Heroes #3: Withnail


20th July 2005

There's nothing in life you can't handle without a bottle or two. Not the exact words of our latest hero, granted, but there can be no doubt it is the ethos he lives by. Before Richard E. Grant defecated on his credibility by appearing in those face-stabbingly awful Argos ads, he was Withnail, a thespian in crisis, an elegantly wasted Hamlet-in-waiting who answers to no one but his beloved mistress: booze. If only he could get the break he deserved, he'd be the superstar he always said he would be. Instead, he's a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum, living in squalor in what would politely be described by estate agents as a 'cosy' 60's Camden flat, lined with dirt, vermin and all things matter.

When the opportunity of a weekend countryside retreat arises, Withnail gleefully grasps it with both hands, before realising that the grime and filth of London is infinitely preferable to psychopathic poachers, homosexual uncles and raging livestock. Despite all this, the man staunchly believes in one thing above all else: even when life is kicking you repeatedly in the balls, you're better off having a stiff drink in your hand. He doesn't request it. He demands it.

Withnail is the classic failed actor. Well dressed and equally well spoken, he clings to the idea that the only things holding him back in his career are shoddy agents and rent boy actors charging two pound ten a tit and a fiver per arse. Gloriously deluded about his station in life, Withnail struts around like Lord of the Manor, egocentric and vainglorious through and through - it is only the anxiety and relative sanity of his flatmate and fellow actor Marwood (the 'I' of the title) that keeps his lanky frame shackled to planet Earth. Dressed in a Saville Row suit yet still capable of looking like a tramp ("just because the best tailoring you've ever seen is above your fucking appendix"), he'd be utterly charming if his face wasn't in a permanent scowl and he wasn't so concerned about where his next drink was coming from. It may also have something to do with the fact that his head feels like a pig just shat in it.

Withnail is good at finding practical solutions. Booze run out? Lighter fluid is a cheap commodity and an acquired taste amongst alcohol lovers. Cold? Cover yourself in Deep Heat and rub yourself stupid. Feeling stressed? Sit back, smoke a Camberwell Carrot and get insanely high. He's even willing to put his flatmate's arse up for sale in order to secure his Uncle Monty's cottage for the weekend, citing Marwood's near buggery as a 'tactical necessity' for a few days of green grass and blue skies. He finds the solution to most of life's problems can be found via a copious intake of narcotics, be they solid, liquid or gas - the pub is Withnail's church, unkempt drug dealer Danny his own personal Jesus. Withnail's alcohol intake is truly of biblical proportions (why order a single whisky when you can order a pair of quadruples?) although he only wishes he could turn water into wine. It's no coincidence that students have since adopted Withnail as their own personal messiah, following in his footsteps, endless quoting his scriptures and making pilgrimages to his places of worship. He has easy answers to everything - everything but how to get out of the sorry little grief hole he's managed to dig himself into.

If you surround yourself in failure, then it's easy to become jaded; it's most likely the reason that Withnail chose to live with Marwood - an equally jobless straggler - happy to co-habit with someone supposedly in the same boat, yet still treat them like the cabin boy. Only when his companion lands a plum role and moves away does Withnail really begin to realise that perhaps his self-serving pomposity might be what's holding him back. Standing bedraggled in the pouring rain, alone and in increasing danger of becoming sober, Withnail turns to the wolves held safely behind the Hyde Park fences and rattles off a thunderous passage from Hamlet, proving himself to be quite the talented actor after all. "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, how like a God!" Don't count on this temporary outpouring of emotion becoming anything permanent. The pubs will be open in a few hours.

Withnail: an articulate drunk, a slovenly gentleman, as lovable as he is detestable - he's a straight thinker in a crazy, messed up world. An expert on bulls he is not, a hero he most certainly is. And that's something we can all drink to. Ali

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