Cigarette, bottle of wine, coat: enter Withnail, Richard E. Grant’s raging antihero and elegantly wasted actor au-chômage. It’s winter in Camden Town, London, and he and Marwood (Paul McGann) are holed up in a squalid flat with no booze, heating or food.
There’s the tweed coat. It’s always there: deep heat, rubber glove and coat. Plastic bag shoes and coat. Umbrella, wine, coat. It’s classical in its design – floor length, tailored, beautifully lined. It swishes as Withnail gesticulates and flounces; the perfect compliment to its flamboyant, defiant wearer, it’s both grand and shabby, refined and slovenly.
Withnail’s coat is as much a part of the set as the empty wine bottles, the spilling ashtray, the smeared windows and cluttered surfaces. He lives in a hovel, the kind of squalor associated with alcoholics and addicts, but he’s one better than the rest of the winos and losers and hippy students because he’s eloquent and good looking. With “more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television”, he’s got style, he’s going to be a star – just look at his cravat, his untucked shirt (that ultimate symbol of rebellion) and his wonderful coat.
His is a style that’s endured. Many a student has tried to emulate his look. You’ll still find that a long coat, cigarette and cravatte are wardrobe staples of any self respecting, educated male Camdenite. You’ll see it on Russell Brand, Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty. you can even buy your own, from costume designer Andrea Galer’s website. Nothing says ‘rebel fop chic’ like a cravat, cigarette and floor-length riding coat.
His frayed elegance combines the enduring poeticism of the suffering artist, alcoholic and anti-establishment drug user whose glamour is so because it’s fragile, teetering on the brink of devastation – a glamour that rests on the owner’s ability to remain a beat away from ruin, and one that has to end. Well, here’s the end for Withnail, here’s the eviction notice, the maniacal laughing, the cold and filth, Monty’s wine, the panic of a high gone wrong and the departure of his friend. It’s the end of the decade, and Withnail failed to paint it black.