In April of last year, British journalist and author Robert Sellers
published Always Look on the Bright
Side of Life, the fascinating and thorough inside
story of Handmade Films. Handmade Films is known to Python fans for
having been founded by Beatle George Harrison for the sole purpose of
financing Monty Python's Life of Brian so that George could
watch it. Handmade Films also later went on to produce Monty Python
at the Hollywood Bowl, Time Bandits, Nuns on the Run, and many other
famous British films. To mark the recent release of the paperback version
of the book, retitled 'Very Naughty Boys,' Robert Sellers himself agreed
to tell the story of how and why he wrote the book...
|Very Naughty Boys is available
in paperback from Amazon.co.uk
So why did I write a book about HandMade Films? Partly because nobody
had done it before. It amazed me that here was arguably Britain’s
most successful film company of the 1980s, headed by an ex-Beatle
in George Harrison and Britain’s greatest comedy team in Monty
Python, and yet no one had tackled the subject. And what a subject!
I’d always been a fan of the Pythons and HandMade’s movies,
especially the early ones like Life of Brian, Time Bandits,
A Private Function and Bullshot, but it was the
emergence of a much darker tale that convinced me of the project’s
worth. I wrote very early on to Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail
and I, asking for an interview, and received a letter stating
that he found HandMade to be a disreputable company and wanted nothing
more to do with them. He was still probably pissed off that he never
got any royalties from Withnail, despite it making millions
over the years. So that pricked my interest right away.
Then I interviewed Steve Woolley, who co-produced Mona Lisa
with HandMade, and for over two hours he ranted and raved about how
he disliked Denis O’Brien, Harrison’s partner in HandMade
and one-time manager of the Pythons. He droned on about how O’Brien
messed about with his staff and the talent, interfering with the movies.
I realised I’d opened a very bitter can of worms as other people
revealed very weird tales concerning O’Brien’s dubious
business practices and paranoid personality. Of course, it reached
a very nasty conclusion when HandMade crashed in flames at the decade’s
close when it was revealed that O’Brien had been robbing Harrison
Luckily the great majority of the actors, writers, directors and
producers from all of HandMade’s films were only too happy to
relive their experiences and share funny and sometimes painful memories.
I also spoke with the people who worked at the HandMade office down
Of course getting the Pythons to talk about their association with
HandMade was a huge honour and I think makes my book invaluable for
any Python fan. I was very lucky to get John Cleese first. I interviewed
him for TV Times and asked if he’d talk about HandMade
which he was happy to do. Once I had Cleese, my chances of snaring
the other Pythons increased. And so it proved. I happily chatted to
Eric Idle from his home in the States and with Terry Jones from his
London office. But I was incredibly privileged to be invited to the
homes of Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. I’ll never forget
being left alone in Gilliam’s study, as he rushed out to make
me a cappuccino, wandering round looking at numerous props from his
movies that hung from the ceiling and walls - the boat from Time
Bandits, a doll of Jonathan Pryce used for the flying sequences
in Brazil, some small effects dolls from Baron Munchhausen.
Nor will I forget the moment when Michael Palin opened a drawer as
we chatted one afternoon and pulled out a binder which contained original
hand-written Python sketches, one of which he proceeded to act out
for me, doing all the voices. Stopping he then nonchalantly announced,
‘Oh that’s a sketch we never used.’ So not only
had I been treated to a personal performance from Michael Palin, but
of an unknown Python sketch! I must say that I owe a particularly
huge debt to Michael as he provided my book with a wonderful foreword.
I was also delighted to talk to Carol Cleveland, whose memories, particularly
of the Python’s legendary concert at the Hollywood Bowl, warmly
resonated down the phone line.
I was equally fortunate to speak with a whole host of other terrific
people like Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Alan Bennett, Richard
E. Grant, Paul McGann, Neil Jordan and many others, all of whom contributed
wonderfully humorous and biting anecdotes.
From start to finish the book took two years to research and write.
My only regret is that I never got to speak or meet with George Harrison.
He knew the project was happening and I heard through an intermediary
that he would have read the manuscript before publication, maybe then
to add his thoughts, as previously he’d been reluctant to talk,
to drag up old wounds. Unfortunately a few months before I finished
the book he died. I’ve dedicated the book to him. It was the
least I could do.
(‘Very Naughty Boys’ was published in paperback in
the UK, 30 September 2004, by Metro/John Blake.)