The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 22 April 2013

Withnail & I (1986)

I was deeply saddened at the death of Richard Griffiths, who sadly passed away at the end of March at the age of 65.

Griffiths was an accomplished stage actor, originating the role of Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys- for which he won an Olivier Award and a Tony for Best Actor- and appearing in The Sunshine Boys (opposite Danny DeVito) and Equus (with Daniel Radcliffe). On television, he appeared as Henry Crabbe in Pie In The Sky for five series and made guest appearances in The Vicar Of Dibley, Minder and Bergerac. On film, he took roles in films as diverse at The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Superman II (1980), The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear (1991), Stage Beauty (2004) and the film adaptation of The History Boys (2006). However, I think it's fair to say that Griffiths' film career can be defined by two roles: that of the snobbish Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter franchise and as the lascivious Uncle Monty in Withnail & I.

Withnail & I is a true British cult classic. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, it chronicles the misadventures of two dissolute actors (played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) as they 'go on holiday by mistake'. Fed up of London, Withnail (Grant) sweet-talks his Uncle Monty (Griffiths) into letting them stay at his holiday cottage in Penrith. However, they have to contend with randy bulls and belligerent poachers... not to mention a surprise visit from Uncle Monty.

This was Richard E. Grant's first film role. Withnail (as written) is a dream character to play- pompous, flighty, indignant, theatrical and larger-than-life- and Grant's performance is truly memorable, railing against life's injustices and ejecting the eminently quotable dialogue with utter panache. Indeed, it was Grant's performance of the line 'FORK IT' which got him the role. Withnail is one of cinema's greatest and best-known drinkers but, famously, Grant is teetotal- only drinking once at the behest of Robinson and McGann so he could get an idea of what it felt like. Unsurprisingly, not a pleasant experience. There is a drinking game that can be played, where you match the characters drink for drink, but it's probably not advised (especially the lighter fluid!)

When you have a character as outrageous as Withnail, you need a more introspective counterbalance to stop things from going too far. McGann is indeed that balance as the anxious 'I' (known as Marwood in the published script; his surname can be seen briefly on the telegram delivered to Crow Crag). He provides the grounding to Withnail's fancifulness, but is not a boring cipher of a character. Indeed, his progression from 'resting actor' to 'leading man' shows the shift of the film from comedy to something more deep. The final scenes in Regents Park with Withnail and Marwood, now hair cut and suit worn, have a delicate poignancy to them.

Finally, the performance by Richard Griffiths as camp Uncle Monty is a pure delight from start to finish. Much like Grant's performance, Griffiths seems to delight in the dialogue, lines like 'as a youth, I used to weep in butchers' shops' dripping like honey from his mouth. Whilst Monty's attraction to Marwood is initially played for laughs, his unexpected gatecrashing of their holiday combined with an attempt to force himself on Marwood again switches the tone of the film from comedy to drama. There's an unexpected tenderness and sadness in Monty's plea for Marwood to 'give in' to his urges, reflecting the problems that gay men faced in the 1960s (homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967). It's a truly bravura performance.

Withnail & I is a rarity in film in that every role is cast perfectly. Ralph Brown is hilarious as the philosophical Danny the Dealer and Michael Elphick is greatly menacing as Jake the poacher. Even minor roles- such as the belligerent Irishman who calls Marwood a 'ponce' or the uptight tea shop proprietor in Penrith- are brilliantly done. The tonal shift from broad comedy to drama is handled well; it's not a jarring turn from one to the other. From Monty's moving plea to Marwood, through to Danny's claim that 'the greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black', the film ends with the feeling of an irrevocable change; Marwood has moved on from the shambolic life of Camden and things will not be the same again. It can easily be read as a metaphor for the fin-de-siecle feelings that accompanied the end of the 1960s.

If you've never seen this film, seek it out and watch it. If you have, it's certainly worth rewatching as a fitting tribute to the late, great Richard Griffiths who will be much missed.


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