The much-loved Penrith tea room scene from Withnail & I (actually filmed at a chemists’ in Milton Keynes)
Unspecified cake it was, which for this publication is a rarity. “Just bring out the cakes.” “Cake, and fine wine.” The context was all. A couple of wastefully drunk and filthily arrogant unemployed actors bumbling into the Penrith Tea Rooms at closing time. And Richard E Grant’s unimprovably bonkers follow-up, somehow both slurred and royally, commandingly, articulate: “We want the finest wines available to humanity.”
It was 1986 and the filming of Withnail and I. Yet the writer and director Bruce Robinson, for whom this was pretty much autobiographical, was back in 1960s Camden. Railing as ever against an unestablishable establishment: and moving the setting to the Lake District effectively moved the decades. The distaste on the face of the proprietor, the fine character actor Llewellyn Rees, surely echoes the pursed lips of all who had dogged Robinson’s 60s days with twitching curtains and long noses when all he was trying to do was … have some fun.
Robinson is thankfully very much alive, as I found a few years ago. As are of course Grant and Paul McGann, the “I” of the film’s title. Rees died in 1994. But I managed to catch up with photographer Murray Close, who took this still. Did anyone, I ask, have an inkling of what a success, a cult, that film would become, with its timeless celebration of simple friendship and generational differences?
“Not at all. Bruce had to fund the last reel himself. We didn’t have a clue. It was a great script, of course, but everyone was an unknown – though I believe Bill Nighy read for the main part. But slowly, slowly, videos and then DVDs came out, and … yes, in hindsight, it’s a great film, but I just remember it as truly tremendous fun, with a UK crew of a certain age and propensity to laughter.”
Murray’s website has many more extraordinary outtakes. The “Penrith tea-rooms” location was in fact what is now a chemists’ shop in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes. The last few lines of Robinson’s script, with Grant doing Hamlet by the London Zoo wolves, still enthral. “What a piece of work is a man … [yet] man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither.” [The wolves are unimpressed. Withnail exits into the rain.