Archive feature: ‘CUMBRIA AT THE MOVIES’

‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’

Three decades on, Maggie B. Dickinson revisits Cumbrian locations for the classic Withnail & I – cinematic debauchery at its finest!

First published in December 2017

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley
Paul McGann (left) as Marwood and Richard E. Grant as Withnail, on location (photo courtesy of Murray Close/

In the thirty years since it hit cinema screens, Withnail & I has achieved cult status. It is recognised as one of the best black comedies the British film industry has ever produced. A word of warning: it is not for those of a prudish disposition or an aversion to colourful language.

The script by Bruce Robinson – who also directed the film and whose semiautobiographical story this is – harks back to adventures in 1960s Cumbria and London and relates the tale of two unemployed thespians, Withnail and his flatmate Marwood (“I”), who spend what little income they have on booze, cigarettes and drugs.

Robinson drew heavily on his povertystricken days as a drama student in an unheated London flat, with only one lightbulb which he’d to carry from room to room. For warmth he depended on a gas oven, in front of which he sat with the door open.

He insisted there were to be no jokes or attempts at humour in the film. Instead, the entertainment had to be generated by skilfully illustrating Withnail and Marwood’s hideous efforts to stave off hunger, numbed by a self-inflicted substance haze.

The handsome Richard E. Grant, whose first film this was, had faced stiff competition for the role of Withnail from Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and others. His character, said to be loosely based on Robinson’s flatmate Vivian, is a member of the gentry fallen on hard times. He conveys his lines with snarling rancour, as though his pathetic lot is no fault of his own.

To portray himself as Marwood, Robinson chose Paul McGann, once he’d proven he could ditch his Scouse accent in favour of a Home Counties one.

The tale starts in their squalid flat. Rancid matter festers in the sink, drawn curtains block out the daylight and, as the opening titles roll, a morose McGann needily drags on a cigarette, setting the scene of obvious despair.

Withnail & I is peppered with some of cinematic history’s most quotable quotes, starting when they run out of alcohol. The script calls for Withnail to quaff from a can of lighter fuel but, unknown to Grant, the props people have filled it with vinegar instead of water. Despite the resultant shock, the actor delivers his lines admirably, then asks Marwood for antifreeze. “You should never mix your drinks,” yells the lad.

Withnail and Marwood decide a breath of country air is needed, and suck up to Withnail’s lecherous gay Uncle Monty at his luxurious Chelsea house. Monty – brilliantly played by the late Richard Griffiths – owns a Lakeland holiday property named Crow Cragg, for which they cadge the key.

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley
Marwood, Withnail and the proprietor of Penrith Tearooms (Llewellyn Rees, right) in a classic drunken scene from Withnail and I. The tearoom scene was actually shot in Buckinghamshire (photo courtesy of Murray Close/

“Crow Cragg” is really the eighteenthcentury Sleddale Hall, near Shap. The isolated former sheep farm grows out of the watershed’s landscape above Sleddale Reservoir, though instead of incorporating that stretch of water the film features Haweswater. An important scene takes place here when Withnail, who has permanent bad hair days and continually wears a sodden, floor-length tatty overcoat, flamboyantly throws his arms up into the downpour with his voice echoing round the mountains as he shouts, “I’m gonna be a star”.

Withnail and Marwood were clearly never Boy Scouts. Their ignorance of the great outdoors makes for entertaining absurdity, as they paddle and splash through monsoonal muddiness (for which rain machines were used in the dry weather during shooting). Their plight prompts Withnail to address a farmer with the line, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake” as they beg for fuel. In another scene, threatened with starvation, and in a fit of pique, Withnail attempts to kill fish under Sleddale packhorse bridge with a double-barrel shotgun. Matters improve eventually, when Monty – gifted with cooking skills and generosity with wines – arrives to spend time with “my boys, my boys”.

In the wake of the film, Sleddale Hall, owned by United Utilities, was auctioned twice; the initial deal fell through. Then Withnail & I fan Tim Ellis, an architect from Kent, who had under-bid the first time round, obtained the property at the 2009 auction. He has since turned part of the buildings into a private residence.

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley
Sleddale Hall, which doubled as Crow Cragg (photo by Tim Ellis)

“The exterior of the house has been gentrified using local sandstone,” he told me, “but this gentrification is based on how the elevation was ‘dressed up’ for the film. The principal rooms used in the film have been retained with little alteration, although Uncle Monty’s pink sitting room is pink no more but Pugin Red. Unfortunately the cast iron range from the Victorian kitchen extension was stolen around 2000 – I’d love to see it back as it belongs to the house – but otherwise, the room remains as it was in the film.”

Picnic Cinema, run by Eden Arts, occasionally shows the masterpiece to enthusiastic audiences in the farmyard of Sleddale Hall. In July this year fans who attended their shrine were treated to four showings, with all tickets being sold within twenty minutes of release.

The telephone box in Bampton, near Shap, provides another of the film’s iconic locations. It was from here that Withnail rang his agent and turned down yet another offer of understudying. Inside today is a journal, in which visiting fans can leave messages.

An outrageous scene in The Penrith Tearooms emphasises the actors’ sheer professionalism, with Withnail’s swaggeringly drunken delivery of probably the most famous quote of all: “We want the finest wines available to humanity; and we want them here and we want them now.” The film’s nostalgic soundtrack includes music by Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Kunz and a rare example of a song by The Beatles being used in a movie. Permission for the use of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was only granted because its composer, George Harrison, was an executive director of the film. Ringo Starr, who also visited the set in Camden, was credited as “Special Production Consultant” under his real name, Richard Starkey MBE.

Withnail & I’s stars went on to even greater success. Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann and Ralph Brown – stunning as Danny the Drug Dealer – have lengthy filmographies and many television appearances to their credit. In my opinion though, the crown must surely go to non-smoking teetotaller Richard E. Grant for his incredible portrayal of Withnail. “Chin, chin”…

Thanks to Jean Scott Smith, Tim Ellis, Luisa Bockmeulen and Eden Arts.

Above, Sleddale Hall yard during a Picnic Cinema showing of Withnail & I by Eden Arts (photo courtesy of Eden Arts/Richie Johnston); 


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