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HandMade Films

Production Company

Main image of HandMade Films

As far as the mainstream British film industry was concerned, the 1970s was primarily characterised by the collapse or withdrawal of the major players on the domestic scene (Rank, EMI) thanks to dwindling audiences and support from Hollywood alike. By the 1980s, the industry was largely in the hands of smaller independent companies like Palace, Goldcrest and HandMade - the latter's very name, as well as its endearingly ramshackle logo, conveying the impression of cheerful amateurism.

And yet HandMade was responsible for some of the decade's most memorable British films. Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones, 1979) and Withnail & I (d. Bruce Robinson, 1986) are regularly voted amongst the funniest British comedies, while the Bob Hoskins vehicles The Long Good Friday (d. John Mackenzie, 1979) and Mona Lisa (d. Neil Jordan, 1986) breathed new life into the much-maligned gangster genre. And while not all of the 23 films that HandMade produced during its 1978-90 heyday were up to that exalted level, the quality threshold was often enviably high.

HandMade was born in highly unusual circumstances. EMI had originally backed Life of Brian, but the company's chairman Lord Delfont got cold feet about the subject matter and pulled out just days before shooting was due to start. This left the Monty Python team faced with the prospect of writing off what was already a considerable investment. Eric Idle had recently struck up a friendship with the former Beatle George Harrison, a fan of Idle's affectionate parody The Rutles (1978), and as Harrison was by far the richest person that any of the Pythons knew, Idle asked him to bail out the film. Harrison read the script, loved it, and agreed to help, forming HandMade Films with his business manager Denis O'Brien in order to produce it. It was a shrewd investment, as the film was an enormous success.

HandMade was originally intended to produce that one film, but Harrison and O'Brien soon became involved in another salvage operation. In this case, The Long Good Friday had already been completed, but its production company Black Lion Films (owned by Lew Grade, Lord Delfont's brother) was nervous about its prospects, due to the level of violence and a key subplot involving the IRA. Severe cuts were proposed, along with the redubbing of lead actor Bob Hoskins, whose strong Cockney accent was felt to be a liability. HandMade agreed to buy the rights for £700,000, and released the film in its originally intended form. A solid critical hit, if not the commercial triumph of Life of Brian, it made Hoskins (previously best known for the BBC's Pennies from Heaven, 1978) a bona fide star.

Harrison and O'Brien next agreed to back Time Bandits (1981), Terry Gilliam's second solo feature. The first film HandMade had funded from the start, this elaborate fantasy achieved impressively lavish production values on a relatively small investment of £4 million. More importantly, it was a surprise hit in the US, grossing over $40 million, and ensuring HandMade's future as a going concern. The Python connection was maintained with The Missionary (d. Richard Loncraine, 1981), written by and starring Michael Palin as a naively well-meaning cleric administering to "fallen women".

1982 saw a stepping-up of HandMade's production ambitions. Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (d. Terry Hughes) was a filmed record of a live show, and Privates On Parade (d. Michael Blakemore) starred John Cleese in an adaptation of Peter Nichols' stage hit about an Army light entertainment troupe in Singapore in the late 1940s. Against this comedic backdrop, the relentlessly harsh Scrubbers (d. Mai Zetterling) seems out of place, but this study of life in a women's borstal came in the wake of the success-cum-notoriety of its male counterpart Scum (d. Alan Clarke, 1979), with which it shared a screenwriter.

After this, HandMade's output slowed to one release per year. Bullshot (d. Dick Clement, 1983) was the company's first serious critical and commercial failure, an only intermittently amusing spoof of Sapper's Bulldog Drummond adventure stories of the 1920s and 30s. The underrated Water (d. Clement, 1985), revisiting colonial territory mined by the Boulting Brothers' Carleton Browne of the F.O. (1957), fared little better, but A Private Function (d. Malcolm Mowbray, 1984) was recognised from the start as a bona fide gem. Alan Bennett's first original script for the big screen was brought to life by a superlative cast, many of whom had starred in The Missionary (Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott). Although billed as a comedy, and with several priceless scenes, the tone throughout was surprisingly dark, its portrait of a Yorkshire village in 1947 riven by rationing and overzealous government inspectors foreshadowing Bennett's mid-1980s obsession with Kafka.

1986 was HandMade's most ambitious year, dominated by what would become its most notorious production. Shanghai Surprise (d. Jim Goddard) was supposed to be the company's first big-budget international blockbuster, but it proved quite unable to live up to the advance hype, most of which centred around the stormy real-life relationship of its stars Madonna and Sean Penn. Mona Lisa fared far better, its quirky tale of the relationship between a high-class black prostitute (Cathy Tyson) and her middle-aged Cockney "chauffeur" (Bob Hoskins) adding unexpected warmth to what could otherwise have been a straightforward gangster film in the mould of Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1971), whose star Michael Caine has a memorable supporting role as the chief villain.

HandMade's third 1986 production wasn't released until 1988. Initially a resounding commercial failure, Withnail & I went on to become the most enduring British cult film of its era, especially following its rediscovery on video in the 1990s. Though this was fuelled by the rise of "lad culture", and the film more than delivers in terms of boozing and swearing, at base it's a subtle, melancholy work, drawn strongly from writer-director Bruce Robinson's own disastrous experiences as a "resting" actor. Robinson and star Richard E.Grant reunited with HandMade for How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989), but despite the originality of the premise - an arrogant advertising executive develops a talking boil that takes over his personality - it merely preached to the already converted.

But by then, HandMade was in financial trouble, thanks partly to the mediocre-to-disastrous performance of several US co-productions (notably Cold Dog Soup, whose box-office performance was as unappetising as its title) and also to Harrison's discovery that O'Brien had been embezzling money from the company. Though it continued to operate, HandMade effectively ceased production after Nuns on the Run (d. Jonathan Lynn, 1990) amid a welter of lawsuits between its founders, and the company was finally sold to a Canadian firm in 1994, a sad end to one of the British cinema's more inspiring success stories. However, four years after Harrison's death, the firm was relaunched in 2006 as HandMade plc, seemingly with the intent of recapturing past glories.

Michael Brooke

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)

Maggie Smith gives an acting masterclass as a lonely Irish spinster

Thumbnail image of Long Good Friday, The (1979)Long Good Friday, The (1979)

Bob Hoskins dazzles in the defining gangster film of the turn of the '80s

Thumbnail image of Missionary, The (1981)Missionary, The (1981)

Gentle Michael Palin comedy about a missionary amongst 'fallen women'

Thumbnail image of Mona Lisa (1986)Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan's unlikely romance set in a vicious world of pimps and prostitutes

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Controversial but hilarious comedy about a reluctant messiah

Thumbnail image of Private Function, A (1984)Private Function, A (1984)

Alan Bennett-scripted Yorkshire comedy about pigs and social climbing

Thumbnail image of Scrubbers (1982)Scrubbers (1982)

A female answer to Scum (by the same author), set in a women's borstal

Thumbnail image of Time Bandits (1981)Time Bandits (1981)

Rich, witty fantasy from the hyper- active imagination of Terry Gilliam

Thumbnail image of Track 29 (1988)Track 29 (1988)

Disturbing Oedipal drama from Dennis Potter and Nicolas Roeg

Thumbnail image of Withnail and I (1986)Withnail and I (1986)

Low-rent but side-splittingly funny period comedy that grew its own cult

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