Handmade history: how George Harrison saved the UK film industry


Handmade history: how George Harrison saved the UK film industry

This is the extraordinary tale of how the former Beatle's HandMade Films became a lesson in how to make films of true magnitude against all odds

Matthew Sweet

Cinema has occult powers. It summons empires of the imagination. It plucks kids from the drugstore soda fountain and transforms them into immortals. It also takes enormous amounts of other people’s money, and makes them disappear.
Between 1978 and the end of the following decade, HandMade Films, a small British production company run from offices on Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, brought magic to the screen. Remove it from movie history, and you lose Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday (1980), his dreams of a Docklands property empire fading at the end of an IRA gun; Michael Palin plucking Alison Steadman’s toenail clippings from a coffee cream in A Private Function (1984); Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa (1986), communicating a world of pain beneath her seaside novelty specs; and Richard E Grant declaiming Hamlet to the Regent’s Park wolves in Withnail and I (1987).
All this success, however, sprang from the medium’s power to conjure the kind of financial loss that can be absorbed by the tax bill of a wealthy individual. The individual, in this case, was George Harrison, the most bruised and baffled of the former Beatles, who by the late 1970s was tending the gardens of his vast neo-Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames, and struggling to interest the public in his faintly Vedic soft rock. The officiating magus was Denis O’Brien, an American lawyer. The story of their joint enterprise is told in An Accidental Studio, a new documentary about the rise and fall of HandMade.
It’s told rather cautiously, perhaps because, in 1995, the relationship between its principals ended in an acrimonious court case that produced a ruling but no restitution.
The opening act of the drama is happier to relate. It began on February 20 1978, when Bernard Delfont, chief executive of EMI, made the mistake of reading a script his company had just put into production – Monty Python’s Life of Brian. We must imagine the blood draining from Delfont’s face, and the text of a telegram being dictated to his secretary: “Have looked rather quickly through the script of the new Monty Python film and am amazed to find it is not the zany comedy usually associated with his [sic] films but is obscene and sacrilegious.”
The director, Terry Gilliam, was days away from taking his cast to Tunisia to film on sets adapted from those left behind by Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. Unmoved, Delfont pulled the plug. Eric Idle called the richest person he knew, and found George Harrison keen to help.
He loved Monty Python, felt a creative kinship with its members, and did not want to be robbed of their next film. Under advice from O’Brien, who had brought order to his affairs when the Beatles business partnership collapsed in 1975, Harrison mortgaged his mansion and resurrected Brian. It was, he said, “the most expensive cinema ticket ever issued”.
It turned out to be more of a winning lottery ticket.
Three years after release, the film had grossed £40m worldwide. In the landscape of the early 1980s British film business – in which domestic production had collapsed and hits like Chariots of Fire (1981) were exceptions – HandMade became a rare beauty spot. Some of its projects represented Harrison’s desire to remain patron to the Pythons. The Missionary (1982) satisfied his whim to see a big-screen version of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns. He wrote Gilliam a cheque for £5m on the strength of a half-page idea that became Time Bandits, a breathless time-travel adventure featuring an 11-year-old hero, six heroic dwarfs and Sean Connery’s Agamemnon. (Another wise investment, despite a horrible row with O’Brien in which Gilliam threatened to destroy the negative with a nail.)
Others were rescue missions. Gangster picture The Long Good Friday was destined to be recut for television. Harrison disliked the violence of the picture, but saved it anyway. He did the same for Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, when, like Life of Brian, it was abandoned by EMI.
The firm was not a two-man band. Many of HandMade’s best decisions were made by its creative director, Ray Cooper, a professional percussionist who turned out to be a dazzlingly clever producer. Some of its worst were made by O’Brien, who dreamt, like the anti-hero of The Long Good Friday, of an international empire based in London.
An Accidental Studio contains testimony from Palin that illustrates what went wrong. “Denis,” he says, “wanted to use the Pythons to control the Pythons and provide for the Pythons.” He recalls O’Brien making a pitch to become their sole manager, flying them to Jamaica for a meeting at which he says O’Brien showed them a map of the world and described how he proposed to marshal their income from tax haven to tax haven. They rejected the plan. (At some point, Idle suggested stealing O’Brien’s yacht, but John Cleese, a law graduate, pointed out that this would be an act of piracy.)“I have a sort of kamikaze side to me that is optimistic,” George Harrison told Film Comment in 1988, using tellingly paradoxical language. “I have to trust Denis O’Brien’s business sense and hope that he is not going to bankrupt me.”He was thinking of the flames produced by Shanghai Surprise (1986), a vehicle for Sean Penn and Madonna that cost HandMade $17m and bombed at the box office. After this failure, relations between the two men began to chill. In 1995, Harrison sued O’Brien for fraud and negligence, alleging that his business manager had concealed the true extent of HandMade’s debts and backed out of a 1978 agreement to cover half the losses incurred by HandMade. The judge set damages at $11.6m. O’Brien declared himself bankrupt. Harrison challenged the bankruptcy filing, but illness prevented him from attending the hearing in person. Judge Barry Schermer decided that this non-appearance was “obviously wilful” and ruled in O’Brien’s favour.Weeks after the judgment in 2001, Harrison was killed by lung cancer.Independent film companies have a finite lifespan. A constellation of talents comes into alignment, produces something brilliant, then shifts into a new orbit. It happened at Ealing, Hammer and Gainsborough. It happened to HandMade, and suddenly.
Its slate from 1989 (Powwow Highway, Checking Out, Cold Dog Soup) would all be winning answers on Pointless. But that first decade yielded pictures of true magnitude, and still provides a lesson in how to make movies in a hostile financial environment – trust talent, and back those projects that other producers aren’t clever enough to handle.
Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I have nothing obvious in common except wit and individuality.
Harrison’s money was turned into real wealth: images of a chocolate-starved chiropodist rescuing a soft centre from a pile of nail clippings; of a cadaverous actor wasting his talent on the animals of London Zoo; of a businessman sitting in the back of a car, his face registering anger, helplessness, and, finally, the strangely peaceful smile that shows he knows the game is up.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)

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