It was in March 1982 at the 54th Academy Awards that writer Colin Welland stated unambiguously that “The British are coming!” while collecting his Oscar for the script of Chariots of Fire, itself a film celebrating British achievement. Produced by the British studio Goldcrest, alongside Merchant Ivory, they would come to represent the respectable face of British cinema, soaking up critical acclaim and box office receipts, but they were not alone.
Formed in 1978 and celebrated in new documentary An Accidental Studio, HandMade Studios was the quirkier side of British cinema and in many ways was perhaps more representative of the soggy grey isles whose numerous conquerors had each left a cultural impact which was then reflected back in imperial overcompensation, and ironically one of the principal movers and shakers whose talented hands made the studio had already participated in a British invasion of America two decades before.
Despite the success of The Holy Grail, first theatrical feature crafted by the multiheaded snake known as Monty Python, their previous outing having been a compilation of existing sketches reshot for cinema, their followup Life of Brian was stomped into the Earth by the cold feet at EMI before principal photography could begin; stepping into those hefty shoes was former Beatle George Harrison.
A fan of the Pythons and a friend to them since meeting Eric Idle at a screening of The Holy Grail, the working methods of Monty Python, part collaborative, part fractious squabbling due to the differing personalities involved, was not unfamiliar to Harrison, but according to Terry Gilliam there was an underlying urge: “After the Beatles broke up it became apparent George Harrison liked being part of a group.”
The eighties a difficult era for British cinema chains suffering from lack of investment and dwindling attendance, film production had been dominated by two studios, Rank and EMI, who according to film writer Terry Ilott, “said no to almost everything that was interesting,” while the approach of HandMade was talent led and adventurous, arguably more of a serendipitous than an accidental studio.
Willing to take risks and with only Harrison and business partner Denis O’Brien to make decisions rather than a board of fearful executives, despite the continuing controversy which achieved what hundreds of years of coexistence had failed to do, uniting Catholics, Protestants and Jews, albeit in condemnation, Life of Brian was a huge success in America, as was The Long Good Friday.
Launching Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren as international stars and considered “one of the best British gangster films of all time,” The Long Good Friday could not have been more different in theme and execution, while Time Bandits was the most unconventional HandMade project yet and far from commercial: “John Cleese was the biggest star in it,” Harrison commented at the time; “What is he, six foot five?”
The anarchic time-travelling romp sold by Gilliam on the strength of a two page outline with no script, it was another huge hit beyond the modest expectation of the budget, but despite the presence of many of the Python brigade it was a conscious decision that it should not be marketed as a Python film, nor was The Missionary, written and directed by Michael Palin who also starred in A Private Function two years later, based on a script by Alan Bennett.
Inevitably, any studio will have failures and disappointments; alongside Neil Jordan’s award-winning Mona Lisa there was the critical car-crash of Shanghai Surprise while Water sank without trace despite the budget and star lineup intended to keep it afloat, and Withnail and I would not attain its cult classic status until long after it was buried at the box office.
A celebration of the brief success of a unique and unmistakable voice in British cinema ultimately diluted by the attempt to appeal to new markets, An Accidental Studio benefits from contributions from a cross-section of talent, both in recent interviews with Palin, Gilliam, Richard E Grant and others and archive material from Hoskins and the eternally humble Harrison whose personal ethic informed his best and worst decisions: “I’d rather hang onto friendships than business deals.”
An Accidental Studio premieres on AMC exclusively to BT customers on Saturday 4th May