Dorian Lynskey

How Withnail and I became a cult classic

A 2023 book about a 1987 film set in 1969, in which multiple characters mourn the end of an era, told through interviews, memorabilia and testimonials from besotted fans

Richard E. Grant as Withnail in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film. [Alamy]

There is an apocryphal story about a woman leaving a performance of Hamlet and complaining that it was nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together. Bruce Robinson’s 1987 movie Withnail & I can also feel like a caravan of famous lines: ‘I’ve only had a few ales’; ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’; ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity!’ In the 1990s, when the men’s magazine Loaded canonised the film in its launch issue and Chris Evans paid £5,000 for Withnail’s tweed coat, its swift elevation from box office failure to cult set text came at the price of reducing it to a boozy lark. A film about ruinous alcoholism thus inspired a student drinking game, although most players stopped short of Withnail’s last resort tipple, lighter fluid.

It’s a break-up movie, a last dance, an elegy wrapped in a comedy

As Martin Keady observes in two fine essays in Toby Benjamin’s book, the film’s reputation has matured because its fans have. You need some miles on the clock to fully appreciate a film about the end of one’s twenties at the end of the 1960s, and a friendship in winter. Consider the title of the play whose life-changing role finally separates Marwood (Paul McGann) from Withnail (Richard E. Grant): Journey’s End. ‘It’s decided before we meet them,’ McGann tells Benjamin. ‘This is over and Withnail knows it’s over.’ It’s a break-up movie, a last dance, an elegy wrapped in a comedy.

Benjamin considers Withnail & I ‘one of the few virtually perfect films ever made’. His labour of love – a handsome scrapbook of interviews with key personnel, memorabilia and testimonials from celebrity fans – is a matryoshka of nostalgia: a 2023 book about a 1987 film set in 1969, in which multiple characters mourn the end of an era.

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