There are fewer iconic images in British cinema than that of a disheveled Richard E. Grant loudly proclaiming “I demand more booze!”, it’s a image from a film that is widely considered in many circles to be one of the finest British films of the last 30 years and for good reason. That film is the incomparable Withnail & I and it is probably one of my favourite comedy films of all time.
Written & directed by Bruce Robinson, Withnail & I concerns two actors living in abject poverty in 1960’s Camden. Disheartened by a slew of failed auditions, the pair decide to flee the city for the seclusion of the Lake District, a decision they both come to regret. A minimal yet perfectly cast production of Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown & Richard Griffiths, these actors deliver comedic performances of such absolute note perfection, tinged with pathos as only the best on screen comedic characters are, Withnail & I was an absolute revelation.
Shot for a meagre £1.1 million, the film utilises the picturesque Lake District to create a beautifully bleak setting for their ill advised holiday, the natural beauty of the locale juxtaposed by the constant rain that follows the hapless pair on their self-destructive retreat made for some arresting and memorable imagery.
The real jewel in this film’s crown are the performances that are given by each of the principal cast, Richard E. Grant’s perpetually intoxicated & bitter Withnail delivering one of cinemas greatest drunks, ironic considering Grant himself is teatotal. Paul McGann’s long suffering and incredulous Marwood, the ‘& I’ of the title, is a masterclass in restrained, downtrodden resignation in being the voice of reason and caretaker to his unruly friend. Richard Griffith’s Uncle Monty is a character played for laughs but tinged with tragedy & pathos and is walked along the thinnest of lines by Griffiths to stop him becoming an offensive charactature. Ralph Brown’s Danny, inventor of the legendary Camberwell Carrot is a character so good he essentially played him twice, resuming the stoned, burnout characteristics one more time for Wayne’s World 2 even if it wasn’t necessarily the same character, he made such a strong impression in Withnail & I that it became ingrained in popular culture enough to be noticed by Hollywood.
Withnail & I, like any well written comedy is eminently quotable, be it “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”, “Monty, you terrible c**t!” Or “GET IN THE BACK OF THE VAN!”, they are all moments so ingrained in the history of cinematic comedy now that they have become instantly recognisable and raise a grin just thinking about them. It is a testament to the writing talent of Robinson & the delivery by the cast to keep the broad comedy trope of the quotable catchphrase on the right side of tolerable.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Withnail & I and I must say that I personally am hard pressed to name a better British comedy in that time. Sure, there are many films that would come close but I can hand on heart say that there isn’t a British comedy that I believe eclipses it.