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    Withnail and I is one of the world’s most iconic films. Ahead of a special screening at the Odeon Liverpool ONE, as part of the Liverpool Comedy Festival, actor Paul McGann tells us more about the memorable script and life on set…

     

    Withnail and I is to be screened as part of the Liverpool Comedy Festival. How does it feel to be able to share your memories of working on the film, with fans from your hometown?

    Like a bit of unfinished business. I remember its first short run in 1987 and how it played just a few days at the old London Road Odeon, and how I wished there'd been enough interest in it then to justify doing something similar.

     

    Bruce Robinson’s script is one of the most quoted in the world. What is it like to know that so many people can instantly recognise the film from classic lines such as “My thumbs have gone weird”?

    Well, it certainly keeps you on your guard when you're out and about. I've known strangers perform whole scenes from it from memory in front of me. I usually end up having to prompt when they dry.

     

    The film has incredible attention to detail. From the décor of the flat to the clothing, everything immerses the story into the decade. Did you find that the production crew’s design and Robinson’s writing really helped to make the whole experience feel as if you were living in the 1960’s?

    I honestly think that without the idiosyncratic genius of designer Michael Pickwoad we mightn't be talking about the picture at all today. It was his attention to detail that astonished Bruce Robinson when we first walked onto set. I remember Robinson saying to us, 'Good god, this is just how it was---he's recreated it exactly!' It's perhaps only when you see one of Murray Close's production photographs and catch sight of a bystander dressed for 1986 you appreciate the effect.

     

    The first scene you and Richard E. Grant filmed was the arrival of Withnail and Marwood (“I”) in the pouring rain at Monty’s country cottage. Can you describe what that first scene was like to film?

    We were just so excited. Both Richard and me tried to contain it but, you know, you only get to shoot your first ever morning on a movie once in your life. Robinson addressed the whole crew in the cottage before we started, reminding them that though he'd acted in plenty of pictures this was the first time he'd ever directed one, and not to hesitate to tell him if they thought he was messing up or could do things any better. They loved him for it.

     

    One of my favourite scenes is at the beginning where Withnail and I are in the kitchen trying to wash up. I believe this was the scene that was used for auditions prior to filming. Could you tell us a little more about that first audition with Richard E. Grant, which would lead onto this iconic and outstanding on-screen performance by you both?

    I'd been hired the day before, then asked by Robinson if I could stick around and read with prospective Withnails. Richard came in in a blur of nervous embarrassment and let himself down. We did the kitchen scene together and he tried too hard. I honestly thought he was wasting his time and was surprised later when Robinson said there was something about him and he was going to recall him. Richard came back, and Robinson concentrated on just getting him to repeat some specific lines of dialogue ('Just because the best tailoring you've ever seen...') until he found their rhythm and attack and suddenly Withnail was there in the room. It was thrilling.

     

    Throughout Withnail and I there are iconic and beautiful audio-visual moments, from the wrecking ball against Hendrix’s ‘All along the watchtower’ to ‘A whiter shade pale’ in the opening titles. Did you know what the accompanying soundtrack would be or did this all come later in post-production?

    As far as I can recall everything was planned--music too--down to the last detail. There's almost nothing accidental or improvised in the finished film.

     

    Withnail and I was one of the first films you worked on following television programmes such as The Monocled Mutineer. What was it like taking that step from one medium to another?

    It was the first time I'd worked on a 35mm cinema film; same for Richard E and Ralph Brown. I'd worked on TV films, with the old 16mm, but this was different and little things needed modifying. You'd learn by your mistakes as you went along. On the first day of shooting, playing a scene at the sink in the cottage with my back to camera, I gradually angled my face so it could see it. I still remember the embarrassment I felt on hearing Robinson cut the take and whisper to our camera operator, 'television.'

     

    One of the film’s producers was also a fellow Liverpudlian, George Harrison. What was it like to work with him and did you ever get the chance to perform musically with him when you weren’t filming?

    He wasn't around while we were shooting but we all met him later. He seemed lovely, and wickedly funny. It's one of my great regrets that at a party he threw for us he asked me to get up and sing with his band and I bottled out. 'I'm so drunk, George,' I said. 'Not as drunk as me and Carl Perkins,' he said. I didn't do it, and now so wish I had.

     

    Can you sum up Withnail and I in a word?

    Bittersweet. Is that two words?

     

    Withnail and I, plus a Q&A with Paul McGann, will be at the ODEON Liverpool ONE on Saturday 26th September 2015 at 7.30pm.

    To find out more and to purchase tickets, please visit: www.odeon.co.uk

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      Sarah's posts By Sarah O' Hara
      @TheLowdownMag


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