The free booze was flowing generously and the sounds of Jimi Hendrix were pounding as Withnail and I returned to their old stomping ground in Camden Town, basking in the glorious summer heat. June sees the start of an exhibition at the Proud Camden Kitchen of a remarkable set of candid, behind the scene stills taken during production of the cult British classic, taken by the renowned film set photographer Murray Close.
Murray Close is considered the go to man for film production photography in a career that has spanned over three decades. He got his big break at the age of nineteen, working for the great Stanley Kubrick (himself a photographer in his youth) on the set of horror adaptation The Shining. The publicity still of Jack Nicholson’s face peering with menace through a freshly axed door has become synonymous with not just that film, but for Nicholson’s bad boy persona and has become an icon of horror cinema. Close has worked for some of the biggest names in the business such as Spielberg and Eastwood, and on some of their best known works. Tucked away in his extensive C.V. is the low-budget 1986 comic drama Withnail and I, written and directed by Bruce Robinson. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of two out of work actors (Richard E.Grant and Paul McGann) in 1960’s London, who tired of waiting for the phone to ring and drowning themselves in a sea of liquor and lighter fluid, decide to go ‘on holiday by mistake’ to the remote rural setting of Penrith in Cumbria. Their situation improves little. It’s a terrifically British comedy and by that I mean that as hilarious as it gets, every scene is undercut with an overwhelming melancholy. It is every bit as achingly sad as it is funny. Over the years it has become the definition of the word ‘cult’ creating an entire legion of fans across the years, not least amongst countless students who attempt to match drink for drink what the characters consume in the film.
Close’s portraits of the film’s production are a joyful and revealing spectacle. They range from the cosy intimacy of the London based segments (the warmth of Uncle Monty’s flat radiates from images) to the roaming, overwhelming countryside locale that seems to swallow cast and crew whole. The collection captures the comradery of the cast and crew, and also fits in with the almost anarchic tone of the films story. Grant seems to take centre stage in many of the portraits. The character of Withnail can’t help but infiltrate each shot he is in and that unique blend of charisma and chaos permeates from his pictures, as intoxicating as anything he consumes in the film. As he does in the film, McGann remains a calm centre in the midst of his colleagues tomfoolery. His handsome features would not look out of place in a fashion shoot and they create a nice contrast with the displays of comic caricature. Look out to for an appearance from Ringo Starr; fellow Beatle George Harrison was one of the driving forces behind the films production.
The title of Withnail and I: The Finale is given a deeper, bittersweet meaning by the sad passing earlier this year of Richard Griffiths. The established character actor had many hits to his name (Pie In The Sky and Harry Potter were standouts) but none more memorable than that of Uncle Monty; Withnail’s eccentric uncle, fellow would be thespian with a passion for cooking and lust for ‘I’. His gentle yet unmissable presence was another key factor to the films success and its staying power over the years. This gallery serves up a fitting tribute to not just a great character but, by all accounts, a genuinely lovable human being.
Withnail and I: The Finale is running from June 21st to September 1st at Proud Camden, Stables Market in Chalk Farm Road