Withnail & I: Close to the action

C3 Richard E. Fishes Armed, Cumbria, 1986 [1]

Culturally, some films just loom larger in the public conscience. Each generation has its own favourites; some last longer than others. Anchorman continues to amuse the twenty-somethings who were barely teenagers when they first watched it. And although their elder siblings may have loved The Big Lebowski, its popularity hasn’t seen it spawn a Legend of the Dude sequel.

A brilliantly British tale of two occasional actors but full-time drinkers trying to enjoy a trip to the countryside. Withnail’s reputation surpasses them all. Parents quote it to their children long before they can understand its subtleties and adults to their friends long after they’ve outgrown the lifestyle. The youthful, co-dependent relationship of Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann has been the popular stereotype of aspiring Thespians ever since.

In a career spanning three decades as a set photographer Murray Close has seen it all. From Indiana Jones to Harry Potter via Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and The Hunger Games. Yet the film that still gives him chills after all these years is Withnail & I.

“I knew that the movie was going to be great – the script always felt special,” he says, but the reputation it has now didn’t come until some time later.

Bruce Robinson’s wickedly quotable film seems to attract new fans every year, but as Murray is the first to admit, “it languished after the theatrical release and there were only a few VHS cassettes made.” And once those broke, there was very little stock available to replace them. It took the DVD re-release by Criterion in 2001 before before it truly established itself as the film it’s now known as.

Over the years he’s found that he would be able to “gauge someone’s personality” by their reaction to the Withnail shots in his portfolio. Especially with Americans, positive reactions – usually to the photo of the boys on the steps – really let him know “we could do business.”

C20 Richard Griffiths Waxes Lyrical, Crow Crag, 1986 [1]

On set, Close remembers an innocence to it all, “there was a sort of spirit of adventure and youthfulness” and you just had to get stuck in. It’s easy to forget that Withnail was Grant’s first film and it being the eighties, it was the big era of method acting. Absolute hell for a photographer, “unable to shoot even with soundproof boxes.” So developing the trust necessary for the, now famous, photos he took was a considerable effort.

How did he get that trust? “I just had to crash in there.” In those first few weeks “they’ve got to get to know you…understand that I’m not going to affect their performance.” He’s now been around long enough that he’s close enough friends with actresses like Jennifer Lawrence that he doesn’t need to go “through the whole round of approvals and all that stuff” as much these days.

Although he does sometimes miss the more rough-and-ready atmosphere, he’s grateful that it has become much more relaxed. “There is a different attitude towards it all. All film companies are owned by major multi-nationals these days,” which he acknowledges makes his life a lot easier.

When questioned on his influences, he doesn’t hesitate, “I owe every single thing to Stanley [Kubrick], no question: everything.” He jokes that he studied at The Stanley Kubrick ‘School of Photography,’ and acknowledges that “[Kubrick’s] sense of symmetry and framing still absolutely influences me.”

Although that didn’t stop him getting one over his former master when Kubrick asked him to work on some Full Metal Jacket stills for him. “He would make fun of me, kidding that I was still trying to copy the frame and that I still couldn’t get the right place. But I was older then and I told him that ‘you as a photographer know that what works well from a moving frame doesn’t necessarily work as well for a still photograph.’ It took him a while but eventually he conceded that I might have a point.”

Withnail & Me: The Finale Photographs by Murray Close , 20 June to 1 September 2013, Proud Camden

Follow Nick Arthur on Twitter

Advertisement