“Chin, chin Monty”: remembering “Withnail and I” star Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths (left) with Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann)

“My boys” – Richard Griffiths (left) as “Uncle Monty” with “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) in “Withnail and I”

“Monty you terrible c-nt. what are you doing prowling round in the middle of the f-cking night?”

So says “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) upon discovering his rotund, gay, impeccably posh “Uncle Monty” (Richard Griffiths) is the prowler he and “I” (Paul McGann) are so terrified of as they huddle in a room in their freezing cottage in the English  countryside.

For me and I imagine for many of his fans, Richard Griffiths, the English actor who so sadly passed away this weekend will always be remembered as “Uncle Monty” in the cult 1986 comedy “Withnail and I” directed by Bruce Robinson.

For others, he will be remembered as uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films or as the eccentric, but groping and doomed school teacher in the Alan Bennett play, The History Boys.

Living in London at the time, I was fortunate to score free tickets to see the very first performance of The History Boys in 2004 and Richard Griffiths in the lead role.

He was wonderful, and there certainly was an Uncle Monty-like dimension to his character, that of a gay man who can’t hold back his proclivities – (though Uncle Monty preferred tweed and tailored suits and would never have been seen in Hector’s riding-gear leathers.)

The obituaries have been generous and glowing.

Apart from having a short temper, Griffiths is described as lovable, generous, warm and down to earth and someone , who, with out the assistance of good looks or privilege (he grew up in a coal mining town in North Yorkshire and both his parents were deaf) forged a highly successful career as an English character actor who in the words of Guardian writer Lyn Gardner brought “sheer delicacy”to his roles.

All pay tribute to his greatest comic creation, that of Uncle Monty, and so they should.

Upon learning of his death, I pulled out my copy of “With Nails” the film diaries of his “Withnail and I” co-star Richard E. Grant and read what he wrote upon meeting Richard Griffiths for the first time.

Not surprisingly, Griffiths sounds a lot like Uncle Monty; perhaps he was getting into character:

Grant writes:

“Richard Griffiths arrives in the evening, roasted and in agony from too much sun in Tuscany, which doesn’t stop him enjoying five courses, cigs, vino and tales of Thespia. His larger than life avuncularity comes as a great relief for we have been so wound up rehearsing that it was beginning to feel as if we were the only characters in this lark.”

While it would be unfair to say Griffiths had all the best lines in the movie, he certainly got some of the most memorable ones and fans of the movie will no doubt be able to recite many of them verbatim:

Lines like (while discussing the growing of vegetables):

“I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”

…which then turns into a hilarious phallic joke when Monty professes his love of a certain root vegetable:

“There is you’ll agree a certain je ne ses quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot.”

My favourite line is probably, this tender-hearted utterance, when explaining why he can never touch uncooked meat:

“As a youth, I used to weep in butcher shops.”

Griffiths played Uncle Monty with sheer brilliance, portraying him as an eccentric, lonesome gay man with Thespian aspirations to “tread the boards” and fond of delivering soliloquys about his boyhood “friend” Wrigglesworth,with whom he would ride off into the countryside and when night fell,”find some old barn and fall asleep with the sweet perfume of hay on our lips” and “the sounds of nature sighing by our side”.

While “Withnail and I” is a comedy, it is very much a melancholic comedy, with Griffiths as the love-sore, randy and lonesome Uncle Monty, who will “never play the Dane (Hamlet)”.

For those who have not seen it, it’s the story about two out of work actors – “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) living in London at the end of the 1960s who go on holiday “by mistake” courtesy of Uncle Monty’s cottage in the countryside to escape the misery and cold of their Camden Town flat.

The holiday quickly unravels, filled with misadventure, randy bulls, English tea rooms, copious amounts of alcohol, and a procession of bizarre characters (some even more eccentric than Uncle Monty).

withnail and I poster

Neither “Withnail” nor “I” expect Uncle Monty to pay them a visit and pursue the horror-filled “I” with a buggery-induced belligerence that culminates in those hilarious, lines delivered by Griffiths (and quoted in almost every obituary I have read of him):

“I mean to have you boy, even if it be burglary!”

It’s been a while since I last watched “Withnail and I” but feel a tribute viewing in honour of Richard Griffiths is on the cards.

If you’ve never seen it, seek it out in the cult section of your nearest DVD store immediately.

Chin chin and RIP in Uncle Monty!

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