Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson

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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.

Doctor Who (1996), dir. Geoffrey Sax

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Is it bad that I love this film so much? Doctor Who is a major part of my identity. The TV Movie was one of my first ventures into classic Who, alongside stories like Survival, cementing McCoy and McGann as, still to this day, two of my favourite Doctors.

But this wasn’t my introduction to Paul McGann’s role as the Doctor. Instead, thank Big Finish. Late 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late for a BBC Radio 7 omnibus broadcast of Shada (2003). Come 2006, I was recording The Stones of Venice, Invaders from Mars and The Chimes of Midnight onto DVD-Rs. By 2007, I was listening to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie, before I got distracted and fell behind mid-way through Phobos and promptly gave up (I’ve still yet to catch up). Fans may complain of McGann’s limited appearance – but he already had an era for me, before I came into it.

Perhaps my nostalgia for the film may overshadow it somewhat, but it still holds up as a very competently made backdoor pilot. The production history of the film is very interesting, charting between numerous major (and minor) names, from Steven Spielberg, to Leonard Nimoy, to John Leekley. But there are many names to praise: Alan Yentob, looked more favourably towards the programme than Michael Grade, whilst the failure of The Dark Dimension and Last of the Time Lords helped to pave the way towards its return.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s government saw the BBC forced to invest more in independent television. Many of the contenders for the part were familiar names, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi.

If the film feels disjointed, it’s because it was, trying to meet the needs of different producers and parties, melding different drafts together. It kicked into production within weeks of script completion, still undergoing last-minute revisions, and only months before broadcast. The half-human aspect of the Doctor is only a holdover from Leekley’s concept of the show. Leekley’s concept had some interesting elements too – exploring the mythology of Gallifrey, and launching the Doctor into an overarching quest for the scrolls of Rassilon and into the battlegrounds of World War II (which would be explored more during the new series).

Whilst other potential revivals for the series were steeped in nostalgia, the TV Movie sought to move the series forward. Seagal expressed his dismay at the script for The Dark Dimension, whilst Downtime (1995), sought to relive the nostalgia of 1960s and 70s Doctor Who. But the TV Movie’s echoes can be found throughout the new series.

Whilst some of the criticisms laid against the film is that it’s “too Americanised” (I’d retort that it’s “too Canadian”, though filming in Canada is a very American thing to do), that isn’t exactly a criticism. Although some of the CGI effects are a little dated, the production values are high, the sets are designed well, scenes alive with background extras and attention to detail, the editing is solid, and Geoffrey Sax’s direction helps the film a lot. Think of our introduction to Chinatown: we open with the eye of a fish about to be sliced up, as we pan out through a window into the street and Chang Lee running through. It’s the type of direction we rarely even see today. The film never feels completely like a film or completely like a TV pilot – but the cinematography lends it a very cinematic quality. It’s ‘Americanised’ enough to actually be able to afford to license music and lend the world some reality. John Debney’s memorable operatic score (though not recorded by an actual orchestra), shows the potential of a new series, removed from the synth scores of the 80s.

Grace is as strong a companion as any in the new series. She’s a doctor, like Martha. She stands up for the right thing, quitting her job because her superior won’t listen to her curiosity around the anomaly of the Doctor’s two hearts. She drives him away from the hospital, even when she’s unsure. Ultimately, she saves the day.

Like the new series, it fuses multiple genres. In our introduction to Grace, it could be another episode of ER (1994-2009), presenting a sitcom-esque hospital complete with colorful characters, like joke-cracking morgue attendant Pete. During the chase scene, it feels like an action movie. When the Doctor and Grace open the beryllium clock, it might as well be a safe-cracking scene in a heist movie. There are elements of comedy: a cop drives a motorcycle into the TARDIS; Pete faints at the resurrected sight of the Doctor; brainless scientists wave their hands around like “idk”.

The Doctor’s prescience about time steeps him within Earth history, namedropping Puccini, Freud and an “intimate” encounter with Marie Curie. He knows where Gareth will be ten years from now based on a question on his midterm, knows Grace’s future with her ex-boyfriend, and knows where Chang Lee will be in Christmas 2000. But the film is obsessed with time too – continually, we see shots of clocks, whilst the film’s conceit is an atomic clock; as the physical properties of time bends, the film’s resolution turns back time; Grace wants enough time to save a human life, and hold back death.

In many ways, it’s a conventional regeneration story. The Doctor returns to Earth unexpectedly, encounters a new companion initially hesitant towards him, but by the resolution they form a chemistry and have defeated an enemy. One common complaint is that McCoy’s appearance doesn’t give McGann’s Doctor enough time to shine. But it also reframes the narrative in an interesting way: it is a story about life over death, as the Master tries to claim the Doctor’s lives in order to further his own (very much a continuation of his possession of Tremas, creating a ‘final battle’ with the Doctor). We are introduced knowing the Doctor has multiple lives and is immortal of sorts. He conquers life, almost dying because of Grace’s anaesthetic hampering the regenerative process. Life and hope is a central aspect of this Doctor – from a sense of joie de vivre to Molly O’Sullivan as a symbol of hope in Dark Eyes (2012-14), to his  role as a reluctant warrior in The Night of the Doctor (2013).

My main criticisms of Sylvester McCoy’s presence is to do with performance, unfortunately. He performs a handful of lines with mediocre delivery, requiring either a larger role, setting up his demise in the first act, or a smaller role. He dies a small yet very dark death, not a grandiose regeneration story: he exits the TARDIS only to be gunned down, an accident that could have happened anywhere else. Lying on an operating table and forced unconscious under anaesthetic, but he, the unrelenting fan, won’t stop; in a parallel to Frankenstein (1931), brought a new energy of life under the electricity of a storm.

The universe is a dangerous place. It’s refreshing to have a story about regeneration, rather than because of regeneration. Yet the cinematography and editing adds no gravitas to this, acting as a plot device, a necessary event but given little emotion. How much cooler would it have been were we introduced to the story from Lee’s POV (as we are from Rose’s in Rose, discovering the corpse of the Doctor in a disused backalley, thereby leading more ambiguity to the character and allowing more to be set up later on?

His habit of sitting alone in the TARDIS, reading books, drinking tea and listening to records presents a wonderful idea for a more weathered Doctor, but the circularity of the Eighth Doctor sitting back in the TARDIS and doing exactly the same thing subtracts his characteristic individuality.

The Doctor becomes a Jesus figure: the shroud in the morgue; his quest for identity within a human world; Pete’s exclamations of “oh my God!” at the sight of him; Grace dismissing the notion of the “Second Coming”; Grace later positioning the Master as the Devil and the metal crown of nails could just as easily be the crown of thorns (or possibly something out of Hellraiser or a BDSM device); the TARDIS granting grace to all who are its passengers.

Setting an Earth story set in San Francisco, the film gives us a more diverse cast than even the Andrew Cartmel era could give us; we see Chang Lee actually existing within Chinatown, outside of the yellowface of The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Although gang member perhaps isn’t the most positive role, in an era today of colourblind casting, seeing Lee exist within his actual community is a relief.

Chang Lee could have been a much better character, but he needed to be more developed. To have one of the semi-antagonists of the film but also potential companions be a gang member who carries a gun is interesting: a street urchin with a troubled past but a nice soul, becoming an adoptive son to the Master. He isn’t sure where his life if headed. When the Master grants him anything in the world, he chooses money. But this could have been the perfect way to show his hardships: surely his greatest wish is to see his family again, to get off the streets, for his friends not to die? He is redeemed through his resurrection in temporal grace, but the script could have done with another rewrite.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by its unsubtle melodrama. A poster advertises London in Chinatown, right next to where the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor reads The Time Machine (1895), because he flies a time machine. Bruce has a space alarm clock, because he’s five years old and about to be possessed by an alien. The Doctor is compared to Frankenstein, because Universal have the rights. The TARDIS’ interior is impressive, but the Eye of Harmony is still a gothic cathedral complete with flames and bats.

As Bruce, Eric Roberts is comedic and likeable – but none of that carries over to his hammy performance as the Master, complete with a cackling, maniacal laugh, an implausible false identity (whereas Roger Delgado’s Master could pass for a vicar), a propensity for ripping off his fingernails and wearing a lavish cloak (“I always dresssssss for the occasion.”) He never takes off his sunglasses, driving around SF in greased hair and a leather jacket,  whilst referring to Lee as “the Asian child”. The Master’s supposed dramatic ‘final battle’ with the Doctor devolves into nothing but the two kicking each other, the Master leaping into the Eye of Harmony whilst speaking in a comical voice, flitting between the Doctor’s face as if it were The Mask (1994). I’m not sure Christopher Lloyd could have done any better than Roberts, though it would perhaps have brought the viewing figures up – but what we needed was a British American.

But there’s something that feels so perfect when we see the Doctor, Grace and Chang Lee together, looking out upon the stars from a projection upon the console. Out there is Gallifrey and the distant galaxies. Through everything that has happened, we have the perfect Doctor/companion team – but licensing rights means that will never happen. We’ve seen glimpses into Grace’s future, with the Doctor reuniting with her a couple of times. We’ve seen the Eighth Doctor be given multiple British companions, but there’s something about a doctor and a teenager from SF that would be more appealing than another Edwardian adventuress, northern lass or a nurse from space. There’s fertile ground to be explored – it’s just a shame that this was the closure.