The late George Harrison co-founded HandMade Films and produced ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ and ‘Withnail & I’ before imploding
HandMade Films, the independent movie production company founded by late Beatles guitarist George Harrison, “saved” the British film industry.
That was how two national newspapers described HandMade’s colourful existence between 1978 and 1991, in stories about new documentary An Accidental Studio. It is a wild exaggeration. While the company produced original and subversive gems including The Long Good Friday and Withnail & I, only one of their movies is in the top 10 highest-grossing British films of the 1980s.
That was Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the first movie HandMade produced. Using archive footage and new interviews, An Accidental Studio entertainingly explores how Harrison, business partner Denis O’Brien and creative director Ray Cooper produced films other studios would not touch.
An Accidental Studio is at its best when describing the enterprise’s brilliant beginnings. It is brimming with stories, such as when director Terry Gilliam and editor Julian Doyle pitched Time Bandits to HandMade as an idea without a script. O’Brien responded enthusiastically and asked for the budget; Doyle came up with £3m out of thin air.
Harrison’s laid-back personality extended to the balance sheet. “Most of our films don’t have big stars because we don’t give them enough money,” he says. “Money is honey.” Michael Palin recalls “there were all sorts of problems over payment” on 1984 cult comedy A Private Function.
As with its subject, the documentary, whose co-directors include Bill Jones, son of Monty Python’s Terry Jones, falters in the second half. HandMade’s disastrous attempt to crack Hollywood with 1986’s Shanghai Surprise is covered in cursory fashion while there is no mention of Harrison’s court battle with O’Brien after the company went bust in 1991.