Blu-ray guide: National Film Theatre on Blu-ray

Supplemental material is a wide field, whether you call them bonus features, special features or VAM (value added material). Even when material may seem available through online archives, often valuable resources that can aid with understanding a director or actor’s work will be consigned to special features, and they may in the process fall out of print. The BFI’s website and YouTube channel (including their older channel) host some of the more recent BFI Southbank panels, that the BFI and other labels often duplicate for some of their Blu-ray releases. The Guardian‘s archives dating back to 1980 are in theory available as audio files, but only by appointment. Though the BFI’s website is wonderful for free access to archive film, a film database, and Sight & Sound articles, it lacks a section for one of the most historic parts of the Southbank’s history, resurrecting the lives and careers – and often the honesty – of industry professionals.

There’s been many changes over the years, with the BFI Southbank identity supplanting the NFT in 2007. (Perhaps the major difference, to my eyes, is it doesn’t supplement the acclaimed National Theatre.) As Geoffrey Macnab wrote at the time:

 “BFI Southbank sounds like a furniture store with its own cashpoint,” one was heard grumbling.

Featurettes, interviews, documentaries, video essays and short films seem to be the most vulnerable to being hosted online as streams and torrents of illegal rips, especially when they reflect major studio releases, but the amount of material exclusive to disc is far greater. Similarly, material hosted online is always vulnerable to copyright takedowns and the demise of the domains they’re hosted on.

However, some of the material most resistant to piracy can be audio interviews, panels and commentaries. Even by owners of vast collections, these materials can sometimes be overlooked for lacking visual interest, often played against static backgrounds, stills, or a film that may only be of partial relevance. By no means do these elements completely disappear in the decades after a panel is held: rather, transcripts and select quotes turn up reproduced in books and reference guides, and The Guardian website carries an archive of transcripts from 1997-2009. Similarly, a handful of edited transcripts can be accessed through the old BFI Screenonline site. That being said, listening to a director or actor speak about their experiences in their own words can be a quite different experience to seeing them in print, where sections can easily be glanced over.

In this guide, I’ve created an (albeit incomplete) list to NFT panels available on disc, divided by label and form (on-camera or audio only).

Arrow Video/Academy

On-camera:

The Long Good Friday/Mona Lisa Limited Edition

Q+A with Bob Hoskins and John Mackenzie

(also available on Anchor Bay DVD)

The Sorrow and the Pity
Interview with director Marcel Ophuls, filmed in 2004

Audio only:

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The John Player Lecture: Sam Peckinpah, audio recording of the director’s on-stage appearance at the National Film Theatre

Dekalog

The Guardian Interview: Krzysztof Kieślowski, an onstage conversation with Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre on 2 April 1990 to mark the British premiere of Dekalog

The Hired Hand

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda at the National Film Theatre, an audio recording of the actors’ appearance at the NFT in 1971

Hold Back the Dawn

The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland, A career-spanning onstage audio interview with Olivia de Havilland recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1971

Ramrod

Andre DeToth Interviewed at the National Film Theatre, a career-spanning archival interview from 1994, conducted by writer and broadcaster Kevin Jackson

The Running Man

Lee Remick at the National Film Theatre, an audio-only recording of the actor’s appearance at the NFT in 1970

Eureka Entertainment

On-camera:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

A 1996 career-spanning on-stage interview with Peter Yates hosted by critic Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with Signal One (Eyewitness)

Kes

Extensive 1992 on-stage interview at the NFT with Ken Loach, interviewed by Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with BFI (Three Films by Ken Loach) and Signal One (Hidden Agenda)

Audio only:

The African Queen 

Audio recording of an on-stage NFT discussion about the film with Anjelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen from 2010*

*[recorded at BFI Southbank]

Audio recording of the Guardian interview with John Huston at the National Film Theatre in 1981, discussing his work and career

Forty Guns

Audio interview with Samuel Fuller from 1969 at the National Film Theatre in London

Hard Times

NFT Audio Interview with director Walter Hill

High Noon

A 1969 audio interview with writer Carl Foreman from the National Film Theatre in London

Yanks

Archival interview with director John Schlesinger

Indicator

On-camera:

Vampires and Ghosts of Mars

The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter – Part One, 1962-1983 (1994, 38 mins): the director discusses his career with Nigel Floyd at the National Film Theatre, London

The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter – Part Two, 1984-1994 (1994, 41 mins): the director discusses his career with Nigel Floyd at the National Film Theatre, London

Audio only:

Age of Consent

The Beauty of the Image: The John Player Lecture with Michael Powell (1971, 85 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Kevin Gough-Yates at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1985, 105 mins): archival audio recording of the Archers in conversation with Ian Christie at London’s National Film Theatre

Berserk

The BFI interview with Joan Crawford (1956)

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader BFI Masterclass (1982, 106 mins): the filmmaker presents a fascinating summary of the many issues and ideas he explores in his screenwriting class, recorded at the National Film Theatre, London*

*shared material with BFI (The Comfort of Strangers)

The Border

The Guardian/NFT Tribute to Tony Richardson (1992, 58 mins): archival audio recording of an event chaired by Sight & Sound editor Philip Dodd, featuring Lindsay Anderson, Kevin Brownlow, Jocelyn Herbert, Vanessa Redgrave, Karel Reisz and Natasha Richardson, each sharing their memories of Tony Richardson

Castle Keep

The John Player Lecture with Burt Lancaster (1972, 100 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at the National Film Theatre, London

Charley Varrick

The John Player Lecture with Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Lecture with Walter Matthau (1988, 89 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Sloman at London’s National Film Theatre

The China Syndrome

The John Player Lecture with Jack Lemmon (1973, 80 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Philip Oakes at London’s National Film Theatre

The Collector

The Guardian Interview with William Wyler (1981, 83 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Adrian Turner at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Terence Stamp (1989, 92 mins): archival audio recording of the award-winning actor in conversation with Tony Sloman at the National Film Theatre

The Deadly Affair

The National Film Theatre Lecture with James Mason (1967, 48 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Leslie Hardcastle 

The Guardian Lecture with Sidney Lumet (1983, 89 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London

Dragonwyck

The John Player Lecture with Vincent Price (1969, 76 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated actor in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

The John Player Lecture with Paul Newman (1972): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Joanne Woodward (1984, 65 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Bilbow at the National Film Theatre

Fat City

The John Player Lecture with John Huston (1972, 88 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Brian Baxter at the National Film Theatre, London

Five Tall Tales

The John Player Lecture with Budd Boetticher (1969): archival audio interview conducted by Horizons West author Jim Kitses at the National Film Theatre, London 

The Guardian Interview with Budd Boetticher (1994): an extensive filmed interview conducted by film historian David Meeker at the National Film Theatre, London 

The Guardian Interview with Elmore Leonard (1997): the celebrated author, and writer of the short story upon which The Tall T is based, in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

Gardens of Stone

The Guardian Interview with Anjelica Huston (2006, 65 mins), archival audio recording of the celebrated actor in conversation with critic and producer Adrian Wootton at London’s National Film Theatre

Georgy Girl

The Guardian Interview with Charlotte Rampling (2001, 59 mins): an archival audio recording of a career-spanning interview conducted by Christopher Cook at London’s National Film Theatre

Hammer vol. 3

The Guardian Interview with Val Guest (2005): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Jonathan Rigby at London’s National Film Theatre

Hardcore

The Guardian Interview with Paul Schrader (1993, 85 mins): audio recording of an on-stage interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London*

*shared material with BFI (The Comfort of Strangers)

Housekeeping

BFI Interview with Bill Forsyth (1994, 36 mins): archival audio recording of an on-stage interview conducted by Nick James at the National Film Theatre, London

The Last Movie

The Guardian Interview with Dennis Hopper (1990, 91 mins): archival audio recording of the filmmaker and actor in conversation with critic Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre

Lilith

The Guardian Interview with Warren Beatty (1990, 87 mins): archival audio recording of a career-spanning interview with the celebrated actor and director, hosted by Christopher Cook and conducted at London’s National Film Theatre

Mickey One

The Guardian Lecture with Arthur Penn (1981, 59 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Richard Combs at the National Film Theatre, London

Ministry of Fear

The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang (1962, 80 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Stanley Reed at London’s National Film Theatre

Missing

The Guardian Interview with Jack Lemmon and Jonathan Miller (1986): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre

The Odessa File

BFI Interview with director Ronald Neame 

BFI Interview with cinematographer Oswald Morris

Otley

The Guardian Lecture with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (2008): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Dick Fiddy at London’s National Film Theatre

The Sinbad Trilogy

BFI interview with Ray Harryhausen (1981, 85 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Philip Strick at the National Film Theatre, London

The John Player Lecture with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H Schneer (1970, 90 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at the National Film Theatre, London

The Stone Killer

The John Player Lecture with Michael Winner (1970, 64 mins): audio recording of an interview with the director conducted by Margaret Hinxman at the National Film Theatre, London

They Made Me a Fugitive

The John Player Lecture with Alberto Cavalcanti (1970, 62 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated director at London’s National Film Theatre, including an audience Q&A with fellow filmmakers Michael Balcon, Paul Rotha and Basil Wright

Time Without Pity

The John Player Lecture with Joseph Losey (1973, 80 mins): the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with film critic Dilys Powell at London’s National Film Theatre*

*shared material with StudioCanal (The Go Between)

Torture Garden

The Guardian Interview with Freddie Francis (1995, 77 mins): the great cinematographer and director in conversation with journalist Alan Jones recorded at the National Film Theatre, London

Town on Trial

The John Player Lecture with John Mills (1972, 96 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Margaret Hinxman at London’s National Film Theatre

Track 29

The NFT Interview with Nicolas Roeg (1994, 68 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

Young Winston

The John Player Lecture with Richard Attenborough (1971, 78 mins): the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with film critic Dilys Powell at London’s National Film Theatre

BFI

On-camera

Akenfield

Akenfield Cast and Crew Interview at the National Film Theatre (2004, 27 mins): on-stage interview, presented with original mute 16mm location footage

Carmen Jones

The Guardian Interview: Harry Belafonte at the National Film Theatre

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

Guardian Interview: Catherine Deneuve (2005)

Night and the City

The Guardian Lecture: 1981 interview with Jules Dassin by film critic Alexander Walker.

Actor Richard Widmark interviewed at the National Film Theatre in 2002 by Adrian Wootton.

Odds Against Tomorrow

The Guardian Interview: Robert Wise at the National Film Theatre (1995, 74 mins): a career-spanning onstage interview

The John Player Lecture: Robert Ryan at the National Film Theatre (1969, 63 mins): the actor talks at length about his craft

Audio only

Bergman: A Year in the Life

Ingmar Bergman Guardian Interview (1982, 62 mins, audio only): Bergman pays tribute to theatre and film director Alf Sjöberg, discussing his influence and impact on his own career. Recorded at the NFT in 1982

Betrayed

Guardian Interview with Costa-Gavras (1984, 71 mins, audio only): the Oscar winning director discusses his career in this interview recorded four years before the release of Betrayed

Comes a Horseman

The Guardian Interview: Alan J Pakula (1986, 95 mins, audio): the director in conversation with Quentin Falk, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1986

The Comfort of Strangers

Prospectus for a Course Not Given: The Paul Schrader Film Masterclass (1982, 100 mins, audio only): Paul Schrader provides an illuminating precis of the film course   he had recently presented in America*

Paul Schrader Guardian Interview (1993, 85 mins, audio only): the director discusses films and filmmaking with critic Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with Indicator (Blue Collar, Hardcore)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort 

Guardian Interview: Jacques Demy (1982, audio only) (75:50)

Guardian Interview: Michel Legrand (1991, audio only) (71:23)*

Guardian Lecture: Gene Kelly (1980, audio only) (76:00)

*shared material with Criterion (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

Eye of the Needle

Donald Sutherland Guardian Interview (1987, 73 mins, audio only)

Hair

Nicholas Ray in Conversation (1969, audio, 56 mins): the legendary filmmaker interviewed in London

Heat and Dust

The Guardian Interview: Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1992, 100 mins, audio only): John Pym moderates a panel discussion at the NFT

How I Won the War

Richard Lester in Conversation with Steven Soderbergh (1995, audio only): the director discusses his career in an interview recorded at the NFT

Judgement at Nuremberg

The Guardian Interview: Maximillian Schell (1971, 86 mins, audio only): the actor in conversation with film critic Deac Rossell

Life is Sweet

The Guardian Lecture: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Derek Malcolm (62 mins, audio only)

Maurice

Screening E M Forster (2019, 8 mins, audio only): audio extracts of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in a panel discussion recorded at the BFI’s National Film Theatre in 1992

Mr. Topaze

Peter Sellers at the NFT (1960, 97 mins, audio only): the actor addresses an enthusiastic throng of fans

Red, White and Zero

Lindsay Anderson Introduction/Stills Gallery (1968, 5 mins) an audio recording of Anderson addressing the NFT in 1968, played over stills

Rossellini/Bergman Collection

Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre (Chris Mohr, 1981, 37 mins): archival Guardian interview

Stranger in the House

James Mason in Conversation (1981, 86 mins, audio only): the actor discusses his career in an interview at the National Film Theatre, London

El Sur

Victor Erice interviewed by Geoff Andrew (2003, 83 mins, audio only)

They Came to a City

Michael Balcon NFT Lecture (audio only, 59 mins): recorded in 1969, the producer discusses the different stages of his career

Three Films by Ken Loach

Ken Loach: The Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm (1992, 74 mins)*

*shared material with Eureka (Kes) and Signal One (Hidden Agenda)

Valentino

The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1988, 90 mins, audio with stills)

Vivre sa vie

Leslie Hardcastle Introduces Vivre sa vie at the National Film Theatre (1968, 3 mins, audio only)

The Wages of Fear

The Guardian Lecture: Yves Montand in conversation with Don Allen (98 mins, audio only): recorded in 1989, the star discusses his distinguished career

Women in Love

The Guardian Lecture: Glenda Jackson interviewed at the National Film Theatre (1982, 90 mins, audio only)

StudioCanal

On-camera:

INLAND EMPIRE

Guardian Interview with David Lynch at The National Film Theatre” featurette

A Kind of Loving

NFT interview with John Schlesinger from 1988

Audio only:

The Go Between (digibook)

Audio Recording of Joseph Losey being interviewed by film critic Dilys Powell in 1973.*

*shared material with Indicator (Time Without Pity)

Signal One

On-camera:

Compulsion

The Guardian Interview with Richard Fleischer (1994): Fleischer returns to the NFT for this filmed interview

Eyewitness

Peter Yates in conversation with Quentin Falk (1996): filmed discussion at the National Film Theatre

Hidden Agenda

The Guardian Interview with Ken Loach (1992): archival interview filmed at the NFT*

*shared material with Eureka (Kes) and BFI (Three Films by Ken Loach)

Kiss of Death

Interview with Richard Widmark (2002): the celebrated actor in conversation at the National Film Theatre

Audio only:

Compulsion

The Guardian Interview with Richard Fleischer (1981, audio only): the award-winning director discusses his career after a screening of Compulsion

Doc

The Guardian Interview with Faye Dunaway (1980, 72 mins, audio only): the star of Doc discusses her career with critic Alexander Walker

Eyewitness

Peter Yates in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1982, audio only): archival interview with the director*

*shared material with Eureka (The Friends of Eddie Coyle)

Gas-s-s-s

The Guardian Interview with director Roger Corman (1970): archival interview conducted the day after work was completed on Gas-s-s-s

The Guardian Interview with director Roger Corman (1991): the legendary director returns to the NFT to discuss his career

The Honey Pot

The Guardian Interview with Rex Harrison (1971, audio only): the celebrated actor discusses his career

The Guardian Interview with Joseph Mankiewicz (1982 audio only): archival interview held at the NFT

Criterion Collection

Autumn Sonata

A 1981 conversation between actor Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor at the National Film Theatre in London

David Lean Directs Noël Coward

Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between actor Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre

Dekalog

Archival interview with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, a 1990 audio recording from the National Film Theatre in London

Forty Guns

Audio interview with Samuel Fuller at London’s National Film Theatre from 1969

Life is Sweet

Audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theatre in London

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Audio recordings of interviews with actor Catherine Deneuve (1983) and Legrand (1991)* at the National Film Theatre in London

*shared material with BFI (Les Demoiselles des Rochefort)

Candyman (1992), dir. Bernard Rose

Cover of Arrow Video Blu-ray release

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.

Candyman.

As much as I adore Hellraiser (1987) for its resonant queer themes and exploration of female sex positivity and BDSM culture, Candyman is absolutely remarkable. Its grounding in the juxtaposition between the horrific actions of graduate student Helen (Virginia Madsen) – who seems very much sane – and its supernatural origins – really drives this home. There’s a depressing cyclicality in the film’s violence and fears, within not only the urban legend – mutating, transferring, translating – but also in the gentrified, ghettoised Chicago city architecture alluding to the city skyscrapers of 1970s New York in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) in architectural, geometric aerial shots thanks to Philip Glass’ haunting cries of a score – built over, redrawn, languishing in engineered poverty. The Candyman mythos emerges from the outside, just as slavery brought forward ships from colonies – and its own legends and stories with it. The weight of Candyman isn’t only the cycle of psychological harm, but the weight of history. There’s such a strong symbolic resonance that stretches back centuries – and millennia – from baby snatchers, the imagery of the hook and walking into the fire – and coming through scathed.

Candyman drives through racial conflict – white academia wanting to explore African American mythology from the outside, not only in ethnicity but in privilege, status, accessibility and wealth. Walking into spaces coded as unsafe and as gang culture. A male dominated establishment built on questionable relationships with professors, and women attempting to re-conceptualise the exploration of those ideas and stories. The film’s white characters refuse to believe the myth, but the African American characters known all too well to stay away and never touch it – defecated lavatories, the sting of bees, decay, ruin and graffiti. Even within the film’s penultimate scene, the mourning white gathering by the tombstones is confronted by a horror: the community of the ghetto walking in a funeral procession, with their own connections and stories.

Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson

withnail_arrow

During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.

Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.

In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.

Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.

Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.

As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884). 

Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.

Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.

Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.

Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:

[I] can’t believe 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 materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.

In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.

Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.

Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.

Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”

What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.

Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.

Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.

McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.