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“An elegy wrapped in a comedy”

Paul McGann (left) and Richard E Grant in Withnail & I

There’s an apocryphal story about a woman who leaves a performance of Hamlet complaining that it was “nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together”, says Dorian Lynskey in Air Mail. Similarly, it’s easy to see the 1987 classic Withnail & I – about two jobless actors in London in 1969 – as just 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!” The film’s journey from box office failure to “cult set text” came at the price of reducing it to a “boozy lark” – the inspiration for a student drinking game where participants match the protagonist’s booze consumption drink-for-drink (lighter fluid optional). In reality, of course, it’s much more than that: it’s “a breakup movie, a last dance, an elegy wrapped in a comedy”.

Withnail & I began as an unpublished novel by the writer Bruce Robinson, loosely based on his experiences living in a dive in Camden with a “dissolute aristocrat of uncertain talent”. After refashioning it into a screenplay – and securing an Oscar nomination for writing The Killing Fields – Robinson sent it to the American producer Paul Heller. “Here is my morbid little autobiography,” he wrote. “In case it amuses not, I’d like it known that it’s a comedy and essentially very English.” Yet it’s a mark of how dark Robinson considered the work that an early draft ended with Withnail (Richard E Grant) pouring the last of his stolen Château Margaux ’53 into a shotgun and firing it into his mouth. The actual ending, in which the eponymous alcoholic, finally abandoned by his friend, performs a soliloquy from Hamlet to an audience of wolves, is “somehow bleaker”.