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13 Loaded Facts About Withnail and I

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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.”

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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