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July 12, 2008

Handmade Films: British Film Production Company

Handmade Films

Handmade Films Logo


Handmade Films emerged in the late 1970s the brainchild of former Beatle George Harrison and also run by Denis O'Brien whom Walker (2003) has described as an American hyphenate  lawyer-accountant-producer.  The initial impetus for the company was  to rescue the Monty Python film  Life of Brian. Originally it was being financed by the conglomerate Thorn-EMI however Lord Delfont who ran the company wanted to dispose of the film as he thought there was a risk of running foul of the blasphemy laws. Eric Idle of the Monty Python team knew Harrison who read the script and decided to go for it.  Life of Brian was subsequently bought by Handmade films for $2 million (Walker, 2003 ). It was sold on a country by country basis and was to become immensly profitable.

Handmade also brought what has turned out to be one of the best British gangster-thriller films ever made The Long Good Friday at around this time. Black Lion Films run by Lew Grade who was Delfont's brother had wanted to significantly tone down the violent scenes which would have seriously reduced the impact of the film. The film also dealt with IRA issues as well as corruption and Grade decided to sell it on.

Handmade films was capitalised in Luxembourg presumably for tax reasons and it was presumably bankrolled from Harison's resources. According to Walker (2003) they claimed they could make films for 60%-70% more cheaply than the major studios. It made Time-Bandits for £2.2 million and grossed £6.7 million in the US alone.

Many of its products were quirky and displayed an excellent feel for a British sense of humour which had revelled in The Goons, Monty Python and similar output. Films such as Withnail & I and Time-Bandits were of this ilk.

HandMade Films was eventually sold in 1994 due to  falling profitability, making losses on American co-productions. There were also allegations of O'Brien embezzing the company leading to a split between Harrison and O'Brien. It was bought by Canada's Paragon Entertainment Corporation for $8.4 million. (Walker, 2003). It went on to make two films in 1995. Over the period of its existence under Harrison & OBrien it produced 23 films in all (Screenonline Handmade Films estimate) which was roughly 2 per year over the course of its existence. The comedy Nuns on the Run (1990) was effectively its last production.

The films produced were wide-ranging in terms of genres and many are recognised as some of the best British films made during the 1980s. Many were 'quirky', as Walker has noted for along with other emerging production companies:

The films they backed were irreverent, transgressive, contemporary (if not in period then in feel. Their marketing departments...aimed the product squarely , but with subtlety and wit , at intelligent if as yet undiscriminating young people in the fifteen - thirty age bracket weaned on the TV satire shows  of earlier decades and nourished afressh by the present day Pythons. (Walker 2003, p 12)


Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979): Directed by Terry Jones

The Long Good Friday (1979). Directed John Mackenzie

Time-Bandits (1981): Directed by Terry Gilliam

The Missionary (1981): Directed by Michael Palin

Scrubbers (1982): Directed by Mai Zetterling

A Private Function (1984): Directed by Malcolm Mowbray

Withnail & I (1986): Directed by Bruce Robinson

Mona Lisa (1986): Directed Neill Jordan

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987): Directed by Jack Clayton

Track 29 (1988): Directed by Nicholas Roeg

Nuns on the Run (1990)  Johnathan Lynn


Screenonline: Handmade Films

Withnail & I  website


Walker Alexander. 2003. Icons in the Fire. London: Orion

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