by Anthony Nield
Since its belated theatrical release in early 1988, Withnail & I has slowly but surely attracted an ever-increasing amount of ink. In fact, if you ever feel the need to trace the steadily-growing popularity and appeal of the film, then a quick scan of the key texts does a fine job. Initially there were the reviews, and a mixed bag at that; the Village Voice describing it as “civilised Cheech and Chong”. And then, nothing. Or rather, the words being spoken about the film were word-of-mouth and not to be found in print. It was only when a new magazine and a new audience – loaded and the ‘new lad’ of the mid-nineties – emerged that some recognition in a popular publication arrived. Appearing in May 1994, in the very first issue, James Brown’s article, ‘The Biggest Cult Video in Britain?’, became the first to identify the growing student audience for the film, as well as laying out the rules for the now-infamous drinking game.
Spurred on, in part, by the loaded coverage, Withnail & I returned to cinemas in 1996 which in turn cued up a series of retrospective articles and interviews. Writer-director Bruce Robinson was joined by his two stars, Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, for a lengthy piece in Premiere, and he and Grant reteamed for an Empire equivalent around the same time, with McGann interviewed from the set of the Doctor Who TV movie. With each new article came fresh revelations of Withnail’s making and its various influences, although they arguably paled in comparison to the diaries of Richard E. Grant published later that year (entitled With Nails). It was here that we learned of his competition for the role – Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Bill Nighy among others – and that Michael Maloney was given the role of “I” only to turn it down at the last moment. The biggest revelation was the extremely sad news that Grant and his wife had lost a child mere days before filming began.
The burgeoning cult of Withnail also gave Robinson a much-needed boost. He hadn’t directed a feature since 1992’s Jennifer Eight, which went straight-to-video in the UK, but Bloomsbury gave the Withnail & I screenplay a much-publicised re-release as well as publishing his first novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, a short story by the name of Paranoia in the Laundrette (both with ‘From the author of Withnail & I’ prominent on the sleeve), and a book-length series of interviews entitled Smoking in Bed, which recounted his entire career as actor, writer, filmmaker and, latterly, children’s author. It also brought yet more revelations about his most famous feature, of course.
All that Withnail needed now was to be properly canonised. And so it was. Firstly, Ali Catterall and Simon Wells devoted a chapter to it in their 2002 book, Your Face Here, which looked at cult British movies from the sixties onwards and mainly those which had gained their recognition during the ‘new lad’ era: Get Carter, Quadrophenia, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, etc. Secondly, it received an upgrade to ‘Modern Classic’ status when the BFI devoted an entirely volume to the film as part of their series of the same name.
Articles, interviews, diaries, chapters and monographs – Withnail has collected the lot. So how do you set about piecing together a new 200-page book on the film as I was expected to do as part of production duties on the new Withnail & I Blu-ray?
The initial considerations were purely technical. What size is the book? What size will the text be? How much of the book will be occupied by illustrations? The answers to these questions would allow for a fairly decent idea as to the kind of word count I was looking at – and therefore a fairly decent idea as to what kind of pieces to include. It was decided early on that the illustrations would consist solely of black and white production stills and so the stills photographers on Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising were approached for permission. Both Murray Close (Withnail) and Sophie Baker (Advertising) kindly agreed, their photographs were carefully selected – the emphasis being on behind-the-scenes pics – and attention was turned to the words.
It was important not to neglect the many words which had been written in the past. Indeed, such pieces usually provide a valuable aid when producing extras for a release. Thus Kevin Jackson, author of the BFI Modern Classics volume, was approached to record an audio commentary for the film, while Adrian Sibley’s documentary The Peculiar Memories of Bruce Robinson was licenced from Channel 4 as it effectively serves as a handy précis of Smoking in Bed. Having accounted for those two major texts, I decided that the loaded article and the Empire interviews would be ideal reprints to sit alongside the newly commissioned pieces in the book, particularly the former as it was so key to identifying Withnail’s growing cult and helping it grow that little bit further. Authors were therefore contacted, permissions granted and slowly the word count begins to fill out…
The other reprints derive from the first publication of the screenplay, issued in 1989 by Bloomsbury just as How to Get Ahead in Advertising was released into British cinemas. Robinson had penned an introduction to both works that has only ever appeared in this edition (subsequent publications being of Withnail only and with a different intro) and was absolutely ideal for purposes: not only does Robinson have plenty to say about both films, but he also says it in such a wonderful way with each word getting seemingly as much attention as each of his lines of dialogue. This screenplay as published was a pre-production screenplay and so contains a number of scenes and details that never made it into the finished film. More permission to be asked, more pages filled when the replies were positive.
As for the new commissions, it was immediately clear that essays would be required for both of the features contained on this set. And who better to ask than two of my favourite writers on British film? Vic Pratt of the BFI has written numerous pieces for their DVD releases, each one superb, although they tend to focus on the more obscure examples of our national cinema. It was a pleasure therefore to ask him to write about something better known, i.e. Withnail, and to finally get his name on an Arrow Video release. (The end results being duly excellent, of course.) Frank Collins, meanwhile, blogs on cult British cinema and television for his Cathode Ray Tube site and occasionally contributes to MovieMail in a similar capacity. His attention to detail and level of research is always exemplary and so I felt he was the ideal candidate for How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a film about which very little has been said. Even Grant’s collection of film diaries gives it only the briefest of nods. But if you add Frank’s 2,500 words to the second half of Robinson’s 4,000-word introduction, plus the round-up of contemporary reviews for the film, then the book essentially contains all of the key writing How to Get Ahead in Advertising has ever received. Not bad for a bonus feature!
Finally, I felt the book wouldn’t be complete with pieces dedicated to the three main actors – Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths – all of whom gave career-defining performances in Withnail. And so as not to leave Robinson out, I’ve also contributed an essay of my own, devoted to his short-lived acting career.
All of which – plus the expected notes on the new restorations, credits, etc. – would have been the lot were it not for one last unexpected addition. When emailing James Brown about the use of his loaded article, he mentioned an ill-fated attempt to bring Withnail to the London stage. This was completely new information to me despite the hours upon hours of research that goes into our titles and so I couldn’t resist commissioning one final piece in which James talks about how the film has continued to have an effect on him in the years since he penned that article.
And that is that: 200 pages fully occupied and ready to be read on October 20th. You can pre-order your copy at the withnailfilm.com site or, if you prefer, go through the usual online outlets. To recap, you’ll find the following inside the hardback book…
- INTRODUCTION (1989) by Bruce Robinson
- ALMOST A COMEDY (2014) by Vic Pratt
- WITHNAIL & I: CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS
- WITHNAIL & I: THE ‘DELETED’ SCENES
- WITHNAIL, YOU TERRIBLE CULT (1994) by James Brown
- A TERRIBLE CULT REVISITED (2014) by James Brown
- YOU’RE MY BESSHT FRIEND! (1996) by David Cavanagh
- AN ACTOR PREPARES (2014) by Anthony Nield
- THE LAST ENGLISH DREAMER (2014) by Martin Jones
- HE’S BONA FIDE, HE’S NOT FROM LONDON (2014) by Neil Mitchell
- I WILL NEVER PLAY THE DANE (2014) by Mike Sutton
- IF IT HASN’T GOT A PRICE TAG, IT ISN’T WORTH HAVING (2014) by Frank Collins
- HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING: CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS
- ABOUT THE TRANSFER