Charting the travails of two out-of-work actors in the dying days of the 1960 s, British movie slapstick Withnail and I has staggered to its 30 th birthday. Star Richard E Grant seems back at its filming and checks to see whether anyone else could have tackled the role that set him on the road to Hollywood. Chin chin!
Camden Town. Two sleep-deprived thespians wallow in filth, battling drug-induced paranoia, a worrying absence of liquor and stalled careers.
What follows – an ill-fated jaunt “to the country” and run-ins with an assortment of misfits and malcontents – would wed with caustic dialogue to produce an oft-quoted classic.
Largely unnoticed on its release in April 1987, standout performances by Grant as the acid-tongued Withnail and Paul McGann as the more introspective I helped the cinema gradually gather a dedicated following.
No less memorable was its supporting casting of colourful characters, among them the love-struck Uncle Monty( Richard Griffiths ), drug-dealer Danny( Ralph Brown) and poacher Jake( Michael Elphick ).
Initially created as a semi-autobiographical novel by Bruce Robinson more than a decade and a half earlier, the writer-turned-director would largely use his one-time flatmate Vivian MacKerrell as the inspiration for the scabrous Withnail, while I – identified as Marwood in the script – was a version of Robinson himself.
It was, as he has outlined, “a tale of English hopelessness” and hurled a spotlight on his “appalling lifestyle” as he struggled to find work after leaving London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.
With each set-piece so perfectly penned, the stale cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes almost oozed through the screen.
But while the story may have been loaded with giggles, Robinson demanded his dialogue was delivered with a straight face.
“Bruce was very exacting and did not brook any improvisation or word substitutes, ” says Grant, who himself had been without work for nine months and become increasingly beset by nagging doubts concerning his chosen career, having emigrated from Swaziland to Britain at the turn of the 80 s.
“He was also adamant that as there were no jokes or punchlines, it had to be played with deadly seriousness.
“The script was so accurate in carrying the annoyances of being an out-of-work actor that as soon as Paul and I played everything ‘for real’, Bruce was very open and accommodating.
“That experience[ of being unemployed] proved invaluable. Withnail is so staggeringly self-obsessed and entitled, which anyone who has been to drama school will be all too familiar with! “
Auditioning for the portion would nearly mirror the character’s woes, as Grant vied against a gaggle of better-known names in a casting merry-go-round as dizzying as the concoction of beverage and drugs downed throughout the film.
Daniel Day-Lewis had turned down the various roles and other resulting competitors included Bill Nighy and Ed Tudor-Pole.
It was not much easier for McGann, with the role of Marwood offered to Michael Maloney.
Having stepped into his shoes, his strong Liverpudlian accent promptly find him sacked before an equally swift reinstatement.
So what was it that Robinson eventually identified in the duo?
“Finding a contrasting pair of performers made the audition process protracted, ” Grant recollects, “as Bruce was very determined to secure two people who looked and sounded like Vivian and himself.
“Paul is unbelievably handsome and had the quality of ‘an innocent abroad’, which Bruce was after.”
While it may seem nearly inconceivable for fans to imagine anyone else in the role of Withnail, Grant modestly disagrees.
Bruce Robinson paid for the filming of additional scenes out of his own pocket after Handmade refused to stump up the extra money Producer Denis O’Brien wanted filming shut down as he had expected a comedy more akin to Monty Python Devoted fans make pilgrimages to many of the film’s places. However, anyone visiting Penrith for its tea rooms will be sorely disappointed – that scene was filmed 240 miles away in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes Paul McGann had only just passed his driving exam when shooting began, and for the motorway scenes was replaced behind the wheel by Robinson Despite his acclaimed portraying of a desperate drunk, Richard E Grant is famously allergic to alcohol Image caption Image caption Image caption