Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Handmade Films - Films From a Skewed Perspective 2



Withnail and I. This film have become something of a cult in recent years. One of those films that never made it on the box office register but has somehow slipped into the public consciousness by stealth. It is one of, if not THE best British film of its, or anyone else's, day. As British as a black cab and as mad as the proverbial. It features some great performances by Richard Griffith's and Paul McGann but a truly inspired performance by the incredible Richard. E. Grant who acts his veritable socks off.

It comes from the same stock of films as The Long Good Friday, The Time Bandits and the hugely successful Life of Brian. All of which were produced by George Harrison's short-lived and much loved Hand Made Films.

It is without a shadow of a doubt among the top ten of my favourite films ever made and I regularly go back to watch it again. I especially enjoy the scene with the chicken. I didn't get to see this film until 2008, so it certainly isn't something that I fell in love with in my youth or developing years but it is still up there with all the things that are.

Before the excellent series of British-made 'Film Four' movies, ex-Beatle George Harrison and business partner Dennis O'Neil formed Handmade Films, a production company that started in 1979 and ran for all the eighties through until the early nineties.

It was a splendid, if brief, run of well written, exceptionally well acted, British films that often starred some big names. Actors such as Michael Caine and Sean Connery featured but Handmade also gave lesser known actors of that time their initial breaks. Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskyns  were two.

The first, and probably most famous if not most successful of the company's films was Monty Python's 'Life of Brian.' An outrageous and often surreal take on religion that was hugely controversial at the time. It was recently voted the best comedy of all time and was a massive box office success.

Odd how Decca spent years regretting rejecting The Beatles only for EMI to sign them and then years later EMI made the same mistake when they backed out of making 'Life of Brian.'  George Harrison mortgaged his house so as to be able to finance The Pythons film. From an initial budget of $4 million to a box office smash of $20 million.

It was a remarkable movie in many ways. Namely, it was incredibly funny, very cutting edge, challenging as it did orthodox religion but also practically every convention going. It remains one of the best comedies ever. It was from this splendid beginning that Handmade Films began to carve a particularly quirky path. Having said that not all the companies films were of the same mold. Barrie Keefe's superb 'The Long Good Friday,' which was voted the 21st best film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute. 


Hardman Hoskyn's was notable as gang leader Harold Shand. As an actor, this was his breakthrough. It revealed the man's ability to  match is American counterparts, Pacino and de Niro with his explosive, murderous rages.

As gangster films go it dealt with the facts of who these people are without glossing issues with a romantic sheen.

The Time Bandits followed. Yet another bonkers story featuring time travelling Dwarf's, God, Satan, pirate ships,  Robin Hood and more madness than a night in the walls of bedlam. Very different to The Python's but directed by Terry Gillam and featuring the likes of Sean Connery, 
Sir Ralph Richardson, Shelly Duval, John Cleese, Ian Holme, Michael Palin, David Warner and Craig Warnock.

Next was the 1982 film 'The Missionary.' Written and directed by Michael Palin and featuring yet another host of top notch actors including Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot and that gentleman among Englishmen Trevor Howard but also a young David Suchet of Poirot fame. The story was splendidly ribald yet delivered in typical British fashion. "More crumpets vicar?"  

Tasked by the Bishop of London to 'save' young ladies of the night Reverend Charles Fortescue (Palin) sets about his job with renewed vigor. A devout man if a little weak of the flesh the vicar does his best but finds his best is sometimes not good enough, therefore, stiffens his resolve along with his sinews and girds his, and others, loins.

Michael Palin is perfect in this role.His portrayal of a man, devoted to his God yet challenged by nature is perfect. He has always had that ability to look saintly yet soiled, virtuous yet sinful. It is as if he is a child stood in front of his father accused of eating chocolate. He, of course, denies it wringing his hands in apparent honest depreciation as lumps of chocolate ooze from his cupped palms dripping onto the carpet.

A splendid film that should be seen more often on the repeat channels. 

There followed an amazing series of films each one as individual and as good as the others. All of them with a twist of what should now be called Handmadeness. That is to say a certain something unique to them and them alone.

In a small Northern English town in 1947, the citizens endure continuing food rationing. Some local businessmen want to hold a party to celebrate the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip and illegally decide to raise a pig for that occasion. However, the pig gets stolen by one Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin), who was encouraged to do so by his wife Joyce (Maggie Smith). Meanwhile, a food inspector is determined to stop activities circumventing the food rationing.

This another splendid film. It could have come out of another era, that of Sir John Mills or Sir John Gielgud. It has that sharply defined upper crust nonsense the preposterous bubble of which only the British can burst with a well-honed self-deprecating pin. To top it all off the screenplay was written by one Alan Bennett.


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Handmade Films did such a good job of producing British made films at a time when Great Britain, let alone the world, had lost virtually any interest in our cinematic art. They truly were a stop gap between the glory days of such luminaries as Hammer and Ealing Studios and the magnificent, recent run by Film Four and the Beeb.

In eleven short years, we were gifted with a set of films, sorely overlooked in some cases, that were highly individual, very entertaining and in some cases among the very best of British cinema at any stage of our history. Many of these films could have been made at any time as they all have a distinctive ageless quality about them. On a personal note, one of my favourites is the final film, 'Nuns on the Run.' I have sat and watched that with my kids countless times and each time found both myself and them laughing out loud.

The driving force behind the company was undoubtedly George Harrison. I have long thought the Beatles were the missing link between The Goons and Monty Python. It was seen in their interviews, that curious, surreal sense of humour. The four Liverpudlians shared a love of that unique comedy. With Handmade Films Harrison invested that same eccentric, idiosyncratic, unconventionality into virtually all the scripts selected. 

They remain a remarkable set of films with more than just an insular, British outlook embracing a varied and diverse set of stories. They make a proud addition to any lover of films library.

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Here is the chronological filmology:

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Time Bandits (1981)
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
The Missionary (1982)
Privates on Parade (1982)
Bullshot (1983)
A Private Function (1984)
Water (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Shanghai Surprise (1986)
Track 29 (1987)
Withnail and I (1987)
Five Corners (1987)
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Nuns on the Run (1990)

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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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