Very Naughty Boys

The Amazing True Story of Handmade Films

Robert Sellers
Metro. London. 2004.
Pbk. 306 pages.  Index. Filmography. £7.99

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Handmade films was the unlikeliest company to revive the British film industry in the 1980s. It came into being when the Monty Python comedy team lost the financial backing for Life of Brian by EMI. Being a great fan of their brand of comedy ex-Beatle George Harrison backed the project to the tune of $4 million, which he called ‘the most expensive cinema ticket ever issued.‘ His faith in the project paid off as it was a box office hit. 

Handmade Films came about to produce Python films backed by Harrison’s wealth and run by his American business manager Denis O’Brien. After Brian, at the suggestion of Eric Idle, they backed The Long Good Friday (1980). This film had been funded by Lew Grade but he had cold feet about releasing it as a movie. Handmade, not having a film of its own to release, purchased the rights to Friday and scored another critical and box office success. 

As Handmade went on to distribute and produce more films George Harrison trusted O’Brien to run the operation. The problem with O’Brien was that his use of complex tax breaks and off-shore companies worried several of his colleagues. His creative accounting did not seem to be illegal but it did sail close to the wind. His secretive manner and complex accounting arrangements eventually drove the Python team away from O’Brien’s management. This hurt him as he was as much a fan of Python as Harrison, and he always wanted to involve them in Handmade projects. Despite this rift he was able to make The Missionary (1982) and A Private Function (1984)  with Michael Palin right through to the last Handmade film, Nuns on the Run (1990) with Eric Idle.

Handmade produced some impressive movies like Time Bandits (1981), Mona Lisa (1986) , Withnail and I (1987), though it equally also made flops like Water (1984) and Powwow Highway (1988). Part of the problem was that O’Brien tried to gain greater creative control of Handmade productions. His tactic was to allow the filmmakers to shoot the film, and then he would try to meddle with it at the editing stage. Only the very toughest and experienced directors could deal with his right to the ‘final cut’. As many people note in Sellers’ book, O’Brien was better at creative accounting than creative filmmaking. Even more damning for the company was O’Brien’s ambition to directly enter the US market and compete with Hollywood. This grand scheme quickly hit the rocks with Shanghai Surprise (1986). It had the winning combination of the recently married Madonna and Sean Penn. On paper it was going to be a huge hit, but Penn ran roughshod over the production and it turned into a huge flop.

As the string of poor movies, both in the box office and with critics, continued Harrison was persuaded to investigate Handmade’s accounts. It did not take long to find that O’Brien had been using the ex-Beatle’s name as collateral for huge loans, and Harrison found he was in debt to the tune of $25 million. Not surprisingly Harrison sold-off Handmade and sued O’Brien.

Very Naughty Boys covers the production of all of Handmade’s films and features interviews with the people involved in these projects. It certainly shows the perilous proximity of the highs and lows of filmmaking. Whatever happened behind the scenes Handmade  has left a legacy of films that will last the test of time and are a worthy tribute to Harrison’s unfettered support.

Nigel Watson
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