A cold, damp, squalid flat. An even more dank and miserable cottage on a storm-soaked hillside. A cast of wretched characters who appear to be competing to see who can be the most unpleasant. And—according to Bruce Robinson, the film’s own writer and director—no jokes.
If that doesn’t sound like promising material for a comedy to you, you wouldn’t be entirely alone. According to Robinson, the film’s producers were so convinced the project was doomed after the first day’s shooting that they washed their hands of it, leaving Robinson to do his own thing.
And indeed, Withnail & I, starring Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann respectively in the title roles, did not perform especially well at the box office. As of April 10th this year , that original release was three decades ago. Since then however, it found its audience on video and subsequently on DVD and is frequently voted one of the best British comedies of all time by critics and the general public alike. As many of its fans who have lived in the Milton Keynes area will already know, Stony Stratford makes a cameo appearance; the Market Square doubles for the centre of Penrith in the Lake District, the destination for the two perpetually intoxicated actors’ ill-fated holiday. Stony may only feature for a few minutes, but in that time Richard E. Grant’s Withnail utters one of the film’s most famous lines, demanding ‘the finest wines available to humanity!’
That’s as much of the film’s dialogue as I will quote, because, as this example perhaps demonstrates, it’s not especially funny if you haven’t already heard it in context. I think this is what Robinson meant about there not being any jokes. Comedy as a genre isn’t always associated with great acting, but the whole cast is superb, with Grant, Ralph Brown, and the late Richard Griffiths giving particularly memorable performances. The dialogue is wonderful, but without its precise setting, timing, delivery, and often other characters’ wordless reactions, it could easily fall flat; ‘situation comedy’ would be an apt description for this if the term didn’t already have quite different connotations of light-heartedness and joviality. Which, as I’ve already established, are not exactly the film’s hallmarks.
The dependence on context extends beyond the humour. While Withnail & I is uproariously funny, there is also a melancholic poignancy to it. It somehow manages to make you feel for characters who, on paper, and it must be said for the vast majority of their screen-time, are deeply unsympathetic. This contributes greatly to the film’s longevity. The cracking period-appropriate soundtrack certainly doesn’t hurt either. If there’s a better cinematic use of Jimi Hendrix out there, I’m yet to encounter it.
If you’ve never seen Withnail & I, the film’s 30th anniversary affords a good excuse to take in this dark jewel of British cinema for the first time. Alternatively, if you have seen it but it’s been a while, I hope I’ve inspired you to take another look.