How "Withnail & I" Became a Cult

If any British film deserved a behind-the-scenes documentary, it's the 1987 comedy "Withnail & I". The entire production has become enshrined in cinema folklore - stories about Richard E Grant's real-life aversion to alcohol (not aided by the crew taking him on an all-night vodka and champagne bender), and writer/director Bruce Robinson's superstitious refusal to accept any take that made the crew laugh, have become the stuff of film legend.

But why has "Withnail & I" become one of Britain's biggest cult films? Opening in London in the autumn of 1987, Bruce Robinson's debut feature secured some good reviews but then discreetly disappeared from cinema screens without a fuss. Two years later, however, it was a word-of-mouth classic that had become a video shop treasure, an international hit, and one of the most quoted movies of all time.

Based on Robinson's own experiences of living as an out-of-work actor in Camden Town during the tail-end of the 60s, "Withnail & I" is a film that's undeniably bleak yet also hilariously funny.

As a character study it's marvellous entertainment. Grant plays Withnail as a blue-blooded aristocrat fallen on hard times, a man who knows he ought to be wealthy, respected, and authoritative, but is actually a pauper living in a rundown North London flat with a terrifying pile of stagnant washing-up. Yet he refuses to let his impoverished circumstances impinge upon his sense of being part of the landed gentry.

The chief pleasure of "Withnail & I" is in the writing - read the script and you'll still laugh out loud. Withnail's acerbic wit; I's paranoid fear; Uncle Monty's amorous advances (allegedly based on Robinson's experience of rebuffing Italian director Franco Zeffirelli's attentions during the filming of "Romeo and Juliet"); and the spaced-out explanation of the legendary Camberwell Carrot, by Danny the drug dealer (Ralph Brown), are masterpieces of character-driven comedy.

No wonder lines like "We want the finest wines available to humanity" have a timeless repeatability that's far outlived most Harry Enfield or Fast Show quips.

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