BFI Classics: Withnail & I

Author: Kevin Jackson

Bruce Robinson’s first and most famous outing as a writer/director, Withnail & I has gone down in history as the student film. Nationwide unfed, unwashed intellectuals are still shouting “scrubbers!!” from car windows, drinking lighter fluid and rolling Camberwell carrots off the back of this unexpected 1980s (set in the ‘60s) throwback. Written by Kevin Jackson, this BFI Classics book is more of a collection of trivia than an insight into the film’s creation (although interviews with Robinson about Withnail’s production aren’t exactly hard to come by anyway).

Jackson has clearly been-there-and-done-that and from the passionate way he writes about all aspects of the film we know that not only has he done his homework, but he was probably a bit of a Withnail himself in his own student years. He methodically goes through the film scene by scene and unpicks each element which makes up this cult classic. His admiration for the main roles is apparent in every appraisal of their performances, particularly with regard to Richard Griffiths’ turn as Uncle Monty, who Jackson spends a comparatively longer time analysing than the title roles. Indeed, during The Last Island of Beauty (each of the chapters’ titles is inspired by dialogue from the film), Jackson delves into such great detail on one of Monty’s speeches that he’s forced to pull himself back, and writes “enough close reading for now”, before swiftly moving on.

But aside from commenting on the finished product itself, Jackson dedicates a good deal of time to the actors’ back-stories, particularly that of Richard E Grant.  We learn a delightful few bits and pieces about Grant’s struggle to become Withnail, which Jackson refers to as sheer “heroism” when he says “the deep heat embrocation was real. It burned like fury, especially around the genital region” and “the ‘lighter fluid’ was, unexpectedly, vinegar. He held it down long enough to complete his lines, then puked for real.” Who knew?! Jackson goes into further detail about teetotal Grant’s dedication to playing a drunk, but I’ll let you discover that gem for yourselves.

Withnail & I makes for a great watch and a fascinating read. The choice of author should be applauded as this book is lively with enthusiasm and full to bursting point with anecdotes and analysis. There may be those amongst you who read it and are disappointed by its lack of technical awareness but this is justified by Jackson in his style. He doesn’t try to come across as anything more than what he certainly is: a die-hard Withnail fan with a keen eye for detail and a delightful nose for a story.

Dani Singer

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