Book review: Very Naughty Boys, By Robert Sellers

The highs of 'Life of Brian'; the lows of 'Cold Dog Soup'

If you wish to dissuade offspring with a burning ambition to enter the movie business, get them to read this startling account of Handmade Films. Funded by George Harrison and ruled by his American manager, the universally excoriated Denis O'Brien, the outfit was born in 1978 when Lord Delfont pulled the plug on Monty Python's Life of Brian during filming in Tunisia. Eric Idle went to his chum Harrison, who simply said, "Don't worry. I'll get it."

Following the unexpected success of Brian, Handmade made 22 features, including two works of genius (Withnail and I, The Long Good Friday), several enjoyable efforts (Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, A Private Function) and many less distinguished creations. In his introduction, Michael Palin's reference to "a few flops" is excessively generous. They included Cold Dog Soup ("one of the least edifying movies in cinema history"), Water, described by the wonderfully outspoken Richard Griffith as "just a crap, self-indulgent, fuck-all-going-on type of movie", and the Madonna vehicle Shanghai Surprise, which, in Griffith's pithy analysis, was "shafted by that cunt Sean Penn".

The most astounding revelations are financial. We learn that "due to the ownership of the film changing hands so many times", Withnail writer/director Bruce Robinson "hasn't received a penny of the not inconsiderable profits", while Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane deferred their fees on Nuns on the Run (a big if inexplicable hit) only to be "financially shafted". Discovering the parlous state of Handmade's finances, Harrison belatedly leapt into action and sacked all the employees whose names he could remember.

After the company folded, Harrison's liability amounted to $25 million. Idle recalls, "He wrote a song called 'Lying O'Brien'… It took him a long time to get over that. Then he lost half a lung to cancer and then half a lung to some fucking loony stabbing him." The book should prove an effective antidote for any putative director though the entertaining sections on making Withnail and Private Function may have the opposite effect.