Uncle Monty in, Bruce Robinson’s brilliant directorial debut, Withnail and I, is one of the great comic characters of British film in the last half of the twentieth century. Marwood’s nemesis has become so popular, especially with his gay admirers, that he even has own fanclub.
Montague Withnail, as played by Thornaby’s finest son Richard Griffiths, the portly seducer spends less time on-screen than either of the leading players, but has ensured Robinson’s cult comedy a place in British film history, putting it with the best of Ealing’s darker masterpieces.
Kind Hearts and Coronets and Withnail and I both share a dark heart. Whilst the former is clearly fiction, the latter is clearly autobiographical. If so, who was Uncle Monty? The truth, in this case, is most certainly stranger than fiction.
As a young actor, Robinson, who had just left drama school and had yet to tread the boards, found himself flying to Rome to star in Franco Zefferelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet. His initial euphoria at landing such a plum job, however, swiftly turned to trepidation once he had touched down in Italy.
From an interview given many years later, he admitted that Uncle Monty was based on his experiences with the famous director. Unable to reciprocate Zefferelli’s advances, he made the callow actor’s life a living hell, claiming that the young Robinson was nothing more than “a pretty face” and not much else.
Whereas, in the film, Marwood escapes the clutches of Monty and suffers no lasting ill effects, Robinson was not so lucky. He returned to England and ended up being hospitalised, due to a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, he recovered. As everyone in the industry was aware of what happened, however, he found it difficult to get acting work which eventually led him to writing. He would later be nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for The Killing Fields.
Now the older, and much wiser, Robinson is magnanimous in his feelings towards Zefferelli: “If I met him today I’d be the first to open a bottle…”
Yet, without that hellish experience, we would have been deprived of one of the greatest comedic characters to have graced British film in the latter half of the twentieth century.