The cult film that launched Richard E Grant’s career is best known for its drink and drug references. But Food Editor Andrew Webb thinks it’s actually all about the food.
Withnail & I is something of a religion. Lines like “as a youth I used to weep in butchers shops” to “we want the finest wines available to humanity” fall from the lips like a prayer.
Like any cult movie with a following, there’s the obligatory drinking game (please don’t try this at home), but beyond the booze – and there is a lot of it – and the drugs, there’s also some great food moments in the film too. Here then, are some of my favourites.
“Thirteen million Londoners have to wake up to this”
We first meet Marwood (the ‘I’ in the title) heading out to a greasy spoon. Eggs fry in a huge pan of oil, before being unceremoniously plonked between two slices of cheap white bread. As the old dear, still wearing her head shawl, bites into the sandwich, egg yolks pours out the other end.
Of course in today’s world of totally ‘grammable smashed avocado brunch dishes, the classic ‘greasy spoon’ cafe is getting harder to find on the streets of the capital. What was the cafe is now an estate agent. Russell Davis has spent over 10 years cataloguing his love for the humble British cafe with his excellent blog ‘Egg, Bacon, Chips and Beans’. As Russell says on one of his entries, “Cafes have a complex relationship with gentrification – they’re never busier than when all the builders arrive and they’re sometimes there for years, but then the dust settles and all anyone wants is an artisanal drip.” A good rule of thumb, says Russell, is to look for lots of high viz wear; think builders, traffic warders, delivery drivers and lollypop ladies. They know a good breakfast when they see one. If you do want a proper Full English in London, here’s some fancy, and not so fancy places to get a good one.
“I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”
The late Richard Griffiths left behind a fine body of work, from Pie in the Sky to Harry Potter. But it is for Uncle Monty he’ll be best remembered by Withnail fans. Monty has, if not the best one liners, then certainly the best set pieces. His monologues on both former lover Norman and why he’ll ’never play the Dane’ are failed ambition personified. And so, with little more than vintage wine and memories, Monty busies himself growing vegetables.
If you too are fond of root crops, but haven’t yet started to grow, there are some great weekend markets in London to get great fruit and vegetables. For geraniums, there’s the amazing Columbia Road flower market. For veggies on a budget, try these places for less than a tenner a day. If ‘a small rhesus negative bloody Mary’ is as close as you like to get to vegetables, then here’s the best ones in London.
“Black puddings are no good to us. I want something’s flesh!”
After unsuccessfully trying to shoot fish with a shot gun (technically possible according to the internet), a chicken arrives from the local farmer. The only trouble is, it’s still alive. A swift dispatch by Marwood and it’s ready for the kettle. When it doesn’t fit, our hapless heroes perch it on a brick in the oven.
This is similar to the popular US technique of beer can chicken, which is actually a really lousy way of cooking chicken. If you like your chook served with a bit more style, here’s our round up the best Sunday roasts in London as well as elsewhere in the UK.
“Rosemary, garlic, salt”
The food centrepiece of the film is uncle Monty’s roast leg of lamb for late luncheon at three. Monty can’t touch meat until it’s been cooked – “as a youth I used to weep outside butchers’ shops – and so ‘I’ has to help him in the kitchen. Being largely wet and grassy, Cumbria and The Lake District where a large portion if the film means that sheep farming is a large industry, as indeed is tourism. These days the boys could have had lunch at one of the many great restaurants or pubs in the Lake District, before walking it off in some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK.
Cake and fine wine
Finally, we end our meal with pudding, specifically, cake. As our drunken heroes stumble round Penrith looking for something to soak up the booze, they happen upon the Penrith Tea Rooms. Here, they upbraid dear Miss Blennerhassett, the proprietor, and the rest of the customers, with the line “we want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we now them now!” The interior shots were actually done not in Cumbria but Buckinghamshire, and the tea room is now a chemist. If you like cake, and who doesn’t whether under the influence or not, then here’s our guide to the best tea rooms, coffee shops and bakeries.
Where to stay
If, like Withnail & I you’re ‘drifting into the arena of the unwell’ and need a holiday, but don’t fancy slumming it in an abandoned old cottage, then check out our seven best hotels in the Lake District. Or if you’re a real fan, like me, see the film screened at Crow Crag in the summer. See Picnic Cinema for more details. Finally, you might enjoy this episode of Radio 4’s The Reunion, which put the cast and director back together to look at the lasting legacy of the film.