HARRISON, GEORGE: OBITUARY
GUITARIST, FILM PRODUCER, WOULD-BE GARDENER
George Harrison died last week at 58; he is best known for playing guitar in The Beatles,
but he later became a film producer on films like Life of Brian, Mona Lisa, The Long Good
Friday and others. In November 1986, promoting Mona Lisa and visiting Australia for the
Grand Prix, he spoke at length to Andrew L. Urban. We publish that interview as a tribute
to the guitarist who became a producer - but always wanted to be a gardener.
This is the true story of a man called George Harrison, once one of The Beatles, and how an
imaginary baby born in the stables next to Jesus - and a place called Wookey Hole - have
changed his life and made him a film producer.
Of course Harrison is not so silly as to take it terribly seriously, and he certainly
didn't set out to be a film producer. He has been trying, in fact, to retire so he can
concentrate on gardening, which he enjoys tremendously. Not your fiddly little flower
gardening, however, but your grand scheme stuff: trees, hills, huge rock gardens and water
gardens, things more by way of the broad canvas. It is no surprise, then, to learn that
Harrison's backyard measures some 35 acres. The property is at Henly-on-Thames,
"where they have the boat race... The Regatta. It's a very old Victorian place,"
he explains, "and it has these great water gardens that were built years ago, and it
has an amazing rock garden with a replica of the Matterhorn on the top."
"I like gardening in a landscape way - like great
artists painting pictures"
Harrison bought the place in 1970, no doubt eyeing the place for the scope it offers a
keen gardener. "I'm not really into lots of little flowers, though. I like gardening
in a landscape way - like great artists painting pictures... I like what you can paint
with trees and stuff."
Some of the "stuff" is remarkable: "This guy that built my garden, he
brought 45,000 tonnes of rock from the North of England - brought it about 400 miles and
built this incredible rockery with waterfalls coming down it...that was in 1870.”
And Harrison is aware of the urgency surrounding gardening: "There's a great gardener
in England called Beth Chateau and she said to me once, let's face it, you only get about
40 seasons to get it right and when you think of it in those terms it's not long, because
you plant things and in England it takes forever for things to get growing and then winter
comes and everything stands there frozen for like four or five munths."
The Liverpudlian "munth" was comfortable like a familiar old glove his face
looking directly at me, eyes clear, skin clear and lightly tanned, hair all there - mind
We had started talking about his films but I led him up the garden path since it was his
real interest, even though he is now a film producer.
"I mean, it is a serious business but at the same time I don't take it too seriously
- I've been in the music business for like 20 odd years or more and it took me a long time
to get out of that. It's one thing being in it, but it's more difficult to get out of. But
I don't want to be involved - no more politics and all that. I didn't really want to get
caught up in the film business just at that time - I've been trying to retire for years
and become a gardener."
"How did he become an Executive Producer...?"
So what happened? How did he become an Executive Producer, with his own company,
"Well I was friendly with a couple of the Monty Pythons and they were making this
film...they'd written the screenplay...I used to hang out all the time with Eric Idle. Lew
Grade's company was producing the picture and when they were in pre-production they
dropped the film. I don't know why...whatever the reason, they backed out and so this
other friend of mine who was a writer and he's a friend of Eric Idle's as well, he said to
me, 'Can't you think of a way to get this film made' and I said it was such a drag because
I was so looking forward to it. I'd been along with Eric for months and months, (munths
and munths) and listening to him saying, "We had this great idea...we had this fella
born in the stable next to Jesus - so I was looking forward to it..."
Harrison talks steadily as he unfolds the story behind the film he calls a "sort of
classic bit of madness," lighting a cigarette after asking if I mind him smoking.
"So I said to Denis (Denis O'Brien, Harrison's business manager) after I told him
what happened, I said 'Have you got any ideas how we could help and get that movie
made...' We weren't anything to do with films although he had a taste when he'd been Peter
Seller's manager. So Denis called me back a few days later and said, 'OK, I think I know
how to do it: we'll be the producers,' and he was laughing because he knew that my
favourite movie was The Producers which I'd watched over and over... so that was it
really," he concludes with quiet finality. The film was Life of Brian.
Harrison then risked everything on the film: the Victorian estate at Henley-on-Thames was
put up as collateral - garden and all - to borrow the money from the bank. It is not
normal for producers to do this and Harrison no longer risks his all on every film he
makes, but this was not so much a career decision as a helping hand to friends. The few
million it took to make Life of Brian was "a bit of a risk" Harrison concedes:
"But I mean this guy...I figured his judgement was going to be quite good, you
know... Denis was always quite good at business."
The problem, he says, came when they tried to sell the film. "Then you've got to try
and start dealing with major distributors in America...Warner Brothers I think were
offering us a million in advance, but when we worked out the deal it was something like
they make $15 million before we even see a nickel! And I said that didn't sound a very
"I thought well, fuck it, we've gambled this far, we
might as well go the whole way"
Harrison suggested and O'Brien agreed to take another risk and refused the advance,
punting that the film would do well. It did. It made money, and it launched them into film
production. "When I came up with the idea of not taking the advance, it was really
putting my balls on the line but... I don't like the idea of these big business guys being
able to just squeeze you... so I thought well, fuck it, we've gambled this far we might as
well go the whole way."
Life of Brian took nearly $20 million in North American box offices, and their second
film, Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits has already grossed $45 million there. Then came an
excellent feature about the London underworld, starring Bob Hoskins, called The Long Good
Friday. It was the first time Hoskins worked in a Handmade film, but not the last.
His next role for the company was five years later, again as a London crim, but this time
his performance won the 1986 Best Actor Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival
where the film, Mona Lisa, was an official British entry.
"Personally, the subject matter is not my favourite thing," says Harrison of the
film's setting in London's sleazy world of drugs and prostitution. "But Hoskins is
just so fantastic, and with Michael Caine in that part as the big hood...I think Hoskins
brings out a lot in him too... he's absolutely nasty, Caine."
The film was followed by another Handmade action film, Shanghai Surprise, which stars Sean
Penn and Madonna. Harrison wrote the songs featured in the film, which was shot on
location in Hong Kong and Macao.
But where, I hear you ask, does Wookey Hole come into it. Harrison tells it like this:
"I was in a place in the west of England where they have these underground caves, and
when you go through there's this little paper mill - it's a place called Wookey Hole, and
it's this old fashioned paper mill and the tours go through that and it's like this huge
vat of recycled things...like underpants and stuff it looks like - all being mashed up and
sieved through and then at the end of the tour you can buy these nice sheets of paper.
"I said OK, British Handmade Films - love it,
"When you hold them up to the light it's got the watermark that says "British
Handmade Paper" so when Denis said we'll have to have a name for the company, I said
OK, British Handmade Films - love it, great! Then we got Terry Gilliam to do the logo,
which is like a hand that's half a movie camera..."
But Harrison was to learn that you can't call your company 'British' in England, just
like that. He couldn't understand why the corporate registrar would not allow the name,
and still doesn't. "Perhaps to have 'British' in your firm's name you have to be on
strike for half a year and lose millions of pounds - like British Steel, British Leyland,
and so on," he jokes.
He obviously doesn't miss performing: "Well I was never a performer as such. As The
Beatles all we did was just play in clubs... I just played a guitar in a band and sang a
few tunes, and it all turned out great but even at the height of it basically we'd just go
on stage and sing a few tunes. When we made those films with Dick Lester, I suppose we
thought we were actors now but we were never really.
Harrison is easy to talk to; he sits leaning forward attentively or relaxing into the
hotel lounge in the top floor suite with a natural ease. His T shirt is covered by a
greyish suit - not conservative, but modern, possibly Italian - and expensive opaque
plastic sandals over dark blue socks decorated with post-modern geographic shapes in
"we drank Orange Pekoe tea, talked about some films and
"I come here mainly just for a holiday and to see some friends and just get around
a bit. You have to remember the 60s and 70s when we were doing the high profile touring
stuff we were all over the place, but we never actually saw anything, so I like the idea
of having a bit of a lower profile, enabling me to enjoy different places."
Then we drank Orange Pekoe tea, talked about some films and said goodbye.
First published November 1986 (Adelaide Advertiser, and others).
Published Urban Cinefile, December 2, 2001
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Feb 25, 1943 – Nov 30, 2001
Life of Brian, stars Michael Palin, John Cleese
Mona Lisa, stars Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, Cathy Tyson
The Long Good Friday, stars Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren
REMEMBER THE MUSIC
(courtesy The Beatles Ring Headquarters):
(You’ll need Real Player – free download)
Can't Buy Me Love
Eight Days a Week
Here Comes the Sun
(George composer, vocals)
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
With a Little Help From My Friends
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (George composer, vocals)
I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
Look at you all . . .
Still my guitar gently weeps
..rehearsing in Liverpool
George Harrison movie trivia, courtesy Richard Kuipers:
George composed the soundtrack for the 1968 film Wonderwall (Dir: Joe Massot, Starring
Jane Birkin, Jack MacGowran). It was the first Beatle solo release and also the first
release on Apple records. A CD with extra tracks was recently issued.
Harrison's very first real foray into film production (not counting Magical Mystery Tour
 and Concert For Bangladesh  was in 1974, as co-producer of the British film
Little Malcolm (Dir: Stuart Cooper), an adaptation of David Halliwell's satirical play
Little Malcolm and his struggle Against The Eunuchs. It starred David Warner and John
On the inside cover photo on his 1974 album Dark Horse there's a photo of George walking
with a friend in the "backyard" of his property. A cartoon-like voice
"bubble" reads "Well, Leo, what say we promenade through the park".
The line is a quote from "The Producers" (1967), spoken by Zero
Mostel to Gene Wilder. Wilder was Harrison's favourite actor.
George also contributed songs to the soundtracks of Time Bandits (1981) and the infamous
Shanghai Surprise (1986).