Alex Simpson tells of a cult gathering in Birmingham.
Glastonbury Weekend and Johnny Depp was invited to curate at the world’s biggest music festival; he chose to show his favourite film, Withnail & I.
Pound-to-a-penny Depp would have loved his screening of his favourite movie to feature his friend, and the film’s director, Bruce Robinson. But Robinson was elsewhere, as was the film’s star, Richard E Grant. In fact, they were appearing at the Electric Cinema.
One cannot underestimate just what an honour it was to have Robinson – the writer and director – and the eponymous star of a film regularly rated as one of the Best Evs by critics (critics! Pah!) alright then, by film fans themselves, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with us in humble old Brum. So what the hell were Bruce Robinson, and Grant (an actor constantly in demand and who came on his first free weekend for a long time) – both regularly invited to screenings of what has become one of THE cult films (7,000 applied for tickets) – doing among fans at the Electric?
The genesis of this is (I like to imagine a drunken conversation) down the pub between Matt and his friend about their joint favourite film and how much they would love to see it on the big screen having missed it first time round thirty years ago when they were nippers. Next morning Matt phoned his friend to say he had done an extremely silly thing and gone and hired a cinema to show the film, he hoped they could sell enough tickets to cover costs. The Withnail Weekender was born.
In true cult style, fans turn up to the once-a-year screening in character costume, a lot of alcohol is consumed (the Withnail drinking game where viewers try to match the on-screen consumption is legendary) and every year a different magnificent cake is lovingly baked, in keeping with a Withnailian theme. Each year the cake surpasses itself, but I doubt the magnificent crafted ouevre served up here to honour the presence of greatness will ever be beaten.
Tradition has dictated that several of the troupe dress as schoolgirls (men of a certain age and stature, would you believe!) and we were treated to the Grantmeister himself being called to the stage for the now obligatory call-and-response of “Scrubbers!” and “Up yours Grandad!” from the ‘schoolgirls’ flicking the Vs.
Grant it was who kicked off the Bacchanalian Withnailian shenanigans by moving to a house opposite Matt’s dad and subsequently coming across the road to introduce himself to a stupefied Matt on a recent filial visit, as A-list Hollywood actor and dad had struck up a friendship.
Anyone who has seen the film will recall the tour-de-force that is Richard E’s performance as Withnail, and he recalled post-screening how the magnificent script was a gift for any actor (magnanimous to a fault) and credited the role as kickstarting his career.
Grant and Robinson recalled the difficulty of filming the (infamous) Penrith Tea-Rooms scene as he and Paul McGann could not stop guffawing during filming, primarily from the noises made by the dogs (from Eastenders, no less) when silence was demanded prior to camera rolling; Bruce the Director explained that lack of a budget meant that takes were strictly limited to preserve film, meaning that Richard E’s raucous laughter in the final cut was genuine, rolling again was NOT an option.
Grant is obviously still bitter that his now-mate Robinson stuck something obnoxious in a meths bottle Withnail demanded to imbibe from (here fans involved in the drinking game have to use their imagination, presumably not too difficult, and luckily for them it is an early scene) so that he is genuinely vomiting over McGann’s shoes.
Another scene required the late, great Richard Griffiths to describe Paul McGann’s character, the ‘I’ from the title, as a toilet trader and numerous takes were needed to enable Uncle Monty to get his words out without spluttering into laughter.
Robinson explained that he was hoping to come up with a film good enough to sustain a two week run at his local Arts Cinema in London. Thirty years on and the Electric still hasn’t seen the last of the splendid Withnail phenomenon.