacKerrell finally went their separate ways, the former to eventual glory, the latter to supernova destruction.

Twenty years later he finally got to make a film out of the book that somehow got to the screen even though he threatened to walk off on day one of filming after interference from the company putting up the trifling sum to make a classic. Thank God he stuck to his vision for 50-odd years later his work has a life of its own, creating disciples whenever it's fed into the DVD.

People even make pilgrimages to the run-down cottage near Penrith where Withnail, I and Monty spend their, what has become eternal, lost weekend.

For me, Withnail speaks more about what it is to be from these isles than any Mr Darcy or stuttering Four Weddings buffoon ever can.

Robinson was paid just £30,000 for the film and received no royalties. He is still compelling, some Withnail, some I, a brilliant interviewee whose turn of phrase can make you laugh out loud. Check him out on YouTube.

Later years of film directing and scriptwriting have, shall we say, been patchy. But when you see him tirelessly answering questions about his masterpiece it's obvious he knows the answer to the questions posed above.

It is better to have risen to the artistic peak just once than forever be gazing longingly up from the foothills like the rest of us.

  • Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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