With its eponymous pair of scoundrel layabouts, its hilariously exaggerated urban/rural divide and its sustained binge of drugs and alcohol, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) may be the definitive British cult movie, but it’s by no means the only film to deal with such themes.
Following two dropout actors, with career-defining performances by Richard E. Grant as Withnail and Paul McGann as “I” or Marwood, as they escape from grim, late-1960s Camden for a weekend in the Lake District, it presents a classic ‘pair facing the world’ scenario, mixing English rapscallionism with the hilarious ineptness of city folk facing the basics of living in the countryside.
Robinson displayed a similar verve for surreal comedy in his second film, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), and had already proved himself an adept screenwriter with the Oscar-nominated The Killing Fields (1984), but it was in Withnail & I that the actor-writer-director hit peak form.
The film has found a huge and passionate audience, resonating with successive generations, and sometimes it’s hard not to want more of the pair’s world – full of battered Jaguars, plastic-bag Wellington boots and dodgy intoxicants.
Here are five films that may help you get your fix.
School for Scoundrels (1960)
Director Robert Hamer
Another film about the antics of scoundrels, Robert Hamer’s School for Scoundrels is very much a ‘how to’ in the kind of rapscallion behaviour that was probably typical of Withnail before he replaced such caddishness with alcohol and antifreeze. The film stars Alastair Sim as a tutor in scandalous behaviour at the School of Lifemanship, where he schools a hapless Ian Carmichael, who is losing out socially to that rotten bounder Terry-Thomas. Terry-Thomas was also born in Finchley, that well known “accident black-spot” from Withnail & I, and it’s not difficult to imagine the cad opining, “Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t,” to Carmichael’s feckless character in between a game of tennis.
Private Road (1971)
Director Barney Platts-Mills
Before Bruce Robinson made his name with screenplays and directing, he was a prominent young actor, making the most of his pin-up looks and natural, counterculture flair. After his film debut as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) he went on to act in films by the likes of Ken Russell and François Truffaut. Moving on from his hippie role in Roddy McDowall’s The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970), Robinson was cast as the lead of Barney Platts-Mills’ gentle, bohemian film Private Road. The narrative, which follows a writer and his depressive girlfriend (Susan Penhaligon) retreating to the countryside, interestingly preempts the journey of Withnail and Marwood, albeit with far more overtly melancholic consequences.
Nuts in May (1976)
Director Mike Leigh
Another film charting the unbridled chaos possible when holidaying in the English countryside, Mike Leigh’s famous Play for Today episode follows an equally silly pair of urban interlopers. Unlike Withnail and Marwood, however, Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice Marie (Alison Steadman) live clean, respectable lives devoid of heavy drinking and smoking. Such observing of the country code doesn’t help them, however, when the pair come up against that most terrifying of English fears: someone who doesn’t follow the rules of camping. It’s just as well that Withnail and Marwood chose the Lakes as their holiday destination rather than Dorset – who knows what chaos might have ensued if the pair had chosen the Corfe Castle campsite for their country getaway?
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis
John Landis’s classic werewolf film inverts the journey that Withnail and Marwood take by beginning with another pair of walkers exploring similar terrain further east in Yorkshire. Whereas Robinson’s pair have little to fear except aggressive poachers threatening violence with dead eels, Landis’s duo have to deal with genuine menace and horror as they escape back from the moors of rural England to London, only to find that the fear and loathing has very much come back with them and in a far more furry form.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Director Terry Gilliam
The influence of writer Hunter S. Thompson on Robinson’s work as a whole is clear; from enlisting Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman to design Withnail & I’s artwork to actually adapting the gonzo journalist’s posthumously published The Rum Diary in 2011. In Terry Gilliam’s trippy recreation of Thompson’s most famous novel, another pair of creative counter-culture crazies, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), go off the rails in Las Vegas in an attempt to find the crumbling American Dream. Their druggy escapades make Withnail’s penchant for lighter fluid and Camberwell Carrots seem positively light by comparison, as they cause similar havoc and mayhem for holidaying Americans.