“No, no, you can't. I've looked into it. Listen to me, listen to me. There are things in there, there's a tea bag growing!” comes the warning, as washed up thespian and shameless alcoholic Withnail (Richard E.Grant) brazenly attempts to clean out the kitchen sink. “You haven't slept in sixty hours, you're in no state to tackle it. Wait until the morning and we'll go in together.” “This is the morning.” Withnail snarls back. “Stand aside!”.
A darkly comic tale of desperation, writer/director Bruce Robinson’s post-mortem on the sixties plays out like one long hangover- its characters at the arse-end of a dying era, faced with the stark reality of their paltry existences and the inevitable onslaught of maturity, sobriety and worst of all, the seventies. The film moves with as little motivation as its protagonists, ambiently charting the exploits of its two out-of-work upper-middle class Londoners, their incessant boozing, their efforts to ward off unwelcome visitations from spaced-out dealer Danny (Ralph Brown), their ill-planned and largely accidental trip to the country, and their close encounters with Withnail’s outrageously queer relative Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). Grant’s central tragicomic performance is mesmerisingly unhinged, his beady eyes riveting around in his skull with absolute indignation, professing his own worth with completely unchecked arrogance.
Although in many ways a rites-of-passage tale, the film avoids the pitfalls of nostalgia or saccharine self-discovery, instead veering towards authenticity, graveyard wit and amused despair- perhaps the reason it hasn’t aged in the slightest since it first received lukewarm reception in 1987. Despite recasting Grant in his follow-up effort, the biting satire How To Get Ahead In Advertising, Robinson was never able to reach the eventual audience of his autobiographical debut again. Its unequivocal appeal is largely to do with the balancing act it pulls off, managing to be menacingly cynical, riotously funny, endlessly quotable and soft-centred all at once.
Miraculously, the film seems to continually spawn a new clique of loyal followers with each generation, and as such it has become an undying cult favourite amongst comedy connoisseurs. The fan base is so strong in fact, that it is somewhat superfluous to add praise to it. Simplifying things, actor Ralph Brown aptly attributes its success to the plain fact that “There are no crap bits in it”. Often imitated yet totally unparalleled by anything since, the film operates completely on its own level of droll intelligence, spark, humour and quintessential Englishness.