By Garin Pirnia
When the British film Withnail and I was released in 1987, it wasn’t a huge hit. It took a VHS release for people to develop a taste for the movie, which follows two “resting” thespians, the dipsomaniac Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), in 1969. Withnail and I visit Uncle Monty (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) in the countryside for a “holiday by mistake,” one in which everything goes wrong.
First-time director Bruce Robinson—who was nominated for an Oscar two years earlier for his script for The Killing Fields—based the screenplay on his own life as a broke actor in drama school living in Camden Town, England. Beatle George Harrison produced the film through his HandMade Films, which is why Robinson was able to use The Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the soundtrack. The film launched the careers of everyone involved, including McGann (Doctor Who) and Grant. Here are 13 boozy facts about the cult classic.
1. WITHNAIL WAS BASED ON BRUCE ROBINSON’S FRIEND, ACTOR VIVIAN MACKERRELL.
Robinson and MacKerrell were flatmates in the 1960s, and he based Withnail on his friend. “Withnail is basically me and Viv, but I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and notepad writing down what Viv said,” Robinson told Daily Record. “I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humor and wrote that character.” MacKerrell’s friend, Colin Bacon, wrote a book about MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995 (Robinson believes that drinking lighter fluid in real life possibly led to the disease).
Although Withnail is based on MacKerrell, the movie is fictional. “He certainly had his opinions, but I never witnessed him being as nasty as the Richard E. Grant character,” Bacon said. “Withnail and I had loads of Vivian in it, but the extreme version. He isn’t the character. There’s a bit of artistic license. And the one thing Bruce Robinson warned me about was that I couldn’t claim that anything said in the film was ever uttered by Vivian or else he’d issue a writ. He’s adamant that Viv didn’t say these things, although he stated in a revised screenplay of the film that although ‘there isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail, his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word.’”
Bacon said MacKerrell was proud of the movie, “but he didn’t sit with an arrow pointing to his head saying ‘Withnail.’ He had too much going for him for that.”
2. ROBINSON WROTE THE STORY DURING A DIFFICULT WINTER.
Just as I left Withnail for a job, MacKerrell left Robinson for a gig. “I was left alone with no money, no food, a gas oven, one light bulb, and a mattress on the floor,” Robinson told Premiere. “It was the winter of 1969. I was desolate, completely in despair. I was an actor and I couldn’t get a job. So one day I came back to the flat and it was snowing, and I started weeping and screaming at the floorboards. Begging the God of Equity, or any f*cking god, you know, to help me. And then it really made me laugh, the predicament that I was in. I laughed hysterically when I thought about it. And I had this old Olivetti typewriter that I used to try and write poetry on. I sat down and I started writing this story about my predicament, involving me and my friend who had now gone.”
At first the story was written as a novel, not a screenplay. A friend gave the novel to a guy who wanted Robinson to adapt it into a comedy TV series. Another guy came along and told Robinson, “this is going to make a great movie.” In 1980 that guy gave Robinson money to adapt it into a script, but the project went into limbo for six years. Eventually, George Harrison got a hold of the script and thought it was funny, and Robinson was in business.
3. SOME PEOPLE THINK THE MOVIE WAS FILMED IN THE 1960S.
The movie takes place in 1969, and the low-budget quality of it often leads viewers to think it was filmed at that time. It was not. “It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann told the New Zealand Herald about the movie. “Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an ’80s picture. I’ve had people say to me ‘Geez, I thought it was actually shot in the ’60s’—I don’t know how old they think I am!”
4. THE NAME “WITHNAIL” COMES FROM ROBINSON’S CHILDHOOD.
In 2013, Richard E. Grant revealed on Twitter that Withnail’s first name was “Vyvian,” but according to Robinson, in real life the guy’s name was Jonathan. “The reason he’s called Withnail is because when I was a little boy I knew this bloke called Jonathan Withnall—Nall. Because I can’t spell, I called him ‘Nail.’ And he backed his Aston Martin into a police car, and he was like the coolest guy I’d ever met in my life, so consequently that name stayed in my head.”
5. RALPH BROWN AUDITIONED IN CHARACTER.
Ralph Brown plays the funny drug dealer Danny, who supplies Withnail and I with The Camberwell Carrot. “I read the stage directions very carefully and I decided to dress like Danny, as I saw him at the time,” Brown said about his audition, in the documentary Withnail and Us. “He was quite frightening when he came with purple nail varnish and eye makeup and all the rest of it,” Robinson said. “Yeah, he was a shock.”
“I think he had a bit of a laugh because I looked a bit foolish,” Brown said. “He probably also thought I was worth a go. He didn’t let me know how foolish I was.”
In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Brown reprises Danny, this time as roadie Del Preston.
6. KENNETH BRANAGH WAS OFFERED THE PART OF I.
Robinson cast McGann as I, but Robinson didn’t like his Liverpool accent, so he fired him. During that time, Robinson considered Kenneth Branagh for the part. “I offered Paul’s part to Ken Branagh and he turned me down,” Robinson said. “He wanted to play Withnail, and I didn’t want him to do that. I didn’t think he had enough nobility. Marvelous actor that he is, there’s something about Ken that is the antithesis of Byronesque; he looks like a partially cooked doughnut. Richard looks like a f*cking Byron, you know.” Realizing McGann was the best choice, Robinson hired him back.
7. UNCLE MONTY’S HOUSE SOLD IN 2009, BUT YOU CAN STILL VISIT IT.
The rural, 18th-century farmhouse where Uncle Monty lives is known as “Crow Crag” in the movie, but the actual place is called Sleddale Hall, and is located in Cumbria, England. In 2009, the dilapidated house sold for £265,000, but the new owner wasn’t able to pay for it so it went back on the market, and a man named Tim Ellis purchased it later in the year.
After the sale, Ellis said he planned on keeping the Withnail presence in redecorating it. “I first saw the film about seven years ago and have been a fan ever since,” he told The Guardian. “I would like to restore the building in a way that other fans of the film could approve of.” In 2013, an outdoor screening of the movie was held at the cottage, where fans camped out and reveled in the surreal moment.
8. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.
In the novelization, Robinson ends it on Withnail filling a gun with a bottle of 1953 Chateau Margaux wine and then killing himself. The actual ending entails a drunk Withnail reciting a line from Hamlet to London Zoo wolves. “It’s sadder to let him go on with that horrible life,” Robinson told Vice. “When the I character leaves him, he’s alone. You know he’s f*cked. That was quite true, in a way, with poor Viv. A complete total f*cking disaster life he had. We worked hard on the ending: the buildup to when Fatty Grant pulled off, did he not, that Shakespeare at the end? It still blows me away. He just had that right rage.”