An overlooked acting career, botched Scottish accents and medical dramas. The three very different paths of the famed comedy film's stars and director.
There wouldn’t have been a Withnail & I without leading men Richard E Grant and Paul McGann and writer-director Bruce Robinson. Over the years, so much has been written about this movie – much of the best stuff by my fellow Saboteur Ali Catterall – that Sabotage has decided to shine a light on what Withnail and Marwood’s alter egos did after entering the arena of the unwell and what the man behind the camera did before experiencing the breakdown that led him to pen British cinema’s finest comedy.
Before he turned to filmmaking, Bruce Robinson eked out a career as an actor. As those who’ve seen the excellent documentary Withnail & Us will know, Richard E Grant doesn’t have a very high opinion of Robinson as a performer. The star of The Player based his opinion on Bruce’s rather wooden turn in The History Of Adele H. However, if you want evidence to the contrary, you only need to check out Private Road, available now as part of the BFI’s superb Flipside strand. The story of a young couple and their crumbling relationship, Private Road was directed by Barney Platts-Mills, a name that might sound familiar since he’d previously directed Bronco Bullfrog, a film that’s also part of the Flipside series and is also fully deserving of your attention. As for Private Road, Robinson is wonderfully rumpled as struggling writer Peter, although he has a hard time keeping up with co-star Susan Penhaligon (she of Land That Time Forgot fame). The picture also features Mickey Feast, a very talented actor who, one weekend, whisked Robinson away to the country, the ensuing adventure apparently inspiring some film or another.
Meanwhile, the success of Withnail took the aforementioned Mr Grant to Hollywood where he was cast in the Highlander-esque Warlock. A superbly fruity affair, Warlock stars a never-hammier Julian Sands as the 17th century man-witch out to destroy the 20th century. Also featuring original Kid From Fame Lori Singer, the most remarkable thing about this schlocky slab of fun is that it was scripted by David Twohy, the WGA-nominated writer of The Fugitive and Pitch Black. As for Grant, cast against type as a Harrison Ford-esque witch-finder, his performance is worth checking out for the way he wields a whip and the manner in which he completely mangles his Scots accent.
And while Grant was off playing the unlikely action hero, Paul McGann was landing roles in diverting dramas such as Paper Mask. As Matthew Harris, the erstwhile ‘I’ plays a hospital porter who takes on the guise of a recently deceased doctor. Cue all sorts of inappropriate behaviour and the sort of thrills that are that much scarier from having an air of believability about them. Co-starring Emmerdale’s Amanda Donohoe and future Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Michael Clayton), Paper Mask was financed by an early incarnation of Film4. Oh, if only they’d kept making movies of this calibre, the company wouldn’t have suffered the huge financial failure that resulted in them losing their bottle creatively and making daft decisions like letting me go.
But enough about your writer. While they’re all worth discovering, the other thing that Private Road, Warlock and Paper Mask have in common is that none of them are as good as Withnail & I. But then you can hardly blame Robinson, Grant and McGann. After all, when you scale Everest first time round, the only possible way is downhill.
Withnail and I is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Arrow Films