British 60s cinema
British 60s cinema


Well, it's set in the 60s isn't it?  At some point I had to write something on this most cultish of cult films, and so I thought I'd do a page on some of the questions which I've had about it over the years, and attempt to answer them.  No doubt some of what I come up with will be disputed, but if so then so much the better - better to be talked about etc etc.  


For convenience I have referred to 'I' throughout as Marwood, the name he was given in the script.


If you're reading this, I assume you know the film very well, so I'm not going to waste time with introductions etc.  On with the questions, in no particular order:

Q When exactly is the film set?

1969 obviously, but when exactly?  September, apparently, is the answer; despite Withnail's constant moaning about the 'intense cold', which would suggest that it's January/February time, in response to Withnail wondering what's happened to his cigar commercial, Marwood says "September - bad patch" although this does not placate Withnail, who responds "Rubbish - haven't seen Gielgud down the Labour Exchange."


A further clue is given at the end, when Danny says "We are 91 days away from the end of this decade" which would suggest that this scene takes place on October 1st or 2nd, depending on how you count (ie is Danny counting from the next day or including the same day?).  As this scene is at least four or five days later than at the start of the film (see next section) then the film starts at the end of September. 

Q What is the time span of the film?

A related question is how long the action in the film takes.  Bruce Robinson himself refers to the time span being '2-3 weeks' and he wrote it so what do I know? However I have always assumed that the film's time is continuous, in which case it presumably starts on a Sunday (Marwood is in the caff watching someone reading The News of the World; although it is possible that they would be reading an old paper, it's unlikely).  There's also the fact that on their way to the Black Cat pub Withnail suggest that they get wrecked etc, 'miss out Monday and come up smiling Tuesday morning'.  If this is accpeted, then this I think is the time frame:

Sunday Marwood goes to a greasy spoon for breakfast, at lunchtime he goes to the Mother Black Cap pub with Withnail, that evening they go to see Uncle Monty and get the keys to the cottage.
Monday They leave for Uncle Monty's cottage, drive all day and arrive late at night
Tuesday First morning; they meet Mr Parkin and get a chicken for lunch.  After the episode with the bull, Withnail smugly remarks 'An evening at the Crow I think'.  This is the local pub, where they meet Jake the poacher, and Withnail shouts out 'I'm going to be a star!"
Wednesday The film then cuts to Withnail, on being served lunch (breakfast) remarking 'vegetables again'.  Unless days have been missed out, which seems unlikely, this is Wednesday morning.  They see Jake hanging about the cottage and in the evening Marwood says 'OK, we pack up and get out tomorrow'.  They fear Jake's return at night but Uncle Monty arrives in the middle of the night instead.
Thursday Monty is planning a late lunch at 3pm, but Marwood tells him they have to leave at 3 to get back to sign on (ie the next day, which must be a weekday).  Monty won't hear of it, and toasts to 'a delightful weekend in the country'.  In the afternoon they go to Penrith to buy some wellington boots, etc, although of course the boys get drunk in the pub.  At one point the barman calls 'Time gents please' so this must be about 14:30/15:00.  At late lunch Withnail also again proposes a toast to 'a delightful weekend in the country', much to Marwood's disgust.  That night Monty tries to seduce Marwood.
Friday Uncle Monty departs early, leaving a note behind.  Marwood then receives a telegram; it's from the theatre where he had an audition, saying they want to see him again.  They depart half an hour later, despite Withnail's protestations.  They drive through the night again.
Saturday Marwood wakes up to find Withnail driving; he is soon pulled over by the police, the first officer referring to it being 'a bit early in the morning for festivities', and taken to the police station.  They then return to their flat, so this must be sometime in the afternoon at a guess.  The last full scene then takes place, where Danny comments that they are 91 days from the end of the decade.
Monday? The final scene shows Marwood leaving; he has had a haircut, so I can only assume that the earliest it could be is the following Monday.

The bulk of the film therefore takes places from Sunday to Saturday.  The scene with Danny and Presuming Ed must therefore be on Oct 1st (see above); the only problem is that the 1st October 1969 was a Wednesday.  Perhaps we can let Bruce Robinson off there though....

How old is Withnail?

An easy one; he's 29.  When they walk in the park at the start, Withnail comments:


"This is ridiculous.  Look at me, I'm 30 in a month and I've got a sole flapping off my shoe"


Richard E Grant was born in 1957, and the filming took place in 1986, so he was also 29 when filming took place so this all fits.

Which play is Marwood auditioning for?

We're never told actually, but it is highly likely to be R.C. Sheriff's 'Journey's End'   His auditioning for a part is referred to throughout the film; in the scene referred to above where Withnail reveals his age, he goes on to refer to Marwood's audition:


"You've had an audition, why can't I have an audition?"


and when they go to Uncle Monty's house, after spinning him a line about his theatrical career, Withnail gestures towards Marwood and says "He's just had an audition for rep" (although some have heard it as "Peter's had an audtion for rep", giving 'I''s name as Peter Marwood) although it is strange that Monty never asks Marwood what part in what play.


The big clue is that Marwood is seen reading 'Journey's End' in the cottage after lunch (see above).  I don't know the play at all, but it''s set in the trenches towards the end of the first World War.  When they then go to the pub in Penrith with £5 (?) each from Uncle Monty, Marwood is on the phone to his agent.  As he comes back, worrying that he hasn't heard anything, Withnail says:  "Why d'you want to go to Manchester anyway to play a bloody soldier?"  When Marwood tells him that he's very keen, and that it's a good little theatre, Withnail mentions that "it's not much of a part though is it?"  Marwood replies "It's better than nothing" at which Withnail says again "They'd make you cut your hair off!"  Marwood then makes the cryptic reply "So what, you'd lose a leg!" which can only be a reference to another character in the play, although Withnail has not auditioned for it.


On their return to London, Marwood rings his agent, and finds out that he's been offered the lead role, and in the next scene he has indeed had a haircut.

How much does Withnail drink in the film?

Chin chin!

This is impossible to answer, as we can only guess at what he is consuming during the week (if such it is, see above).  But, as all players of the famous 'Withnail and I drinking game' can testify, what we see him drinking is - a lot.  This hopefully is an exhaustive account:

Location Drink
Home - flat in Camden Wine - Withnail is swigging from a bottle of red wine
Home Lighter fluid - apparently this was actually vinegar
Mother Black Cap pub "2 large gins, 2 pints of cider, ice in the cider"  - Withnail orders the same again, but he would not have had time to drink the second pint of cider
Uncle Monty's home Sherry and whisky - Withnail starts off with a glass of sherry, then swigs from the bottle when Monty leaves the room for a moment.  He pours himself another sherry when he gets Monthy a drink, then pours himself two glasses of what looks like whisky, drinking one straight off.
The drive up to Penrith Withnail (and Marwood for that matter) is seen swigging from a bottle of whisky from the start of the journey, and he still has hold of it when they arrive at the cottage late at night in the driving rain.
The cottage on the first day (Tuesday) There is drink on the table as Marwood eats an apple, and after lunch Marwood is drinking wine as he reads 'Journey's End', but Withnail is asleep at this point.
The Crow pub (Tuesday evening) Withnail asks for a "another pair of large scotches" as he finishes one drink, then the barman insists the next round (same again) is on him, so that's three drinks each; they are still there at closing time but we don't know how much more they drink during the evening
The cottage (Wed lunchtime) As they eat their vegetable stew, they have a glass of wine to hand although we don't see them drinking it.
The cottage (Thursday late morning) Monty is drinking something as they have a light meal, but they boys aren't drinking; the three of them then drink wine (I think) as Monty proposes a toast to "a delightful weekend in the country".
'The King Henry' pub in Penrith - Thursday lunchtime The boys have a pint and an empty shorts glass in front of them in the pub, as the landlord calls time Withnail asks for "a pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints", so they probably had a whiskey chaser with their pint, which might be bitter (although they drank cider before)
The cottage - Thursday before late lunch Withnail has a glass of wine in his hand as he tells Marwood that Monty is waiting for an apology (for being drunk in Penrith)
The cottage - late lunch More red wine is served with the meal
The cottage - evening Drink is near to hand as usual as they play cards, supposedly Pernod.
The cottage - Friday lunchtime/late afternoon Withnail is drinkng red wine with his meal as Marwood reads out Uncle Monty's leaving note; they (well, Marwood) decide to leave straightaway.
In the car, returning to London, Friday evening The next scene takes place in darkness, but it can't be too much later, as Withnail is still eating and drinking in the car with a knife and fork and the plate on his lap
Home - flat in Camden, Saturday lunchtime/afternoon As Danny rolls a Camberwell carrot, Withnail already has a drink in his hand (whisky? gin?), undaunted by his ordeal at the police station.
London Zoo - a few days later? Finally, the Chateua Margaux '53, pinched from Monty's cellar, which Withnail drinks on the way to the railway station as he accompanies Marwood, who is leaving.  Marwood must have had some, as when it is offered to him he shakes his head and says  "No, no more" implying that he has already had some.  Withnail continues to drink from the bottle as he goes into his Hamlet soliloquy (see below).

I wanted to show here an extra feature from the 20th anniversary DVD edition of Withnail and I, 'The Withnail and I Drinking Game', brilliantly presented by Peter McNamara, but it's been removed due to copyright unforunately. 

Where does Withnail get some unadulterated child's urine from?

"Are you taking the piss?"

This question must surely remain unanswered.  Danny lets them have a bottle contraption when he first comes round; he says that he is thinking of going into business in the toy industry.  Withnail cynically comments that he thought Danny was in the 'bottle industry' but Danny says that that is just a sideline, and, indicating the Fairy Liquid bottle with tubes coming out of it next to him, says nonchalantly "You can have that.  Instructions are included."


It is not referred to again until the next day, on the way to the cottage, when Withnail says that he wants to stop and get hold of a child.  When Marwood asks why, Withnail replies, firstly "to tutor it in the ways of righteousness" but mainly to get hold of some uncomtaminated urine.  He then explains to Marwood how the bottle is meant to work, reading from the brief instructions written out by Danny, "allowing the drink-driver to operate in absolute safety", providing a clean urine sample (having refused everything but a urine sample), with the result that "they have to give you your keys back".


Sadly for Withnail but possilby thankfully for the rest of the British motoring public, he is inevitably caught out at the police station (see pic above); I was fascinated to read of an Italian athlete, Devis Licciardi, trying something similar (presumably a bit more sophisticated though) in 2013, where there were explicit references to Withnail and I in the story:


"An Italian long distance runner is facing disciplinary proceedings for allegedly using a fake penis to beat a dope test.  Devis Licciardi, 27 is said to have used a realistic-looking prosthetic containing uncontaminated urine to give a sample following a 10km road race.  The allegation echoes a farcical scene from the film Withnail and I, where the titular character tries to avoid a drink-driving arrest by passing off a child's urine as his own."


This doesn't answer the question of where Withnail gets the urine from.  Although all he has to do is use his own urine, he of course would have the problem of it being uncontaminated, and as we have seen above that is quite a problem for Withnail.  It reminds me of the episode 'One for the Road' in 'Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?', where Bob is so worried about losing his licence for drink-driving that he gratefully accepts Terry's offer of swapping urine samples; only later does he stop to consider how much Terry had had to drink....


Who was Withnail based on?

Usually writers say that such iconic characters are based, not on one individual, but on an amalgam of different people, but in this case the answer is clear and well-documented now; Withnail was based on one Vivian MacKerrell (1944-1995) with whom Robinson shared a flat in the late 1960s, along with Michael Feast and David Dundas.  Little still seems to be known about MacKerrell - he was only in one or two films or TV plays, and no stage roles have been mentioned in anything I've read - and Robinson has, to the best of my knowledge, never talked about his relationship, if indeed there was one, with MacKerrell after he left the flat, as Marwood does at the end of the film.

In particular it would have been very interesting to know what MacKerrell thought of the film when it came out - presumably he recognised himself in the character - but again there is only silence on this subject, although there is a book out - a biography of MacKerrell - by Colin Bacon called 'Vivian and I', which I'm going to try and get hold of, which might answer some of those questions.


Bruce Robinson wrote a touching tribute to MacKerrell at the start of the edition of the published screenplay:


"That night we go into Regent’s Park and look at the wolves. I can’t count the number of times we went into the park and looked at the wolves. And I can’t believe that Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialised into the bravest bastard I’d ever known. It’s got to be hard to laugh when you’re dying, but I’ll always remember you laughing. That sad, brilliant, bitter face of yours laughing. Goodbye my darling friend. This is for you for ever. And I know if there’s a pub in heaven, you’ll be in it. And Keats will be buying the drinks."


Here's Robinson and Richard E Grant discussing the origins of the Withnail character in the documentrary 'Withnail and Us':

How can Withnail have been in the Territorials in Northern Ireland?

In the Crow pub, Withnail gets a free drink for himself and Marwood by telling the drunken landlord, who was in tanks in the Second World War, that he used to be in the Territorial army before he became a journalist.  When the landlord says "I don't suppose you've engaged?" Withnail replies "Ireland" to which he receives the reply "Ah, a crack at the Mick!".


However this makes no sense; the film is set in September 1969 (give or take a month or so, see above) and the British Army didn't go into NI until 14 August 1969, that would mean that Withnail's combat experience would have been in the last few weeks.  And, although I've not been able to find out for definite, I would have thought it extremely unlikely that the Territorials would have been the first in.  However the landlord is clearly too drunk to think this through, and as Withnail says, they get free drinks out of it.

How many female speaking roles are there in Withnail and I?

No idea why they have garlands superimposed on them in this image I found on the net, but the answer is 3.  Chronologically the first is the schoolgirl (uncredited, central image) who, along with her two mates, responds to Withnail shouting 'Scrubbers!" at them by giving him the V-sign with the immortal words "Up yours Grandad!"


Next up is the mother of the farmer, Mrs Parkin, (right, played by Una Brandon-Jones), who is unmoved by Marwood's untruthful assertion that "we're not from London" by replying "I don't care where you're from!", although she slightly relents and tells him to speak to her son, who can be identified as he has "his leg bound in polythene".


Finally, Irene Sutcliffe plays Madge Blennerhassett (left), the waitress in the Penrith tea rooms, who asks the boys to leave as the shop is supposedly closing (clearly not the case, it is packed with customers) and then starts to ring the police at the owner's request before they leave anyway as Uncle Monty turns up in his Rolls.  Her role is listed as 'Waitress' in the closing credits, which is a bit unfair as she is referred to as Mrs Blennerhassett by the owner, and then clearly as 'Madge' by him a moment later.


I also wondered how many speaking roles there were in total in the film, and I think the answer is 19; here's my case:

Why does Withnail quote Hamlet at the end?

Until quite recently, I wondered if I was the only person with a theory on this, as nobody else seemed to mention it, or discuss it anywhere.  This seem highly unlikely though, given the hundreds if not thousands of sites and blogs devoted to the film, and indeed recently I have seen a number of posts and blogs referring to the scene and its meaning.  For me, the end refers back to the scene near the start of the film where Uncle Monty, with "little more than vintage wine and memories", opines that:


It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when, one morning, he awakes and, quite reasonably, says to himself: "I will - never - play - the - Dane."  When that moment comes, one's ambition ceases.


Withnail replies immediately:  "It's a part I intend to play Uncle" and Monty assures him he would be marvellous.


However, as he performs in the park in the pouring rain, to nobody but the wolves, it is evident to all that this is the nearest Withnail will ever get to performing the role, and the film ends in quiet desperation and sadness.

I may add to this page from time to time, as other questions occur to me, but I think this is enough to be going on with for now - March 2015

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© Paul Thompson