by Robert Sellers
Thursday, 16 December 2004

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 blind.

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 the years.

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.)