Withnail and I sank almost without a trace when it was first released in 1987. Financed by HandMade Films, the late George Harrison’s production company, and drawing heavily on first-time writer-director Bruce Robinson’s experiences, this virtually plot-free story follows two out-of-work actors (Withnail, played by Richard E. Grant, and ‘I’, played by Paul McGann), eking out a living in a run-down London of the late 1960s, and embarking on a booze-fuelled weekend in the country which takes various unexpected turns. Although it initially failed to find an audience, it did not take long for the film to attract a dedicated cult following which still persists today. Lines from the film such as ‘we’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ and ‘Bring me the finest wines known to humanity!’ have become popular favourites and the subject of countless internet memes.
Kevin Jackson’s in-depth study gives a full account of the film’s origins and production history. But his main focus is the mood and magic of the film, its aesthetics and sensibility, seeking to show, without ever detracting from the film’s comic brilliance, just how much more there is to Withnail and I than drunkenness and swearing. ‘It is an outstandingly touching yet witheringly unsentimental drama of male friendship,’ Jackson writes, ‘a bleak up-ending of the English pastoral dream, a piece of ferocious verbal inventiveness’ – and, without question, one of the greatest of all British films.
In his new foreword to this edition, writer Bharat Tandon pays tribute to to both Withnail’s peculiar genius and enduring appeal, and to his close friend Kevin Jackson.