When the British film Withnail and I was released in 1987, it wasn’t a huge hit. It took a VHS release for people to develop a taste for the movie, which follows two “resting” thespians, the dipsomaniac Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), in 1969. Withnail and I visit Uncle Monty (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) in the countryside for a “holiday by mistake,” one in which everything goes wrong.
First-time director Bruce Robinson—who was nominated for an Oscar two years earlier for his script for The Killing Fields—based the screenplay on his own life as a broke actor in drama school living in Camden Town, England. Beatle George Harrison produced the film through his HandMade Films, which is why Robinson was able to use The Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the soundtrack. The film launched the careers of everyone involved, including McGann (Doctor Who) and Grant. Here are 13 boozy facts about the cult classic.
1. WITHNAIL WAS BASED ON BRUCE ROBINSON’S FRIEND, ACTOR VIVIAN MACKERRELL.
Robinson and MacKerrell were flatmates in the 1960s, and he based Withnail on his friend. “Withnail is basically me and Viv, but I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and notepad writing down what Viv said,” Robinson told Daily Record. “I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humor and wrote that character.” MacKerrell’s friend, Colin Bacon, wrote a book about MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995 (Robinson believes that drinking lighter fluid in real life possibly led to the disease).
Although Withnail is based on MacKerrell, the movie is fictional. “He certainly had his opinions, but I never witnessed him being as nasty as the Richard E. Grant character,” Bacon said. “Withnail and I had loads of Vivian in it, but the extreme version. He isn’t the character. There’s a bit of artistic license. And the one thing Bruce Robinson warned me about was that I couldn’t claim that anything said in the film was ever uttered by Vivian or else he’d issue a writ. He’s adamant that Viv didn’t say these things, although he stated in a revised screenplay of the film that although ‘there isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail, his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word.’”
Bacon said MacKerrell was proud of the movie, “but he didn’t sit with an arrow pointing to his head saying ‘Withnail.' He had too much going for him for that.”
2. ROBINSON WROTE THE STORY DURING A DIFFICULT WINTER.
Just as I left Withnail for a job, MacKerrell left Robinson for a gig. “I was left alone with no money, no food, a gas oven, one light bulb, and a mattress on the floor,” Robinson told Premiere. “It was the winter of 1969. I was desolate, completely in despair. I was an actor and I couldn’t get a job. So one day I came back to the flat and it was snowing, and I started weeping and screaming at the floorboards. Begging the God of Equity, or any f*cking god, you know, to help me. And then it really made me laugh, the predicament that I was in. I laughed hysterically when I thought about it. And I had this old Olivetti typewriter that I used to try and write poetry on. I sat down and I started writing this story about my predicament, involving me and my friend who had now gone.”
At first the story was written as a novel, not a screenplay. A friend gave the novel to a guy who wanted Robinson to adapt it into a comedy TV series. Another guy came along and told Robinson, “this is going to make a great movie.” In 1980 that guy gave Robinson money to adapt it into a script, but the project went into limbo for six years. Eventually, George Harrison got a hold of the script and thought it was funny, and Robinson was in business.
3. SOME PEOPLE THINK THE MOVIE WAS FILMED IN THE 1960S.
The movie takes place in 1969, and the low-budget quality of it often leads viewers to think it was filmed at that time. It was not. “It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann told the New Zealand Herald about the movie. “Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an ’80s picture. I’ve had people say to me ‘Geez, I thought it was actually shot in the ’60s’—I don’t know how old they think I am!”
4. THE NAME “WITHNAIL” COMES FROM ROBINSON’S CHILDHOOD.
In 2013, Richard E. Grant revealed on Twitter that Withnail’s first name was “Vyvian,” but according to Robinson, in real life the guy’s name was Jonathan. “The reason he’s called Withnail is because when I was a little boy I knew this bloke called Jonathan Withnall—Nall. Because I can’t spell, I called him ‘Nail.’ And he backed his Aston Martin into a police car, and he was like the coolest guy I’d ever met in my life, so consequently that name stayed in my head."
5. RALPH BROWN AUDITIONED IN CHARACTER.
Ralph Brown plays the funny drug dealer Danny, who supplies Withnail and I with The Camberwell Carrot. “I read the stage directions very carefully and I decided to dress like Danny, as I saw him at the time,” Brown said about his audition, in the documentary Withnail and Us. “He was quite frightening when he came with purple nail varnish and eye makeup and all the rest of it,” Robinson said. “Yeah, he was a shock.”
“I think he had a bit of a laugh because I looked a bit foolish,” Brown said. “He probably also thought I was worth a go. He didn’t let me know how foolish I was.”
In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Brown reprises Danny, this time as roadie Del Preston.
6. KENNETH BRANAGH WAS OFFERED THE PART OF I.
Robinson cast McGann as I, but Robinson didn’t like his Liverpool accent, so he fired him. During that time, Robinson considered Kenneth Branagh for the part. “I offered Paul’s part to Ken Branagh and he turned me down,” Robinson said. “He wanted to play Withnail, and I didn’t want him to do that. I didn’t think he had enough nobility. Marvelous actor that he is, there’s something about Ken that is the antithesis of Byronesque; he looks like a partially cooked doughnut. Richard looks like a f*cking Byron, you know.” Realizing McGann was the best choice, Robinson hired him back.
7. UNCLE MONTY’S HOUSE SOLD IN 2009, BUT YOU CAN STILL VISIT IT.
The rural, 18th-century farmhouse where Uncle Monty lives is known as “Crow Crag” in the movie, but the actual place is called Sleddale Hall, and is located in Cumbria, England. In 2009, the dilapidated house sold for £265,000, but the new owner wasn’t able to pay for it so it went back on the market, and a man named Tim Ellis purchased it later in the year.
After the sale, Ellis said he planned on keeping the Withnail presence in redecorating it. “I first saw the film about seven years ago and have been a fan ever since,” he told The Guardian. “I would like to restore the building in a way that other fans of the film could approve of.” In 2013, an outdoor screening of the movie was held at the cottage, where fans camped out and reveled in the surreal moment.
8. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.
In the novelization, Robinson ends it on Withnail filling a gun with a bottle of 1953 Chateau Margaux wine and then killing himself. The actual ending entails a drunk Withnail reciting a line from Hamlet to London Zoo wolves. “It’s sadder to let him go on with that horrible life,” Robinson told Vice. “When the I character leaves him, he’s alone. You know he’s f*cked. That was quite true, in a way, with poor Viv. A complete total f*cking disaster life he had. We worked hard on the ending: the buildup to when Fatty Grant pulled off, did he not, that Shakespeare at the end? It still blows me away. He just had that right rage.”
9. ROBINSON THINKS WITHNAIL AND I'S FINANCES MAKE THEM RELATABLE.
“Everyone recognizes what it’s like to be in an aspirant situation without a f*cking penny to your name,’” Robinson told Vice. “When I wrote that I was in the bowels of despair for my life. The game was up. Because I believed that, it became an honest expression. There’s two ways of looking at your life when you’re in your early twenties: poor and broke. I was broke, but I was never poor, because I could read Dostoyevsky. I was lucky to meet people like Viv who were educated and turned me on to literature and things I'd never dreamt of.”
Grant thinks the film’s legacy has to do with a rite of passage for young males. “They told me in Oxford it’s like losing your virginity—it’s an initiation ritual,” he told Premiere. “If you haven’t seen it you must see it; it’s a prerequisite. And the Etonians [students of Eton College] thought that it was about them. And the other people thought it was about them, so it obviously crosses over. The young British male. What I have noticed is that it appeals far more to men than it does to women.”
10. THE FILM WAS ALMOST SHUT DOWN BECAUSE THE PRODUCER DIDN'T THINK IT WAS FUNNY.
One of the producers on the film, Denis O’Brien, tried to halt production on the first day of filming. O’Brien didn’t find Grant funny—or the rest of the film, for that matter. “He said he thought all comedy should be very brightly lit,” Grant said in Withnail and Us. “He said I should I be playing it like [British comedian] Kenneth Williams; it should be arms flailing.” HandMade had produced a few Monty Python films and wanted the Uncle Monty character to be slapsticky, or a “fat cartoon character.”
“They thought that an effeminate homosexual was amusing, and I didn’t,” Robinson told Premiere. “So there was a walk around this hillside and I said to them, ‘I’ll get on the bus now and go home. I really do know what this film is and it will be funny. Either I’ll walk off now or you’re going to have to trust me and shut up.’ And of course they trusted me and shut up. And they were on edge about it until the film came out.”
“We thought we were being hysterical,” McGann said. “When we rehearsed it, it was going great and then suddenly somebody tells you’re about as funny as an orphanage on fire.” In the interim, Grant freaked out. “I had a quiet nervous breakdown over lunch, thinking, ‘Oh I’ve told everybody I’ve finally made a movie and now the thing’s closing down,’” he told Premiere. “And David Wimbury, the [co-producer], said, ‘Oh no, it’s just a ploy. The American [O’Brien] is trying to frighten Robinson, and Robinson is calling his bluff.’” By four o'clock that afternoon the producers caved and production continued.
11. NATURALLY, THERE’S A DRINKING GAME ASSOCIATED WITH THE MOVIE.
“The rules for the Withnail and I drinking game are very simple … just match Withnail drink-for-drink,” reads the rules. A caveat: Keep in mind the events of the movie take place over a couple of weeks, so if you do match them, and especially if you drink lighter fluid, you will probably die. The game says you need gin, cider, ale, sherry, whisky, red wine, and either lighter fluid or vinegar (that’s what was used in the movie) to drink along. The movie begins and ends with imbibing red wine, and in between there’s a combination of everything else. We would say “don’t try this at home,” but that’s the point.
12. IN REAL LIFE, GRANT’S ALLERGIC TO ALCOHOL.
In an ironic twist, Grant doesn’t smoke or drink, mainly because his body cannot process alcohol. In order to immerse Grant into the role of boozer Withnail, Robinson forced Grant to get drunk one night so he could have a “chemical memory” for his acting.
“He didn’t know what it was like to be drunk,” Robinson said in Withnail and Us. The director coerced Grant into drinking an entire bottle of champagne, and then having some vodka. But he immediately fell ill. “I’d have a drink and be violently sick, but I kept forcing it down so by the next morning I was drunk and then I passed out,” Grant told The Evening Standard Magazine. “I woke up 24 hours later.”
“He always described it in his memoir as this Persian carpet coming up,” Robinson said. “What he never does mention is the fact that I had to clean it up.”
13. FANS WON’T STOP QUOTING THE MOVIE TO GRANT AND ROBINSON.
“People will not let me forget it,” Grant told the Los Angeles Times. “When I’m working in the States or going through airports or [have] been in godforsaken places where I wouldn’t have expected anybody to have found this movie, there is always one person who has that look in their eye and will come over and say that they know about this movie, as though they’re the only person on the planet that knew about it.”
Robinson has likened the experience to a “colostomy bag.” “Wherever I go it comes bobbing along behind,” he told Esquire UK. “I can’t do anything without people referencing Withnail … still, kids going to university seem to discover it anew every year, or so my correspondence tells me.”