That he has now willingly contributed to the Anthology makes these same friends sigh sympathetically. The reason, they suggest, is financial. After the collapse of Handmade Films in 1991, and his current legal action against his old business partner, Denis O'Brien, he needs the money. That's one theory as to why the Anthology has finally been completed.
It's certainly not because Harrison likes the limelight. His old friend Joe Brown, the musician and comedian, says that when the two of them go shopping in a local supermarket, it is Brown who is asked for an autograph. Wrinkly, greying, often dressed in old corduroys, Harrison is seldom recognised these days - which is exactly how he likes it. In the past ten years, there has been little music and no more than three or four interviews, all invariably linked to the charity work for Romanian babies that his second wife and former secretary, Olivia Arias, undertakes.
Derek Taylor, press secretary for the Beatles, remembers that in the group's early days Harrison was punctilious and easy-going with the press; later, he just withdrew. "I gave up on him. John liked it, Paul could always perform if he felt like it, and Ringo was Ringo." But George wasn't interested.
No surprise, then, that Apple has been telling journalists that George is "going away" for the launch of the project, and that he faxed his answers to Newsweek when they asked about it. He still hates the way the Beatles continue to monopolise his life. "For every pound, shilling and penny that the Beatles had earned, there was an equal amount of grief," he wearily told one biographer at the end of the Eighties. McCartney, often difficult and bossy in his musical relationships, must have been uppermost in his mind. When Paul told a journalist in 1989 that he wanted to write again with Harrison, George's sniffy response was that "he has left it a bit late, then, is all I can say".
Anyone looking to explain his change of heart could start by examining the papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on 20 January this year. His accusations focus on Denis O'Brien, an American financier who masterminded Harrison's short reign at the top of the British film industry with Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), Mona Lisa (1986) and Time Bandits (1981). The former Beatle claims that O'Brien cheated him out of pounds 16 million over a 12-year period. If, as some suggest, Harrison is down to his last pounds 10 million, that certainly makes a Beatles' reunion more attractive.
Without a film company, or a deal for his Dark Horse Records - or, indeed, a hit album of his own since 1987 - Harrison needs the security of future Beatles income. In Friar Park, his Victorian Gothic mansion in Henley, he has found the perfect rock star folly to soak up his fortune. Millions of pounds have been spent on renovating the innumerable splendours of this former nunnery, where Harrison has installed a first-floor recording studio and restored its magnificent gardens, gargoyles, statues, lakes, waterfalls and caverns. He has a large estate in Hawaii, and an expensive hobby following the Formula One circuit (his collection of racing memorabilia includes a Formula One tyre which he uses as a doorstop). It is no coincidence that the Anthology project only really got going in January 1992, just after the disaster at Handmade became fully apparent.
Although he is the Beatle who wrote "Taxman", Harrison has a justified reputation for unworldliness. His all-star Concert for Bangladesh, which took place in New York in 1971, led to an 11-year lawsuit over costs because he had not registered the event as a charity benefit with the Internal Revenue Service. Another legal battle is still going on after 20 years over his biggest hit, "My Sweet Lord", and the exact damages he should pay for copying the Chiffons's "He's So Fine".
Harrison became involved in the film world in the late Seventies through his fanatical admiration for Monty Python and, in particular, his friendship with Eric Idle. He mortgaged Friar Park to finance Life of Brian, a script that no one else would touch. By 1981, the film had grossed pounds 40 million worldwide.
He and O'Brien established Handmade in 1978. O'Brien had been his manager since 1973 - the two had been introduced by Peter Sellers - and O'Brien had won his trust by sorting out the mess of his tax affairs after the Beatles ended. In quick succession, Handmade produced a string of modest but well-received hits, including Withnail and I (1986) with Richard E Grant, A Private Function (1984, Maggie Smith and Michael Palin) and The Long Good Friday (1979, Bob Hoskins). Harrison took a back seat, but his Beatle name undoubtedly attracted key talent, and before long he was being welcomed as yet another saviour of the British film industry.
Then, suddenly, it went wrong. A series of expensive flops - Water (1985, with Billy Connolly), Shanghai Surprise (1986, Madonna and Sean Penn), The Raggedy Rawney (1987, Hoskins again), and Checking Out (1988, Jeff Daniels) - had registered losses of pounds 10 million by 1991. Last year, the company was sold at a knock down price of pounds 5 million to a Canadian company, Paragon. No one has yet adequately explained why one of the most successful British film companies in decades should have fallen apart so fast, except that its determination to make ever bigger films made it more vulnerable. Harrison, who underwrote the company with O'Brien, still has to pick up some of the debts, perhaps amounting to as much as pounds 10 million - hence the court action in Los Angeles, and another in Guernsey, where Harrison's lawyers are foraging through O'Brien's offshore interests.
If the case comes to court, it will be a story of friendship and betrayal - and trusting people is one of Harrison's more endearing traits. "His real gift, and he has many, is for friendship," says Derek Taylor, who has remained close to him.
Indeed, Harrison's friends are an eclectic mix of musical and motoring types: they include Ravi Shankar (still his musical mentor, with whom he went on holiday this year), Alvin Lee (the guitarist in Ten Years After), the impresario Michael White, and Paul Stewart (the son of racing driver Jackie Stewart). His up-and-down friendship with Eric Clapton, who in 1974 married Patti Boyd, Harrison's first wife, took another knock, apparently, when the two fell out over money on a tour of Japan in 1991. As for McCartney, they have started to bump along again. Their reconciliation began in December 1992, when they met in California. The next day, 11 December, McCartney told a press conference for his own world tour that the Beatles were intending a musical reunion. If Harrison felt Paul had jumped the gun, he seems now to have got over it - a far cry from the days when, asked if he had a message for Paul, he simply raised his finger. "Yeah," he replied, "give him this!"
Away from music, he does yoga and meditation, potters in his greenhouses, and practises the ukelele. He is a fervent member of the George Formby Appreciation Society, and last year appeared with his son, Dhani, now 16, at a Formby convention in Blackpool. When Bob Dylan, a fellow member of The Travelling Wilburys, comes to visit, the two of them sometimes sit and watch old Formby movies; he and Dylan, one of his oldest friends, have the same deadpan sense of humour.
In 1973, Harrison donated a large house in the tiny village of Letchmore Heath, Hertfordshire, to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Bakhtivedanta Manor, formerly Piggots' Manor and now a Hindu shrine, is visited each year by robed and painted pilgrims in their tens of thousands. Harrison, of course, will always be remembered as the Beatle who followed the Maharishi, and he's still drawn to Eastern mysticism, fond of delivering gnomic remarks in his adenoidal Scouse. Ghandi's "Create and preserve the image of your choice" is a favourite nostrum.
Yet his attitude to religion seems distinctly pragmatic. He has been reported as saying that he could never fully embrace Hare Krishna because he cannot agree that sex is only for procreation. There speaks a true son of Liverpool, which is how, despite everything, he remains