15/07/2012

Up-words - Withnail and Brian

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WITHNAIL & BRIAN
By Tim Worthington
October 2006

It's hardly surprising that the big-screen adventures of The Beatles have been ever so slightly overshadowed by their achievements in other fields. What is surprising, though, is that their cinematic careers are rarely celebrated at all. The films that they made in the 1960s, and A Hard Day's Night in particular, are way above the usual level of rush-produced cash-in 'rock movies', shot through with surrealist wit and psychedelic whimsy, and boasting performances so impressive that even the notoriously sniffy Halliwell's Film Guide felt moved to praise the acting ability of the Fab Four. Their post-Beatles forays into the movie business were more of a mixed bag - ranging from Paul McCartney's strangely compelling 'stolen album' fantasy Give My Regards To Broad Street, through the weird art films John Lennon made with Yoko Ono, to Ringo Starr's oft-forgotten spell as the star of a string of erratically brilliant movies including 200 Motels, That'll Be The Day and The Magic Christian - but with no small irony it was the 'Quiet One' who had the most significant impact on the industry.

Never the most outgoing of performers, George Harrison had initially confined his non-Beatles movie career to 'rockumentaries' such as the celebrated The Concert For Bangla Desh, and occasionally draping his sitar sounds over arthouse efforts like the bizarre British romance/weird-out Wonderwall. By the end of the 1970s, and almost completely by chance, this nodding acquaintance with the production side of film-making had developed into a full-time serious business venture, with his production company Handmade Films eventually turning out twenty four movies that included some of the greatest British films ever made, along with a couple of the worst, and a fair amount of the downright odd. And it all came about purely because he wanted to see a film that was in danger of not being made at all.



Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979)

It started as a throwaway joke, and ended up as one of the finest comedy films ever made. While touring America to promote the Monty Python team's second film Monty Python And The Holy Grail in 1975, Eric Idle had joked that the follow-up would be called Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory. This led to the team toying with ideas for a spoof biblical epic, and after rejecting their original concept of a film about a hopeless apostle (who missed The Last Supper because 'we had friends over that night') when they realised that it was difficult to wring any humour out of actual New Testament events, they decided instead to chart the life and times of a man mistaken for the Messiah. By 1978, the story of Brian of Nazareth - followed by legions of deluded disciples, persecuted by the Romans and eventually condemned to crucifixion despite never quite really understanding why it was all happening - was ready to enter production, and The Pythons had no trouble in securing major backing from EMI. However, with literally only days left before expensive location filming began, the script found its way into the hands of EMI's Board of Directors, and Chairman Lord Bernard Delfont deemed it blasphemous and ordered production to be halted. The Pythons were left fuming (an unusually outspoken Michael Palin later mused that Delfont was "scared to be involved in a film that had some imaginative content") but with no obvious alternative way of getting it made. Just as they were about to throw in the towel and put out a film compiling highlights from their little-known German TV specials, the film was suddenly back on schedule. Eric Idle had been good friends with George Harrison for several years - indeed, Harrison had appeared in some sketches in Idle's BBC2 series Rutland Weekend Television and its excellent spinoff Beatles parody film The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash - and naturally mentioned the problems to him. Motivated partly by sensing a good business opportunity, and partly because he simply wanted to see the film himself, Harrison surprised everyone by offering pretty much out of the blue to found a film company and underwrite the entire production. Some of the Pythons expressed doubts that this offer would actually come to anything, but within weeks, Harrison and his business partner Dennis O'Brien had announced the formation of Handmade Films. As has been widely documented elsewhere, Life Of Brian was released in 1979, simultaneously hailed as one of the greatest comedy films ever made and denounced by religious activists on both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom seemed to have missed the entire point of the humorous 'message'. For many, simply having their name on the front of such a successful and controversial effort would have been achievement enough, but George Harrison's involvement didn't end there. During a set visit he agreed to take a small role in the film, and also later contributed some amusing interjections to a promotional album featuring interviews with the Pythons. More significantly, he was becoming increasingly convinced that Handmade Films had more potential than had originally been envisaged. And it wasn't long before someone with a similar problem came knocking on their door.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

To rescue one troubled film from obscurity and make it a success is a rare enough achievement, but to do exactly the same thing with your second release is little short of incredible. But that's just what Handmade did, buying the rights to made-for-television gritty British gangland thriller The Long Good Friday from original backers ITC (whom, entirely coincidentally, were owned by Lord Delfont's brother Lew Grade), who had first threatened to overdub lead actor Bob Hoskins with a voice that Americans would supposedly find easier to comprehend, and then intimated that they did not consider the film releasable in any form, and releasing it to a hugely appreciative cinema audience. Directed by John Mackenzie and starring Hoskins and Helen Mirren, The Long Good Friday focuses on attempts by veteran gangster Harold Shand (Hoskins) to transform himself into a legitimate businessman, hampered by seemingly unbreakable links to organised crime, Police corruption and international terrorism. Tinged with bleak humour and early and prescient satire of the Thatcherite regime, The Long Good Friday does seem a little clich├ęd when viewed today, but that's arguably only because it has been much imitated in the intervening years. Handmade's faith in what others may have considered an uncommercially downbeat movie (despite its many amusing moments) was repaid by its box office performance, and by the fact that it brought Bob Hoskins to the attention of the wider film industry.


Time Bandits (1981)

After sharing directorial duties with Terry Jones on Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and following his solo debut Jabberwocky in 1977, Time Bandits was Terry Gilliam's third film and the first to fully explore the idiosyncratic flair for visual imagination that would soon become his trademark. Co-written with Michael Palin (who would also play several roles in the film), the storyline concerned the theft of a map of 'Time Portals' from The Supreme Being, an all-powerful celestial entity, by a group of midgets who had previously worked for he/she/it but resented their collective demotion to the Repairs Department (as punishment for designing a particularly unpleasant sort of tree). The Bandits aim to use the map to dart through history and make off with untold riches, but their plans are threatened by The Source Of All Evil, who wants the map for their own nefarious purpose, and by The Supreme Being, who simply wants the map back. Also caught up in the chase across time and space is Kevin, a mythology-obsessed young boy fed up with his television-addicted family (who spend most of their time watching a game show that appears to involve little more than people being dunked in huge vats of custard), who stumbles across one of the portals. Despite the apparent complexity of the storyline, Time Bandits was intended from the outset as very much a family film, packed with plenty of thrills and special effects for younger audiences but containing sufficient humour and intelligence to appeal to adults as well. Like the majority of Gilliam's constantly underrated films, Time Bandits is tremendous fun from start to finish, the blend of adventure and darkly-hued comedy bolstered by tremendous direction and design (one subtle but particularly effective device is that The Supreme Being's palace essentially resembles a distorted version of Kevin's bedroom), impressive visual setpieces, and a range of celebrity cameos including John Cleese as Robin Hood, Ian Holm as Napoleon, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon; the script had originally called for 'someone a bit like Sean Connery' as a joke, and Gilliam and Palin were amazed when they heard that Connery had seen the script and wanted to do it. The real stars of the piece, though, are the six actors playing the Time Bandits, headed by the great David Rappaport as Randall. Their camaraderie is what drives the film, and their interplay is so natural and free-flowing that at times it is hard to believe that their dialogue was actually scripted (in fact, they would promote the film in-character on a number of television shows, including a suitably anarchic appearance on the ITV Saturday morning children's show Tiswas).  While Time Bandits did quite good business on release, it was hardly the smash that it deserved to be; Gilliam felt that this was down to shortcomings in the promotional campaign, and this combined with various creative clashes with Denis O'Brien during production, particularly over the macabre climax in which Kevin's parents are apparently killed by one of the domestic appliances they find so enthralling, convinced him to take his future ideas elsewhere. Ahead lay even bigger rows over even more brilliant films, but that's another story.


Privates On Parade (1982)

An adaptation of Peter Nichols' long-running stage farce, Privates On Parade follows the men of SADUSEA (Song And Dance Unit, South East Asia) in the late 1940s as they dodge the gunfire of Communist guerrillas, the attentions of local ladies, and the increasingly deranged commands of their own Major Giles. Despite boasting the comic talents of Denis Quilley, Simon Jones and John Cleese (perfectly cast as Major Giles), Privates On Parade failed to make a successful transition to the big screen. Much of this is due to the film script not having enough of a rigidly defined plot and too closely resembling the original stageplay - it ultimately comes across as little more than a string of standalone comic sketches, some of which work and some do not - although the cheap reproduction of Asian jungles in a threadbare British film studio didn't exactly help its cause. John Cleese was particularly unimpressed with the final result; he'd performed a couple of 'silly walks', which were not in keeping with his character or with the comic style of the film, in front of the cameras to amuse the cast and crew between takes, and without his consent they were tacked on after the end credits as a 'Pythonesque' selling point. Amusing in places, Privates On Parade is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, although curiously it did receive several rave reviews in America.


The Missionary (1982)

Michael Palin wrote and starred in this gentle period comedy about a timid cleric, newly returned after spending ten years as a missionary in Africa, who is given a mission to 'save' London's prostitutes and finds himself the subject of a great deal of unwanted female attention as a result. Not a million miles from the sort of scripts that Palin and Terry Jones had been turning out for their excellent BBC2 series Ripping Yarns a couple of years earlier, The Missionary is charming rather than sidesplittingly funny although the distinguished cast, which includes Maggie Smith and Michael Hordern, are always worth watching. Something of an forgotten gem in Handmade's catalogue, and generally overshadowed by the superior A Private Function, The Missionary has never really had the exposure it clearly deserves.


Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl (1982)

The one Handmade Films production that nobody could ever accuse of not having had enough exposure, Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl only enjoyed a limited cinematic release back in 1982 but has since made up for this with almost constant television showings. Despite being made on the spur of the moment during the team's run of sell-out concerts at the massive venue, this is a cut above most other live comedy films. Many popular sketches are featured, including the inevitable Lumberjack Song and Ministry Of Silly Walks, but there are also sketches that were seldom seen outside their live shows (including the fantastic 'Four Yorkshiremen' and a mock-academic lecture on the history of comedy), some of Terry Gilliam's animations, material from the recently released Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album, songs by associate Pythons Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland, a philosophical singalong led by the 'Bruces' of the University of Woolamaloo, and extracts from the team's rarely seen German television specials. As if that wasn't enough, there is also plenty of footage of the vast audience crammed with rabid costumed Python fanatics, including one particular Gumby who looks as if he's about to attack the camera. Rapid-moving and jampacked with great sketches, Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl is one of the few live comedy films that stands up to repeated viewings. Which, given how often it seems to come around, is a good thing.


Scrubbers (1983)

Having released four reasonably successful comic films in a row, Handmade Films abruptly changed direction with this grim offering set in a detention centre for young female offenders. Directed by Mai Zetterling and written by Roy Minton, Scrubbers was to all intents and purpose a companion piece to Scum, a notorious 1977 film (and originally a BBC Play For Today, although concerned executives refused to sanction its broadcast) about the borstal system, which was also scripted by Minton. Scrubbers follows two inmates who plot an escape, despite not exactly having a happy outside life to escape to, and the frightening consequences of their botched attempt. Despite being well made, it proved to be too unrelentingly bleak even for the home video market of the time, and failed to make much of an impact. Nowadays, the film is perhaps better remembered for featuring the big-screen debuts of both Robbie Coltrane and Kathy Burke.


Bullshot (1983)

Like Privates On Parade, this started out as a British stage farce and became a film after touring America. Bullshot Crummond, a straight-faced send-up of the square-jawed 1920s 'Bulldog Drummond' detective novels, in which the titular dashing hero races to save the world from evil Count Otto van Bruno, was first staged in 1972 by writer-performers Alan Shearman, Diz White and Ronald E. House. During a sell-out American tour one performance was televised, and Shearman hawked this around various film companies until Handmade offered to back the project. Aware of a recent vogue for whimsically 'British' humour, Handmade brought in veteran comedy scriptwriter Dick Clement (who, with Ian Le Frenais, had created the hit television sitcoms The Likely Lads and Porridge) as director, and a huge cast of homegrown comic eccentrics that included Billy Connolly, Ballard Berkley, Nicholas Lyndhurst, John Wells, Mel Smith, Geoffrey Bayldon, Michael Aldridge and former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band drummer 'Legs' Larry Smith, who also provided the tongue-in-cheek period pastiche theme song. By all accounts, the end result failed to do justice to the original stage version; the main problem with Bullshot is that the script itself was only originally part of the 'joke', with the stage show involving the liberal use of huge comic strip-like cardboard cutout scenery and props. For the film these were replaced by real locations, and hence a good deal of the humour was lost in translation. Predictably the critics laid into the film on its British release, but in America it is regarded as something of a minor cult classic. For those who appreciate its admittedly niche-marketed style of humour, Bullshot is a lot better than its reputation suggests, simultaneously recalling and ridiculing a lost cinematic world in fine style.


A Private Function (1984)

Three years in the making, due to a combination of Alan Bennett going to great lengths to perfect the script, money being diverted into other more expensive Handmade projects, and the inevitable headaches caused by having a live pig on set for most of the time, but well worth every second of the wait. A Private Function - very nearly released as Saturday Night Swine Fever - is a sophisticated farce set in the ration-stricken England of the late 1940s, where a group of wealthy businessmen plan to impress local dignitaries by holding a banquet with the main course provided by an illegally-acquired pig. Unfortunately for them, one local aspirant social climber also has designs on the black market porker, and bullies her timid chiropodist husband into stealing it. What follows is an hilarious runaround as the pig-purloiners go to great lengths to conceal their noisy and malodorous swag, played out by an impressive cast including Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, Richard Griffiths and Michael Palin, although the real star of the piece is the pig itself, who displays impeccable comic timing throughout. Although the cast and crew were unhappy with the changes at the time, Denis O'Brien insisted on adding some newsreel footage explaining rationing at the start and a more stereotypically 'comedy' score throughout, and as a result the film was a deserved critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic.


Water (1985)

A rare misfire for Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, based around an interesting but convoluted plot about a Commonwealth colony in Jamaica discovering valuable mineral water in an old oil mine, and the ensuing struggle for power between the government, the locals, and a small group of wealthy ex-patriate British residents. The film laudably strives to marry the comic flavour of old Ealing comedies with modern-day political satire, but the big screen isn't really the ideal forum for this sort of experimentation. Water would have made a great television sitcom, but as a cinema film it's just too ambitious to work. On a more serious note, the high production cost and ensuing muted public reception caused some serious financial headaches for Handmade. It's still a watchable effort, though, and boasts a remarkably diverse cast list that includes Michael Caine, Billy Connolly, Fulton Mackay, Fred Gwynne, Alan Igbon, Maureen Lipman, Alfred Molina, Ruby Wax, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and, in his final screen role, the great Leonard Rossiter. Some way further down the cast list was one Paul Heiney, presenter of the BBC series In At The Deep End. The show charted his attempts at pursuing unlikely professions, and an episode covering his stint as a film actor was broadcast shortly after the release of Water.


Mona Lisa (1986)

Writer and director Neil Jordan scored an early hit with this affecting and hard-hitting tale of a once-prominent underworld figure, fallen on hard times after a spell in prison and reduced to working as a driver for a high-class prostitute. Bob Hoskins once again excels at showing the human side of a hardened gangster, while Michael Caine is genuinely chilling as his criminal paymaster Mortwell, and Cathy Tyson and Robbie Coltrane ("you can't find plastic spaghetti just anywhere") impress in their co-starring roles. This combination of high-powered acting and scripting and convincingly grim direction - Jordan is rumoured to have used real prostitutes as extras for added authenticity - won countless international awards and deservedly so. It isn't exactly feel-good viewing, but Mona Lisa is the one Handmade production that even the most glibly dismissive of critics would struggle to find fault with.


Shanghai Surprise (1986)

Notoriously, this is where it all started to go wrong for Handmade. Back in 1986, there were few actors more hotly tipped than Sean Penn, and simply few people in the world more famous than his then-wife Madonna. For all her miserable performances in later years, Madonna had then recently impressed critics and audiences alike with her role in Desperately Seeking Susan, and any film starring the two should have been a guaranteed hit. Unfortunately, by that time both stars were starting to believe their hype, causing immense problems on set as they insisted on being given final approval over all aspects of production, including getting Bernard Hill fired from the film when they took a dislike to him. Despite a personal intervention from George Harrison, production never really quite got back on track and what should have been a popular romantic comedy ended up a boring mess that performed disastrously at the cinema. The plot, or what was left of it after the 'Poison Penns' had their way, concerned a bounty hunter hooking up with a missionary nurse to recover some stolen drugs, and worked a lot better in Tony Kenrick's original novel Faraday's Flowers than it did on screen. A measure of the commercial failure of Shanghai Surprise can be found in the fact that, despite featuring both Madonna and George Harrison, the soundtrack album was pulled before release and has never officially surfaced. What makes this worse than most other notorious cinematic flops is that it actually could have been quite good. And to think they nearly went for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.


Bellman And True (1987)

With a title like that and produced in the mid-1980s, you'd expect Bellman And True to be an American 'buddy movie' about two mismatched cops. In fact, it's a lot stranger than that. Bernard Hill heads the cast as a computer programmer forced into cracking a bank's security codes by gang of armed robbers who have taken his son hostage. Based on Desmond Lowden's 1977 novel, this is basically a Hollywood heist movie transplanted into the rapidly changing London seen in The Long Good Friday (and, coincidentally enough, Bellman And True was in fact another troubled television film bailed out by Handmade), and works very well for such a formula-bending experiment. Director Richard Loncraine cranks up the tension, and the thoroughly entertaining Bellman And True stands as a superior effort in its field. And that strange name? Betraying the film's literary origins, it's taken from a line in the folk song 'Do Y'Ken John Peel?' that was used to mirror the action in the original novel. Of course, Handmade's next film had a very similar name, but this time concerned two characters that actually did appear in it...


Withnail & I (1987)

As the Swinging Sixties draw to a close, two struggling actors - the hugely talented but deeply arrogant and antisocial Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and the more personable Marwood (Paul McGann) leave their squalid flat for a short break in the country, and come back to find that one of them has been given the career break they've both been longing for. And that simple storyline was the basis for one of the greatest British films of the 1980s. Withnail & I was a semi-autobiographical work by writer and director Bruce Robinson, based on the time he spent living in impoverished conditions with fellow actor Vivian MacKerrell, a mercurial talent who died young in the mid-1970s never quite having established himself; much of the events that take place in the film actually happened to the pair. The film follows the duo as they overindulge in drink and drugs, experiment with poverty-beating substitutes for both of the above, cook the most unpalatable 'meal' in history, and call on fellow oddballs such as the philosophical drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) and Withnail's Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), a 'terrible cunt' with untoward designs on Marwood, and is never less than uproariously funny. That said, there is also an indefinably melancholy air to proceedings, with the film touching on the end of the idealism of the Sixties, the passing of youth, and most explicitly the collapse of Withnail and Marwood's close friendship. Robinson's original unpublished (and possibly unfinished) novel, on which the script was based, would have ended on an even more downbeat note, closing as Withnail drank from the barrel of a shotgun before apparently pulling the trigger. Made on an almost literal shoestring budget - Robinson in fact ended up having to pay for some of the motorway scenes himself, completing them in frantic early morning sessions - Withnail & I emerges a triumph on all levels, not least on account of the realism in its settings, dialogue and performances. The teetotal Richard E Grant in particular pulled out all the stops to get his character right, downing a sizeable quantity of vodka to give himself a feel for Withnail's drunken rants, and gulping down vinegar to achieve an authentically shocked and disgusted reaction for the scene in which he supposedly drinks lighter fluid. However, despite rumours to the contrary, the joints (or 'Camberwell Carrots') bandied about so liberally on screen were nothing more than herbal cigarettes of the entirely legal variety. Afficionados are directed towards the script book, published in all its raw overdescriptive glory, and the soundtrack album, only available for a short time before being withdrawn due to copyright problems.


Five Corners (1987)

The first screenwriting credit for John Patrick Shanley, later to enjoy greater success with the likes of Moonstruck and Joe Versus The Volcano, a ‘coming of age’ drama set in New York in 1984 and following the mixed fortunes of an impressive cast that includes Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins and John Turturro. One of a huge number of vaguely similar mid-1980s teen films, but far darker than anything to be found in any of John Hughes' 'Bratpack' films (although not without its moments of levity), Five Corners was unlucky in that it essentially arrived too early and predated a boom of interest in downbeat indie 'street' films by several years.

The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne (1987)

Surprisingly obscure given its heavyweight cast, this adaptation of Brian Moore's novel stars Maggie Smith as the titular piano teacher, and Bob Hoskins as the shady hotel owner with whom she enjoys a complex relationship, with support from the likes of Peter Gilmore and Prunella Scales. Generally looked on favourably by critics, its historical setting and downbeat sentimental themes will not be to everyone's taste, but The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne is a strong film that deserved wider exposure, particularly when more slight contributions to the same genre have enjoyed worldwide popularity.


Track 29 (1988)

A reworking of Dennis Potter's Schmoedipus, originally produced for the BBC television anthology series Play For Today (and coincidentally starring Bob Hoskins in that version), Track 29 relocates the action from London to the USA, but otherwise retains much the same basic storyline. Linda Henry (Theresa Russell) is a bored Doctor's wife, who leaves her husband (Christopher Lloyd) to his model railway obsession and tries to establish a relationship with the illegitimate son she gave up for adoption at birth (Gary Oldman), but their initial happiness soon develops into something more menacing. Nicolas Roeg is a great director, and Potter possibly the greatest television playwright ever, but both have an excessive liking for the arcane and the convoluted, and whilst this generally worked fine for their individual projects, Track 29 is about as dense and impenetrable as a collaborative effort could be expected to be. It certainly isn't held in particularly high regard by Potter enthusiasts, who tend to prefer the original television version, and while well made it leaves too many key questions ambiguously answered - and sometimes not answered at all - for most viewers. That said, it does include one of the best Handmade in-jokes of all - a bedroom wall covered in posters of George Harrison, with the other Beatles purposefully obscured.


The Raggedy Rawney (1988)

Bob Hoskins has always seemed like the least likely actor to try his hand at a cerebral vanity project, but try his hand he did, and his track record with Handmade Films meant that he had no trouble in securing their support for his decidedly off-the-wall and un-Bob Hoskins-like project. There are no jaded villains or exasperated comedy middle-aged gents to be found here, nor even that much of Hoskins himself in fact. The Raggedy Rawney, written and directed by Hoskins, is set during World War II and tells the symbolic semi-historical tale of a British soldier (Dexter Fletcher) who deserts and hides out by infiltrating a Gypsy community and posing as a 'Rawney', a young girl capable of seeing the future. Not exactly what most audiences would be expecting of Bob Hoskins, and not entirely successful as a film, but The Raggedy Rawney is still an interesting work with much to recommend it and as few enough first time 'star' directors use the opportunity to do something a little more ambitious, it deserves plaudits for that alone.


Powwow Highway (1989)

One of the most obscure Handmade releases, so much so that nobody seems to have actually seen it. A twist on the familiar road movie format, Powwow Highway follows Native American Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) as he and a High School friend drive across the desert to Santa Fe, where his sister is in prison awaiting bail. Along the way they have many deep discussions about their differing attitudes to the independence and financial growth of the Native American population, and their experiences on the road help them both to find the truths they are looking for. A particular favourite of George Harrison, Powwow Highway also won a number of prestigious awards, and the acclaimed original novel by David Seals remains in print, all of which makes its general post-release obscurity all the more difficult to comprehend.


Checking Out (1989)

Handmade would produce many films that have now been all but forgotten, but this is one that really doesn't deserve to be bracketed with the others, and not for good reasons. From Bullshot to Track 29, they are all at least fascinating curios and in a couple of cases are superb films that were simply too abstract for a mainstream audience, but Checking Out has most likely slipped into obscurity because it is so bad. A generally plot-free comedy about hypochondria starring Jeff Daniels, Checking Out seems unwilling to introduce any actual jokes into proceedings, and worse still ends with his character 'learning' in the manner of someone from an equally unfunny American television sitcom. Checking Out seems to be aiming towards a sophistication that it hasn't fully figured out, and ends up just meandering along in a thoroughly unspectacular fashion. Not many people bothered checking it out at the cinema, or indeed checking it out from their local video shop. Which may be a terrible joke, but it's still funnier than anything in this film.


How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989)

Bruce Robinson returns with the long-awaited follow-up to Withnail & I, which divided those who had been long awaiting it. Richard E. Grant stars as Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a high-flying advertising executive who, while battling concerns over the morality of his profession and struggling to come up with a suitable slogan for a new acne cream, grows a second head which has no such qualms about the cynical pursuit of its chosen vocation. It's easy to see why the fantasy element and sinisterly humorous leanings alienated those who had loved Withnail & I for exactly the opposite reasons, but the critics who routinely dismiss How To Get Ahead In Advertising are way wide of the mark. It may not be quite as brilliant as its more celebrated stablemate, yet How To Get Ahead In Advertising remains a strong effort that takes some dedication to get into but is rewardingly funny and remarkably prescient of what was really little more than a trend at the time of the film's production but has since become deeply ingrained in the media, and special mention must be made of Richard Wilson, giving a tremendous performance as Bagley's long-suffering boss. Unfortunately, it was an 'expensive flop' on release, which has saddled it with a poor reputation that has proved hard to shake.

Cold Dog Soup (1990)

Another of Handmade's forgotten films, and yet again its forgotten status is not hard to understand. Randy Quaid stars as a Zen-spouting taxi driver who tries to help a passenger dispose of a dead dog belonging to his date, driving through the city at night in search of a buyer. If that sounds utterly perplexing, that's probably because it is. The subject matter is too macabre for it to work properly as an offbeat comedy, and Quaid is too restrained for the quasi-lunatic central role (tellingly, the director originally wanted Little Richard for the part), and ultimately Cold Dog Soup comes across as a pale imitation of the then-recent vogue for 'Night People' comedies like Martin Scorsese's fantastic After Hours. Based on a novel by Stephen Dobyns, Cold Dog Soup bombed on cinematic release, and has rarely been sighted since.


Nuns On The Run (1990)

The final Handmade Films production, which with no small irony turned out to be the most commercially successful of the lot. Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane play Brian and Charlie, a pair of gangsters who disguise themselves as nuns and hide out in a convent after making off with the loot from their last job. Written by British satirist Jonathan Lynn (best known as one of the writers of the long-running BBC sitcom Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister), the film contains plenty of acutely observed gags about the eccentricities of the Catholic faith, but is primarily as a madcap chase movie and probably the closest that Handmade ever got to a 'mainstream' comedy film. Nuns On The Run was a huge worldwide hit, particularly in America where it made a star of Coltrane, although some sectors of the UK audience were less enthusiastic and took to scrawling 'Dirty Sex' and 'AIDES' (sic) on the publicity posters. Doctor Who fans can spot a very young Camille Coduri playing Brian's short-sighted scatterbrained girlfriend Faith, giving rise to one of the most subtle jokes ever to appear in a comedy film – although it is never referred to in the dialogue, the three main characters are quite deliberately called Faith, (Brian) Hope and Charlie (who, in a physical sense, is by far the 'greatest' of the three). Typical Handmade in-jokery comes in the form of Brian and Charlie's underworld boss watching The Long Good Friday on television. Nuns On The Run is by far the most lightweight film ever released by Handmade (well, apart from Shanghai Surprise), but it's also good fun and despite what film critics might have had to say in retrospect it’s hard to begrudge the success it had.


Following the release of Nuns On The Run, Handmade Films was gradually wound down in a long process of legal wrangling. The name was eventually bought out by another producer, who went on to pursue a vaguely similar path with such releases as The Secret Language Of Women and Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, while the rights to the actual films were bought out by a Canadian company who immediately junked all surviving rushes, outtakes and deleted scenes on the grounds of saving on storage costs. This wasn't merely an assortment of scrappy offcuts as their actions might suggest - it included intentionally preserved deleted scenes from Time Bandits and Withnail & I, a longer and reputedly far superior edit of Shanghai Surprise, and much more besides, all of which is now probably lost forever. Yet even despite having ceased operations years ago and changed hands since then, Handmade Films continue to lead the way in their own eccentric manner, courtesy of a series of superlative DVD releases in conjunction with distributors Anchor Bay. Particularly recommended are Monty Python's Life Of Brian (with trailers, commentary, a BBC documentary on the making of the film, and on the Region 1 release a handful of deleted scenes that were privately preserved by Terry Jones), Time Bandits (interviews and commentaries, storyboards for the lost scenes, and even a copy of the 'map' itself), A Private Function (Michael Palin, Alan Bennett and director Malcolm Mowbray have a right old natter over the film) and Withnail & I (a fascinating documentary, some fantastic on-set photographs and a lively commentary by Paul McGann and Ralph Brown), but even 'lesser' films like The Missionary and Nuns On The Run have been bolstered by enlightening commentaries, and hopefully in time even the likes of Bullshot and The Raggedy Rawney will receive similar treatment.

It is testament to Handmade's dedication in seeing offbeat and not obviously commercial ideas make it to the screen that only three notable projects ever failed to get off the ground - Travelling Men, a thriller teaming Sean Connery and Michael Caine that floundered due to conflicting schedules, Time Bandits II, abandoned when several of the original Bandits died, and a spoof 'rockumentary' based on Harrison's supergroup The Travelling Wilburys, which judging from the surreal humour that abounded in their actual records would have been fantastic. Just about everything else made it through what was sometimes extremely fraught production, and even their 'failures' were arguably glorious ones, that few others in the film industry would have been prepared to take a risk on. In the 1980s the press were given to describing George Harrison as a recluse on account of the fact that he didn't release much actual music during the decade, seemingly oblivious of the fact that at the same time he was guiding a phenomenally prolific amount of films to cinema release. Having already given the world a new word by describing a suit as 'grotty' in A Hard Day's Night, he also helped to give it Withnail and Marwood, Harold Shand, Gilbert the Pig, the Time Bandits and, best of all, Brian of Nazareth. That’s a lot more than many other bona fide ‘greats’ of the cinema could boast of.

 


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