Thursday, March 06, 2008

Withnail and I

The best of times, the worst of times

Has a movie ever consigned so many catchphrases to posterity?

‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake! Are you the farmer? Stop saying that Withnail. Course he’s the fucking farmer!’

This writer distrusts cults and sensations, and even more those loved by students (don’t get me started on The Smiths, for example). But if one memory of my sister’s largesse will abide, it’s when she sat me down to watch this almost sickeningly funny film.

‘Scrubbers! Scrubbers!’

It IS funny – quite apart from the tragic-comical way in which struggling thesps Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) scrape what can’t really be called an existence, let alone a living, there’s the strawberry-faced outbursts of scandalously camp Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the coffee-house confrontation in Penrith, all of which are time-capsule jobs for British cinematic historians.

‘I mean to have you, boy…even if it must be burglary…’

But Bruce Robinson’s script and direction have another dimension, that of time - remembered, passed and wasted. The verminously scruffy dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) recites his own lament for the end of the 1960s (the setting is the autumn of 1969). Thereafter, in the teeming rain of Regents’ Park, Withnail bids farewell to Marwood - who has finally found work - and thus to a part of his sagging, defeated life. For Robinson, this is also a monument to a past become unthinkable in the Britain of Thatcher and monetarism into which the film was released; a 1960s that was not all Jane Asher, Carnaby Street and mod ensigns.

‘I feel like a pig shat in my head…’

It’s the film’s quality of tackling temporality, often concealed by the belly-laughs, which is what elevates merely a great British comedy into a classic movie, one which – unlike, say, Brassed Off (1996) or The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) – can resonate with audiences from Camden Town to Kuala Lumpur. Even if the bits we remember are the bits everyone remembers.

‘Look at him, Withnail! His mechanism’s gone.’

The signature piece featured on the soundtrack is Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower as the heroes motor up an empty M1 in a ruined Jaguar D-type. This is a neat analogy – popular culture at its most inventive, dynamic and inspiring.

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