19 February 2016

Sideways – the Play


There is a memorable scene in the British dark comedy Withnail & I when the two main protagonists, ‘resting’ actors who have decided to go on a long weekend in England’s Lake District, arrive at their damp, cold, dark cottage in the middle of the night. With a howling gale ripping through the valley they pull up only to find the house swathed in pitch black before the ‘I’ character lights a lantern to reveal a chillingly spartan kitchen. Like most British holidays the scenery is spectacular but the weather is atrocious and in the film they have no running water, food or electricity. It’s cold, damp and dark.

After a few profanities Withnail walks across the room and falls into a chair dejectedly. “What are you doing?” asks I. To which Withnail replies, in a deep, fatigued, languid tone: “Sitting down to enjoy my holiday.”

It’s one of many colourful lines including the much quoted: “we’ve come on holiday by mistake” that fans of the film have grown to love since it was released in 1987. Both quotes sum up the sort of self deprecating, self-flagellating humour the British have exported for more than four decades around the world.

Withnail & I wasn’t a big hit when it was released, even less so in the States, but in an empty theatre in Los Angeles one man was watching all by himself and he absolutely loved what he saw. That person was Rex Pickett and what he laughed along to that night would sow the seeds for his own novel about two middle-aged men who take a road trip to the Santa Ynez Valley, exploring the vineyards, taking in the wine tasting rooms while talking up Pinot Noir and denigrating Merlot. The novel – Sideways is arguably the most successful wine story ever written.

“I have seen Withnail & I maybe twelve times,” says Rex Pickett speaking from Los Angeles. “I owe a big debt to that film, it was huge to me, the epigraph to the novel was one of their lines – ‘we’ve come on holiday by mistake’.

“I think maybe because it is so British it doesn’t quite translate in the U.S. but I love the dialogue and that dark, British humour.”

In 2004 the comic novel became a film directed by Alexander Payne and co-written by Payne and Jim Taylor. It was an instant hit, grossing over $100m, picking up a slew of awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now we have the play. In May the St James’s theatre in London will start a six-week run where audiences will be able to sip Pinot Noir (not Merlot) while watching the adventures of Miles and Jack as they weave their way through the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara, California.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to come to London, Will,” he says in his quick fire, enthusiastic voice. “It is such a sophisticated city. You know I always wanted to bring it to London, the play, it’s so dialogue driven and the Brits are a language based country that I knew it would do well. I know London is a great theatre town too.”

Pickett says wine is not only central to the plot but also the theatre going experience. In the States, where the play enjoyed a successful run at the Ruskin Group Theatre Company in Santa Monica, he insisted on serving high end Pinot Noir. The audience loved him for it and he says people would fly down just for the wine.

“I would love to have a Spätburgunder (German Pinot Noir) night, wouldn’t that be brilliant?”

It would. He’s also looking at Chile, but it’s not just the wine, it’s the communal experience of watching comedy together that he feels makes the play such a unique experience compared with the film.

“When the film came out you could see it with a full audience, now you can only see it on DVD. But with the play you have an audience, comedy needs an audience. The laughter is going to be raucous. The humour goes straight to that British self-deprecating humour that is right up my alley. I hope it will be civil but rowdy.”

There is another British connection too. The novel is dedicated to Julian Davies, a British wine expert who met Rex over long evenings in his Santa Monica wine shop, Epicurious. The two of them struck up a friendship over wine and movies. They were joined by Roy Lee Gittens, an electrician who worked in the film industry. Eventually Roy and Rex took a wine tour.

“I started going up there (Santa Ynez Valley) in the early 90s when my second film didn’t too well. I just wanted to get out of L.A. it was very cheap and I went up to play golf,” he says. “I used to go up and stay at the Windmill Inn, now they have the Miles and Jack room and it costs $350 a night but it’s the same room!”

It was while on one of those trips that the idea came to him to write a screenplay. The story wrote itself but he needed a name.

“It was a British term I heard from Julian,” he says “he told me it meant that it was a little like you have over indulged.”

Funny, I always thought that when it comes to wine tasting you have to spit?

Sideways the play runs at St James Theatre, London from May 26 to July 9.

Three to Buy

Pinot Noir 2012 (14%), Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Walker Bay, South Africa

Anthony Hamilton Russell makes Pinot Noir in a very Burgundian style, the 2012 is rich and generous with an attractive texture. On the nose there are hints of oak, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Effortlessly ripe this is very popular.

Decoy Merlot 2013 (13.5%), Duckhorn, Sonoma County, California 

Soft, smooth with plenty of attractive forward fruit and sweet spices. This is dangerously easy to drink. Despite Sideways I have always felt that Merlot is a great wine to pair with a variety of food including pork, roast chicken and vegetarian dishes that benefit from wine with red fruit aromas.

Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 (14%), Peirano Estate, Lodi, California

Situated just east of San Francisco this estate was founded in 1879 by Giacomo Periano who imported the Zinfandel cuttings from their native Italy. This is juicy and ripe with notes of red cherry. Sumptuous.

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.