How George Harrison rescued ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ and launched a film producing career
Once upon a time, a couple of desperate English filmmakers embarked on a quest to find a champion, and to their everlasting surprise, discovered one where they might have least expected it.
It was the late-1970s, and producer John Goldstone and Monty Python’s Flying Circus founding member Eric Idle trekked across the Atlantic with caps in hand to scramble together the money to make “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” EMI Films had summarily backed out of the project, leaving Goldstone, who also was executive producer of the troupe’s debut feature film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and the Pythons flummoxed about what to do.
“Eric and I came to New York, and then we came out here and started going through everybody we knew,” Goldstone, 76, said this week from his home of more than a decade in Oxnard. “We went to Mike Medavoy, at United Artists at that time, and he said he would put up half the money, but that we’d have to get the other half from others.”
Enter a Beatle to the rescue: guitarist, singer and songwriter George Harrison.
“Eric said George had always been a huge Python fan, and Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam had become friendly with him,” Goldstone said. “So Eric said ‘Why don’t we see whether George could help?’ We went to his house in the Hollywood Hills, and I can’t remember if we had sent him the script or if he had read it, but he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ And that was it.”
Through Harrison’s manager, Denis O’Brien, a boutique company, HandMade Films, was set up to handle the financing. HandMade was created initially with the sole goal of seeing “Life of Brian” to completion. Harrison put his English estate, Friar Park, up as collateral against a bank loan for about $2 million that covered the other half of the film’s overall $4-million production budget, Goldstone said.
“We went to Denis and said ‘We want the same deal we had with EMI, which gave us full control and the final cut,’” Goldstone recalled. “He said ‘Fine — OK,’ and that was kind of that. It was terribly straightforward.”
The unlikely side effect was not just that “Life of Brian” was indeed completed and became a global hit commercially, but that HandMade Films continued to produce other projects and became an important force in British cinema during the 1980s.
The company made enough films to merit its own celebratory festival, dubbed The (Other) HandMade’s Tale Film Festival, which opens Thursday, Oct. 10, and runs through Oct. 20 at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills. It is organized by English producer, humorist and Beatles authority Martin Lewis under the umbrella of the ongoing, which is marking its 20th anniversary this year.
That’s just one of several anniversaries “The (Other) HandMade’s Tale” series is acknowledging: This year is the 50th anniversary of the Python troupe, which also included John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones, and the 40th anniversary both of “Life of Brian” and the creation of HandMade Films.
Among the projects earning a spotlight are additional Python pictures including Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” (1981), “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl “and Michael Palin’s “The Missionary” (both 1982) as well as Malcolm Mowbray’s “A Private Function” (1984) and director Neil Jordan’s acclaimed early film “Mona Lisa” (1986).
The latter film earned a best actor BAFTA award for relative newcomer Bob Hoskins, who had established his star credentials a few years earlier with “The Long Good Friday,” which was distributed by HandMade and also featured a breakout performance from Helen Mirren.
Various principals will take part in Q&A sessions before or after many of the screenings, which begin tonight with “An Accidental Studio,” a documentary about HandMade Films by Terry Jones’ son Bill Jones and his film collaborator Ben Timlett.
Lewis will extend the festival briefly into November with a strategically timed screening of HandMade’s 1986 flop musical “Shanghai Surprise” starring Madonna and her then-new husband Sean Penn, to coincide with her residency at the Wiltern Theatre. It will screen Nov. 18 — one of Madonna’s nights off during the Wiltern run — at the Laemmle NoHo theater in North Hollywood, and tickets go on sale Monday, Oct. 14. Lewis has invited her to be guest of honor for what he believes to be the film’s first major L.A. screening since it premiered in 1986.
The full schedule of screenings and special events can be found at the Mods & Rockers official website.
Goldstone, Medavoy and Lewis co-hosted a private reception Monday night in Hollywood that drew several of Harrison’s friends, family members and associates including the Who’s Pete Townshend and his wife, composer Rachel Fuller, actress Kathy Bates, lyricist Tim Rice, producer-talent manager-musician Peter Asher and Harrison’s sister-in-law and former HandMade executive Linda Arias.
Lewis also pulled together an ad-hoc band consisting of musicians who played with Harrison on different projects: guitarist Laurence Juber, bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, drummer Jim Keltner and singer Bird York, who teamed on performances of four of Harrison’s best-known songs.
But the surviving Python members were MIA for various reasons. Lewis noted that Palin recently had heart surgery and is unable to attend the festival. Idle had to cancel a recent appearance in England because of an unspecified “family emergency” and also is not expected to attend. Gilliam, the troupe’s lone American member, renounced his U.S. citizenship years ago in political protest and is precluded from visiting more than 30 days a year, a number he’s already used up in 2019. Terry Jones is battling dementia and makes few public appearances.
English musician Neil Innes, sometimes referred to as “the seventh Python” because of his close association with the comedy ensemble, spoke about Harrison and HandMade in a separate interview. He was a friend and confidant of Harrison through his membership in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a collective of art student-musicians that played around England roughly at the same time as the Beatles.
Innes, also known for his role as one of the Rutles, the Beatles sendup band created on the Python spinoff TV show “Rutland Weekend Television” and featured on “Saturday Night Live,” is currently emceeing a tour forHe acted and played music in various Python projects but was aced out of a more prominent onscreen role in “Life of Brian” because of the financing imbroglio.
“I was so looking forward to playing the soldier who was trying not to laugh at Michael Palin [as Pontius Pilate] because I knew I could take him on,” Innes, 74, said from his home in southwest France.
“Because of EMI pulling out its money and George stepping in, it was delayed six months, and by that time I was doing a British television series called ‘The Innes Book of Records,’” Innes said. “I got a call from the [HandMade] film office because they had done the credits early on and I had already been given this huge credit. They said, ‘You’d better get down here and do something.’ So I ended up being the Samaritan being chased by gladiators and having a heart attack,” he said with a laugh. “It didn’t really stretch my talent.
“I wish I could [be] there” in the States for the HandMade Festival, Innes said, adding that he is supportive of the effort because “A lot of people don’t know that side of George, who was much more of a Renaissance man than people think. He had a feeling for all kinds of things and by golly, we all sure miss him.”
After turning out nearly two-dozen films through the 1980s, HandMade was sold to new owners in the early 1990s. But Innes underscored the important role HandMade played in sustaining British cinema during turbulent years.
“There were not many victories at that time,” he said, “so it was great when HandMade went on to make more films. ‘The Long Good Friday’ was another one. George stepped in and rescued that,” another case of EMI Films getting cold feet, Goldstone said, when producer Sir Lew Grade considered the gangster film too violent.
HandMade distributed it to much acclaim, and followed it by producing “Mona Lisa.”
“I think some American suits wanted to have Bob Hoskins’ voice dubbed,” Innes recalled, “but George resisted it. HandMade Films was a real player. More people should know about the film-connoisseur Beatle.”
'The OTHER Handmade's Tale' Film Festival
Where: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills
When: Thursday through Oct. 20
Tickets: $13 general admission; select screenings more
More info: modsandrockers.com; laemmle.com/series/other-handmades-tale-film-festival
3:35 PM, Oct. 10, 2019: This post has been updated to clarify John Goldstone’s title as executive producer, rather than producer, of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
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