You Terrible Cult: The Enduring Appeal Of ‘Withnail And I’

Which films do you revisit every couple of years? I never tire of ‘Sideways’, ‘Diner’, ‘Duel’, ‘Career Girls’, ‘Tape’, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘The Apartment’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and a few others too.

But ‘Withnail’, released 30 years ago this week, should probably go right at the top of that list. I first saw it around 1988 when my dad rented the video. I think he was a vague acquaintance of the movie’s writer/director Bruce Robinson at the time and had an inkling that it would float my boat.

How right he was. I was immediately smitten, drawn in by the superb swearing, anti-establishment mood, hilariously down-at-heel, self-important protagonists and low-key ending. By the early ’90s, there was an outbreak of Withnails all over Britain – pasty, unshaven, rather insolent youths mooching around in leather overcoats and muttering about ‘wanting the finest wines available to humanity’…

Not a big hit on its original release, ‘Withnail’ has nonetheless become a classic cult movie, inspiring many devotees and even a notorious drinking game. But why has it endured? Here are seven reasons why it doesn’t seem to date as the years go by (swearing and spoiler alerts…).

7. No ‘Crap Bits’

Actor Ralph Brown – who plays Danny the Dealer – analysed ‘Withnail”s appeal thus. Almost every movie has a clunky change of pace/tone or a dodgy character beat – not this one, though Bruce Robinson has pinpointed an uncertain moment in the final reel when Danny embarks on his ‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths‘ speech.

6. Lack Of Plot

Let’s face it, nothing much happens in ‘Withnail’. But that’s one of its great strengths. Two out-of-work actors try to go on holiday, one of their uncles comes to stay, falls in love with and attempts to seduce the other one, then they come home. It’s two fingers up to the screenwriting template taught in most film schools. But, framed another way, it’s actually the classic plot: put your hero(es) up a tree, throw rocks at him and get him down, though poor Withnail seems destined to stay up the tree forever…

5. Endlessly Quotable Dialogue

This is probably the key to the film’s longevity. ‘Fork it!’… ‘Monty, you terrible c**t!’… ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’, ‘I demand to have some booze!’ ‘My thumbs have gone weird…’ etc. But as the years go by, it’s the throwaway lines that now make me chuckle the most: ‘Out-vibe it’, ‘Jesus, you’re covered in sh*t,’ ‘I’ve waited an aeon for assistance’, ‘Drugs banned in sport…’ ‘We’ll be found dead in here next spring…’ etc., etc…

4. Memorable Minor Characters

The film is chock-a-block with them. There’s Ralph Brown’s classic turn, Noel Johnson’s delightfully-plastered pub landlord, Llewellyn Rees’s tea-shop proprietor, Michael Elphick’s psychotic poacher and Anthony Strong’s manic traffic cop. All perform as if their lives depended on it. Late, great casting director Mary Selway must take a lot of credit.

3. Outstanding Lead Performances

Has there ever been a better movie drunk than Richard E Grant? (How about Ray Milland in ‘The Lost Weekend’? Ed.) It’s a superb breakout performance, especially coming from a famous teetotaler. In a far less showy role, Paul McGann does a fine job of tethering the movie (Kenneth Branagh and Michael Maloney were apparently sniffing around his part, so to speak), even if his accent flies around a bit. And of course Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty is a delight.

2. Lack Of A Remake/Sequel

Please, please, please may it stay this way. Hollywood: stay away from ‘Withnail’. For that matter, a request to ‘edgy’ young Brit writer/directors: leave well alone. Let the legend endure.

1. Good Grammar

It’s not called ‘Withnail And Me’… (That’s quite enough reasons… Ed.)