Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films

Things I learned whilst reading Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films:

  • Keith Moon, a friend of Graham Chapman, was scheduled to appear in Life of Brian as a crazed prophet but, sadly, he died a week before filming.
  • Filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail was something of a hellish affair—which proved the rule that unless both men in the chair are named Coen, there should never be two directors on the same movie.
  • Why George Harrison had such a soft spot in his heart and wallet for the Pythons.
  • How the Sex Pistols affected the entire financial affairs of Life of Brian.

And that was just in the first 15 pages. There are at least two or three interesting tidbits on every page. This book by Robert Sellers details the story of the little movie studio that could…and then couldn’t. What started off as a story about a Beatle with a lot of money (George Harrison) bailing out a group of friends in need (EMI backed out of bankrolling Monty Python for Life of Brian) turns into the birth of a movie studio (HandMade Films) and a decade-long tale of movie lore and financial machinations.

Very Naughty Boys is a must for any fans of George Harrison, independent film, the Monty Python group, haters of Madonna, and above all, it is a cautionary tale for anyone foolish enough to want career on the financial side of the film industry. A sanitation worker whose daily route includes Rat Town has it easier than film professionals. At least with the rodents you know where you stand once you’ve entered the fray. Not so in the film industry—creating art with a thick bottom line that is really made up of millions of pounds of money.

My only caveat is that I wish I had read the foreword by Michael Palin after I’d read the book. I am such a sucker for Palin’s prose style (his travel books are so much better than anyone could imagine) that I came away from it wishing he’d written the book. But that’s just me. The chapters that focus on HandMade Films projects that involved Python members—Life of Brian, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Privates on Parade, Time Bandits, The Missionary, A Private Function, and even (God help me) Nuns on the Run—stand out because the book supplies a ton of insights from Python alumni who can’t help but offer witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud commentary.

Mr. Sellers writes in a very nice conversational style. Much of the contents of the book come from interviews, and the author does a nice job of keeping the quotes coming without turning the book into a transcript.

There are terrific chapters about very good HandMade Films (some made by the studio, some just distributed) like Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, Track 29 (well, I liked it), and of course Withnail and I. The topic of Shanghai Express—starring then “it” couple Sean Penn and Madonna—has enough drama and intrigue for its own book.

As the narrative moves on—each chapter covers one or two movies chronologically—the focus on HandMade Films’ financial challenges blend in well with detail about films that I have never seen (and in a few cases, never even heard of). I don’t want to give it away, but the book details a lot of financial intrigue, double dealing, tax shelters, quarrelling film studios, demanding performers, and creative conflicts between writers and producers. In other words, everything that makes for a good trashy reading experience.

But this book goes one step further than a typical Hollywood rags-to-riches-to-rags story, and that’s because we care about some of the folks who fall under the heading of “Collateral Damage.”

As usual, I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say in addition to providing several pleasurable hours of reading, Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films inspired (insisted really) me to rewatch Mona Lisa, Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, and, most importantly, Time Bandits. In my youth I was one in the minority who thought Time Bandits was a Python movie and was disappointed by the lack of Python. The book discusses how Terry Gilliam fought to market the movie and years after the fact, I must admit, he was correct. After a second viewing of Time Bandits, I admit I am in awe of the film—it is a gem.

The morals of the stories are as follows: don’t get involved in the film industry, don’t trust anyone carte blanche with your money, and above all else read everything (or at least have your lawyer(s) read everything) first before you sign anything.

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