1987 in Film – Withnail & I

Release Date: June 19th
Box Office: $1,544,889

The British film industry is a strange beast. Historicaly, it’s of massive importance to the development of the movie industry both behind and in front of the camera. But by the eighties everything was in the doldrums.

The British studio system had all but been wiped out meaning that studios like Pinewood were mainly being used by US productions always eager for a tax break. Whilst people stood on stage at the Oscars declaring “the British are coming” there wasn’t much to back it up beyond the Merchant Ivory period pieces.

Which makes a film like “Withnail & I” such a standout moment.

As low budget as it gets, the film has the alcoholic Withnail sharing a squalid flat with the eponymous “I”, nameless within the film who narrates the story. With no money and, even worse, no alcohol they travel to stay with Withnail’s uncle in the country. Suffice to say, it isn’t quite the relaxing weekend away they imagine it to be.

Richard E Grant and Paul McGann are the leads, Grant the over too loud buffoon to McGann’s reserved wallflower. They make a great on screen partnership, naturally it’s Grant as Withnail who gets all the best lines and shows up in all the clip shows due to the nature of his character. McGann is there just for show, whilst not being names his character is a constant presence in the film as he watches Grant’s performance along with the rest of us.

The film was written and directed by Bruce Robinson, who based it on his experiences as a struggling actor in the 60s. Withnail was originally written as a novel before being turned into a script. Despite Robinson’s work on the Oscar winnning The Killing Fields (1984) it had a tough ride to the screen with George Harrison funding the production of half the film.

On release it wasn’t exactly a huge success despite being well received. But then a film like this was never going to be a huge number one box office smash, especially in the 80s. No, it soon found it’s place in the home VHS market where it became a cult favourite.

That’s not surprising. A film with this many quotable lines can’t not build a loving fan base. It also served as a launchpad for Grant whilst McGann would become a journeyman actor despite being part of the so called Brit Pack alongside people like Gary Oldman. He did have a couple of near misses in his career, such as being cast in the Sharpe TV series before injuring himself and being replaced by Sean Bean. The show then became a huge smash. He was then the Eight Doctor in the attempted reboot of Doctor Who as a TV movie in the late 90s. This failed to lead to a series and the series stayed in purgatory until in returned on British screens in 2005 with Christopher Ecclestone as The Doctor and became a smash hit.

But that’s okay because few people can say that were in a film like Withnail & I, a film that comes with its own drinking game. A true cult classic with all the pluses and negatives and come along with that.

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