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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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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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