By Ray Banks
This article is an original piece of writing prepared for NeoText, a publisher of quality fiction and long-form journalism.
“Cheer up, Brian, you know what they say…”
The story of HandMade Films begins with the (Second) Greatest Story Ever Told. Twenty-three freshly crucified souls hang in the early morning sunshine, waiting to die. Among them is the unfortunate half-Roman Brian Cohen. The people’s call to “welease Bwian” resulted in a flurry of Spartacus-like identity appropriation (“I’m Brian and so’s my wife!”) and some big-nosed smartarse eventually won Brian’s freedom. Now all hope is lost for this mistaken messiah; he has been abandoned to useless martyrdom.
And then a semi-naked Eric Idle starts singing, mostly because his fellow Pythons couldn’t think of another way to end the movie. Before long, the crucified are tapping their feet and whistling a jaunty refrain.
As the camera pulls back to allow for closing credits, Idle tells the audience it’s the end of the film, that the record of the song is available for purchase in the foyer, before degenerating into sullen grumbling: “Who do you think pays for all this rubbish? They’ll never make their money back, you know. I told him, I said to him, ‘Bernie,’ I said, ‘they’ll never make their money back.’”
The Bernie in question was Lord Bernard Delfont, then head of EMI, who had initially agreed to back Monty Python’s Life of Brian before a long overdue read of the script appalled him so much he pulled the plug just as the Pythons were due to begin production in Tunisia. Undeterred, Eric Idle used his showbiz connections to find new backers.
George Harrison, former Beatle and rabid Python fan, stepped into the breach, agreeing to fund the film mainly because he wanted to see it—he later described the deal as “the most expensive cinema ticket ever issued”—and with his business manager Denis O’Brien set up HandMade Films (complete with a Terry Gilliam-designed logo) to take over the cash-strapped production.
So “Bernie” never did make his money back, but HandMade did, and then some. Life of Brian wasn’t just a colossal commercial success and a slap in the face to the po-faced Nationwide Festival of Light, it also helped to change the face of British crime cinema.
“My blood turns you on, but my shite makes you cringe.”
Neither John Mackenzie nor Peter McDougall were strangers to uncompromising material. Mackenzie had cut his teeth as assistant director to Ken Loach on Up The Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), and directed the notorious public information film Apaches (1977). The BBC’s Play for Today series had featured a number of Peter McDougall’s scripts already, including two collaborations with Mackenzie—Just Another Saturday (1975), which dug into the festering bigotry of the Glasgow Orange Parades, and Just a Boys’ Game (1979), a story of inherited violence set among Greenock’s razor gangs. Their final collaboration, an adaptation of Jimmy Boyle’s 1977 prison memoir A Sense of Freedom, would prove to be a natural fit.
Originally made for Scottish Television, A Sense of Freedom follows Boyle over a period of nine years, charting his course from ruthless Gorbals loan shark, through his incarceration for murder and his violent rebellion against the prison authorities, before ending with his transfer to HMP Barlinnie’s Special Unit, where his rehabilitation and subsequent career as a sculptor would begin. At the time of production, Boyle was still considered “the most violent man in Scotland” and wouldn’t be paroled until 1982, but Mackenzie was adamant his story was worth telling: “Two things persuaded me to do it—the existence of the Special Unit at Barlinnie and the character of Boyle. I believed in him. His spirit is terrific. He survived against all the odds. His whole story implies a message of hope for the human spirit – even when he was at his worst, his most brutal.”
But A Sense of Freedom is no hagiography. Mackenze and McDougall maintain the same dispassionate tone used in previous collaborations. Boyle’s life is anything but glamorous—he frequents rundown pubs, battles with carving knives in the street, enjoys a grim party in a decrepit tenement flat cluttered with boxes of Buckfast, and is sent down for fifteen-to-life for a murder he still claims he didn’t commit. Similarly, David Hayman’s performance as Boyle walks a thin line of neither condoning nor condemning Boyle’s actions; his Jimmy Boyle is a fascinating figure, but never an aspirational one.
Indeed, the film is careful to undercut Boyle’s gangster bravado with behavior that appears both recalcitrant and self-destructive. And while the prison system is undeniably brutal and dehumanizing, this depiction is shaded with scenes of befuddled and beleaguered staff who are fundamentally unable to deal with a man who can assault a governor on his first day, bite off a guard’s ear, wriggle out of a straitjacket and demolish his padded cell, as well as spend months in solitary confinement wearing little more than his own shit. The authorities’ decision to ghost Boyle from prison to prison is therefore seen as a desperate, self-protective measure. By the time Boyle hits “The Cages”—a segregation unit at HMP Inverness made up of cells within cells—his violence is shown to have infected the rest of the prison, guards and inmates alike. “I don’t know if we’ve turned you into what you are, or if you’ve turned us into the kind of people you imagine that we are,” says one of the guards. “But it’s way past the blaming stage now.”
Because while Boyle may have been dehumanized by the system—even his mother’s funeral is a circus of shackles and chattering police radios—he is just as guilty of dehumanizing those charged with his custody. It is only when Boyle is transferred to the Barlinnie experimental unit that he begins to reassess his attitude. The final scene, in which Boyle is handed a knife to open his parcel of personal effects, hints at the possibility of rehabilitation through mutual trust, just as it leaves him with a total of twenty-one years of accrued sentences.
This open ending is both the film’s biggest flaw—it can’t help but feel anti-climactic—and its greatest strength, in that the film believes that rehabilitation is possible, a faith validated by Boyle’s parole only a few years later. The version of the film released into cinemas by HandMade has its own issues. While dates and places are added to help clarify the prison-hopping story, the blow-up from 16mm to 35mm and switch in ratio from 4:3 to 1.85:1 means some of Mackenzie’s original compositions are missing detail. More distracting is the redub ordered by Denis O’Brien to make the Glaswegian dialect more intelligible to a wider audience. Though the change to generic Scots doesn’t exactly ruin the film, it does undermine its carefully wrought verisimilitude, especially in the otherwise highly authentic street scenes. But this tinkering was nothing compared to the wrangles over Mackenzie’s previous film, which would become HandMade’s next release.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman with a sense of history.”
As Mackenzie was putting the finishing touches to A Sense of Freedom, his masterpiece languished in release purgatory. Producer Barry Hanson had originally commissioned playwright Barrie Keeffe to write The Paddy Factor for Thames Television subsidiary Euston Films, and Keeffe finished the first draft over a long Easter weekend. When Euston rejected the script, Hanson signed a deal with Bernie Delfont’s brother Lew Grade at ITC Entertainment, and Mackenzie was brought on as director. Mackenzie loved the script, but hated the title, believing it gave too much away, and instead used the working title of The Long Good Friday.
The Long Good Friday follows proto-Thatcherite gang boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) over the course of an Easter weekend as he attempts to negotiate a transatlantic business deal which will transform the then-derelict London Docklands. Shand is ostensibly the most powerful man in London, with both the local council and the police in his tailored pocket, but a series of murders and bombings regress him from slick businessman to thuggish avenger, tearing through the London underworld in search of the mysterious culprit as his girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren) tries to keep the visiting Americans happy. But as the violence escalates and Shand’s world crumbles around him, the Americans get cold feet, Shand discovers that his right-hand man has inadvertently declared war on the IRA, and the gang boss is finally trapped in the back of his own car, staring down the barrel of a gun and contemplating his own imminent demise.
As with A Sense of Freedom, The Long Good Friday is anchored by a masterful central performance, this time courtesy of Bob Hoskins in his first major film role after his star turn in Dennis Potter’s TV series Pennies from Heaven (1978). But unlike Hayman’s performance, which had the burden of truth to contend with, Hoskins is unashamedly charismatic as Shand, a strutting, sneering barrel of almost Shakespearean contradiction, gleefully gnawing on Keeffe’s meatier lines—“I’ll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight”—as well as balancing Shand’s explosions of spittle-flecked psychosis with moments of heartfelt grief and tenderness. Hoskins’ performance reaches its peak in the closing minutes of the film, in which Shand is a close-up Kübler-Ross case study, a microcosm of Shand’s emotions throughout the film, his expression grinding through rage, terror, calculation before finally settling into a look of tragic resignation.
And yet The Long Good Friday is not just a one-man show. Hoskins has a diverse cast as back-up—the RSC darling and future national treasure Helen Mirren rubs shoulders with Casualty’s Derek Thompson, and Godard favourite Eddie Constantine weathers the dirty looks of Cockney character actor P.H. Moriarty and future sitcom star Karl Howman. Francis Monkman provides an astounding, pulsing electronic score. Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Méheux conspire on a number of unforgettable images—the dread-filled and largely dialogue-free opening sequence, the abattoir interrogation, the crucified security guard, the demolition derby massacre, those final moments in the hijacked Jag—while Barrie Keeffe’s literate and often blackly funny script proved only too prescient: some twenty years later, Canary Wharf would loom over the Docklands as a monument to the free market; Harold Shand’s dream of London as the European capital of commerce was now a reality.
Unfortunately, Lew Grade hated the film. He declared it “unpatriotic,” felt it was too sympathetic to the IRA, and promptly ordered around thirty minutes of cuts to minimise the Irish material and tone down the violence, as well as (here we go again) a redub of Hoskins’ voice by West Midlands actor David Daker in a misguided attempt to make Shand understandable to American ears. An enraged Hoskins first contemplated paying ten grand to have Grade wiped out (“I know a geezer”), then adopted a more legal tack, suing to block the release of the dubbed version and gathering the likes of Warren Beatty, Alex Guinness, Richard Burton and John Boorman as expert witnesses.
Legal threats proved unnecessary, however. Eric Idle, after seeing a cut of the film at the London Film Festival and hearing of Grade’s destructive edits, once again used his former Beatle contact to save the film. While Harrison was queasy about the violence, O’Brien recognised a potential hit, and used £700k from the profits of Life of Brian to buy The Long Good Friday, making it the second time the Grade/Delfont brothers had lost a bona fide classic to the scrappy upstarts at HandMade. Grade was only too happy to offload the film: by 1980, the twin flops of Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music and the budget-busting adventure Raise the Titanic had effectively spelled the end of the cigar-chewing mogul’s involvement in feature film production. And so The Long Good Friday became one of a successful streak of movies released by HandMade over the next few years, including Time Bandits (1981) and Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982). That streak would end with HandMade’s return to the genre that had proven so successful only a few years before: the prison movie.
“I’m one of the lost ones, Miss.”
The BBC’s Play for Today series courted controversy in the late Seventies with two particularly nasty pieces of work: Dennis Potter‘s scabrous black comedy Brimstone and Treacle (1976) and Roy Minton’s brutal borstal drama Scum (1977). Both were banned; both were remade as features, but only one—Scum—doubled down on its subject matter to the extent that the finished film inspired questions in Parliament and demands for borstal reform. Minton followed Scum with a gender-switch on the same situation, but Swedish actress-turned-director Mai Zetterling was no Alan Clarke.
Scrubbers concerns two young women, Annetta (Chrissie Cotterill) and Carol (Amanda York), who escape from their open borstal for very different reasons: Annetta wants to reconcile with her baby daughter, while Carol hopes to be re-arrested and transferred to a closed facility where her former girlfriend Doreen (Debby Bishop) is incarcerated. But when Carol arrives, she discovers Doreen has taken up with a new girl and now relishes taunting her with the relationship. Annetta is also apprehended and sent to the same borstal. Believing Carol grassed her up, she embarks on a campaign of revenge, aided by the sadistic Doreen. By the time Annetta sees the error of her ways and realises that Carol holds the key to providing a better future for her daughter, the damage has already been done.
If the plot of Scrubbers seems more Bad Girls than Scum, it is largely down to the script, which Minton disavowed after Zetterling “savaged” it with a page-one rewrite. And while Minton’s name remains on the credits, its presence does the film more harm than good. Comparisons with Scum are as inevitable as they are unflattering. While Scum set out to depict the borstal system as a breeding ground for violence, Scrubbers has no such point of view—or indeed, any point of view. The film is uncritical of the system, portraying the staff as empathetic (despite the presence of future Eastenders battle-axe Pam St. Clement) and hardworking, albeit as emotionally distant as the nuns looking after Annetta’s daughter. The opening song, a folk ditty warning young girls to avoid a life of crime or else pay the price, reflects the film’s acceptance of the borstal as a fact of British life—an unfortunate position, given that the system was well on its way to being abolished by this time, thanks to the 1982 Criminal Justice Act.
But Zetterling cares less about the socio-political than she does the personal, and the film manages a level of compassion for its inmates that Scum lacks: with their nightly bellowed gossip and shared experiences, the prisoners are less a group of criminals than they are a band of abused women enjoying some small measure of solidarity in trying circumstances. And while most of the characterizations are one-note types—the bawdy singer, the jittery bird-fancier, the leather-jacketed lesbian—some performances stand out, particularly Amanda York as the innocent, put-upon Carol and Kathy Burke, who manages to turn her first film role into a comic showcase of tobacco-cadging and solvent abuse.
But while Scrubbers succeeds in its depiction of female camaraderie, it utterly fails at conflict. Zetterling quickly jettisons authenticity along with the socio-political, relying instead on cack-handed theatrics to make her dramatic point. Annetta’s hallucinations in solitary (apparently brought on by a sedative) are bloated with religious imagery, and an attempt to turn the “therapeutic entertainment” scene into blistering fourth-wall-smashing commentary results in a performance that is more sixth form theatre studies than Brecht. The violence is risibly choreographed—a lot of heavy breathing, hair pulling and overly telegraphed stage kicks—and Annetta’s final attack on Carol is rendered bathetic by its use of slow motion. The film is further marred by the odd musical interludes—scored to cheap instrumental versions of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”—in which any enmity is immediately forgotten while the inmates bust a few awkward dance moves. Indeed, character motivations are so psychologically suspect—most obviously in Doreen’s wilful, inexplicable sadism, Annetta’s intermittent fixation on revenge, and one character’s sudden bloody suicide—that it sometimes feels as if hours of footage have been lost.
This gutting of the material may have had something to do with Denis O’Brien, who again worried that the film’s dialogue might be too colloquial to play to a wider market. He was also instrumental in re-editing a major fight scene to cut away from action and instead focus on a death scene from The Long Good Friday, which is somehow playing on a borstal television screen only a year after its release. And yet there is no record of the bullwhip-toting Zetterling’s objections to these edits, and so we must assume that the final cut met with her approval.
Scrubbers enjoyed mostly positive reviews on its release. The Daily Mail (not a newspaper known for its empathy) pronounced the film a “powerful, more compassionate movie than Scum, made with passion, blazingly well-acted, and it troubles the conscience, which is no bad thing.” Strangely enough, the Guardian, typically the Daily Mail’s political nemesis, agreed: “It is an impeccably liberal scream against the system which still managed enough crowd-pleasing tactics to keep the customers happy.” Despite this, Scrubbers suffers in comparison not just with Scum, but also the other crime films released by HandMade, particularly the next one, which manages the balance of authenticity and theatricality with aplomb.
“She was trapped. Like a bird in a cage. But he couldn’t see it.”
Neil Jordan never set out to be a filmmaker; growing up in literary Dublin, he had naturally gravitated to prose as a means of self-expression. His first book, a collection of stories titled A Night in Tunisia, was a critical success, winning both a Somerset Maugham Award and the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize. But a stint as John Boorman’s script assistant on Excalibur (1982) led him to write and direct his debut feature Angel (1982), a stylish noir, which in turn led to the dark fantasy adaptation of Angela Carter’s work, The Company of Wolves (1984). The two films may seem like polar opposites in terms of style, but both aesthetics became key parts of Jordan’s work, and both would feature heavily in his third film, the gritty fairy tale Mona Lisa.
George (Bob Hoskins), just released from prison after a seven-year sentence, arrives home to find his ex-wife wanting nothing to do with him and barring him from contact with his teenage daughter. Now homeless and unemployed, George bunks with his mechanic pal Thomas (Robbie Coltrane), who has a taste for novelty tat and the work of John Franklin Bardin, and seeks out his old boss Mortwell (Michael Caine), who gives George a job driving a “skinny black tart” by the name of Simone (Cathy Tyson) to her various assignations with wealthy johns. After a rocky start, George begins to fall for Simone, and when she asks him to find lost teenager Kathy, he is unable to refuse. But as George scours the fleapit peep-shows of Soho in search of the runaway, he finds his naïve chivalry and love for Simone tested to breaking point. He manages to rescue Kathy, and the trio are pursued to Brighton by Mortwell and Anderson (Clarke Peters), Simone’s former pimp. After a bloody climax, George the white knight finds himself surplus to requirements, and leaves the two women alone, once again adrift, but no longer naïve.
Jordan and co-writer David Leland (Made in Britain) had originally written the part of George for Sean Connery, but when Connery’s busy schedule meant he was unavailable and EMI pulled the financing, they approached HandMade Films with the project as a potential vehicle for Bob Hoskins. The actor wasn’t a fan of the script, in which George was more of a tough guy, and pushed Jordan and Leland to make George more vulnerable.
It was an effective dramatic choice that informs another brilliant Hoskins performance. While George occasionally displays some of Shand’s more explosive characteristics, he mostly spends the movie in a state of charming bewilderment, used by all and sundry and perpetually excluded from key information that would explain his situation. He is again a creature of instinct, albeit one more benign than the bristling gang boss; above all else, George wants to protect the innocent in a world of predators. And yet, despite Jordan’s often ironic use of religious imagery—Kathy meeting Anderson in church, the Virgin Mary lamps—George is neither the God’s Lonely Man of Taxi Driver (1976), not the anguished Calvinist father of Hardcore (1979); he is instead closer to the Chandlerian archetype, “a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it… the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Here Jordan marries the realistic with the literary, at once grounding George in the real world with all its grime and moral compromise and subtly bringing in fantastical elements to heighten the drama—the hellscape of Waterloo Bridge, the quasi-musical sequence with George and Mortwell in the strip club, even a cameo appearance by Bardin’s eponymous percheron at a motorway service station. The entire movie is seen through George’s eyes, and his only hope at understanding his situation is to frame himself as the protagonist of a crime novel, with the usual first-person narration becoming dialogue as he discusses his situation with Thomas. Ultimately George has to write his own happy ending, because nobody else is going to do it for him.
The ending of Mona Lisa was the last of many conflicts between Jordan, his producer Stephen Woolley and Denis O’Brien. While O’Brien had been delighted at the prospect of Michael Caine as Mortwell (who did five days as a favour to Hoskins), he was less enthused about the largely unknown Cathy Tyson as Simone, and apparently wanted Grace Jones for the role. Jordan won that particular battle, but lost another when O’Brien demanded that a song be played over the scenes of George wandering through seedy Soho—that song, the turgid Genesis tune In Too Deep, consequently feels shoehorned into the film. O’Brien was also adamant that the film should in the hotel bloodbath, cutting the coda that shows George’s reconciliation with his daughter. Woolley and Jordan argued that ending with the hotel scene would make the film seem like it was about an evil whore. O’Brien replied that was exactly what the film was about: “a whore who deserves her comeuppance”. Luckily for Jordan, Woolley had already signed a deal with Island Pictures to release Mona Lisa in the United States; one of the conditions of that deal was that the film remain unaltered. Unwilling to risk losing a major market, O’Brien acquiesced.
Mona Lisa was well-received on its release, by critics and audiences alike. At Cannes, Hoskins became the first English actor in twenty years to win Best Actor, and the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The actor would go on to garner numerous critics awards, as well as a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination. Despite losing the latter to Paul Newman (for The Color of Money, Hoskins’ turn in Mona Lisa would open the door to another star role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and a long Hollywood career that would keep him working for the rest of his life. Not bad for an actor who once described himself as “five-foot-six cubic, with a face like a Brussel sprout”.
“The Continuing Saga of Sod’s Law.”
By the end of 1986, HandMade Films was suffering an identity crisis. The sure-fire hit Shanghai Surprise had turned into a fiasco of immense proportions thanks to the bad behavior of its stars Madonna and Sean Penn, and met a worse reception that Water (1985), HandMade’s biggest flop to date. And nobody had much faith in the commercial prospects of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I, not least Denis O’Brien, who hated the title, couldn’t see the humor, and would effectively hobble the film with poor distribution. O’Brien was now obsessed with expanding the company’s reach to the United States, a move that would muddle the HandMade brand and spell the beginning of the end for the company. But before that happened, HandMade had one final gem to offer: an obscure little heist movie called Bellman & True.
Initially developed by Euston Films as a three-part TV miniseries, the adaptation of Desmond Lowden’s 1975 crime novel was good to go until a month before production, when Euston suddenly withdrew the finance. Director Richard Loncraine, who had just returned from exile following creative differences and his replacement by Wolfgang Petersen on Enemy Mine (1985), was determined not to let this project die. He already had a good working relationship with HandMade—he had directed The Missionary (1982)—and so approached Denis O’Brien to help: “At the time, Denis had a deal with Cannon, the dreaded Golan and Globus, where they would buy any movie he made for a million.” O’Brien agreed to front the million pounds, HandMade and Euston entered into a co-production deal, and Loncraine began the twelve-week shoot in September 1986.
Director Cy Enfield once told Desmond Lowden that all good thrillers started with someone getting a cheap hotel room in a big city. So begins Bellman & True, as alcoholic computer engineer Hiller (Bernard Hill) and his stepson (Kieran O’Brien) adopt fake names and check into a nasty little bed and breakfast in London. They are soon abducted by a couple of shady characters, who first coerce Hiller into decoding a computer disk and then aid them in the heist of £13 million from a holding bank at Heathrow Airport. The robbery goes well, despite a mishap with a moving lift, and the robbers perform a daring escape with the loot. Once safe, however, they decide to deal with loose end Hiller. But they haven’t reckoned on Hiller’s deep connection with his stepson and his determination to protect him at all costs.
Bellman & True is a strange beast: part heist thriller, part love story. The heist is rigorously researched, reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) in its use of analogue electronics and thermal lances, and thrilling to watch. As with most heist movies with a realistic bent, it has been claimed (by Loncraine) that it informed the 2015 Hatton Garden robbery amongst others, but this likely more a case of common technique than direct inspiration. That said, the heist sequence is perfectly paced, and the subsequent getaway chase has moments that rival the Hickman heyday of dangerous car stunts, including a white-knuckled near miss with a coachload of pensioners.
The love story aspect of the film is slightly less successful, marred by overlong scenes of Hiller drunkenly telling his precocious boy weird stories of the “princess who smoked French cigarettes and was beautiful when she wasn’t looking” (the boy’s mother) that occasionally veer into impenetrable gibberish. Were it not for Bernard Hill’s performance, these scenes would stop the film dead in its tracks. Hill’s performance is the solid bedrock of the movie—nobody does fearful impotence quite like him—and his pervasive melancholy helps tone down some of the broader supporting turns. Hill almost turned down the part—his experience on Shanghai Surprise had been horrific, and he had no intention of working with Denis O’Brien again—but Loncraine persuaded him to stay the course, and the film is all the better for his presence.
Loncraine and editor Paul Green worked on the 122-minute theatrical version alongside a 150-minute TV version, and the film arguably suffers from being at once too long and too short for the story. To make matters worse, Island Pictures demanded further cuts to the feature. While producer Michael Wearing railed at the company’s apparent intent to “slash away at the psychological complexities of the movie in order to turn it into simply a slam-bang action yarn”, the cut scenes total eight minutes. One scene featuring Hiller’s breakdown after his intimidation and anal probing by sawn-off shotgun resonates (the scene preceding it is just as disturbing as it sounds), but the other scenes—including more storytelling that clarifies Hiller’s bitterness around his failed marriage and a scene with a toy boat that presumably holds the tech required for the bank job—are largely superfluous, and Bellman & True runs leaner and better without them.
Reviews of Bellman & True were mixed at best. British critics had a hard time separating Bernard Hill from his breakthrough role as Yosser in Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) and while American critics were more appreciative of the slow burn, character-driven plot and Ken Westbury’s murky cinematography (what Loncraine called a “van Eyck wash”), Bellman & True suffered from poor marketing and struggled to find an audience on either side of the Atlantic. Thanks to Denis O’Brien’s indifference towards any project that wasn’t American and Island Pictures’ looming financial difficulties, the film was dumped rather than released, and quickly vanished from cinemas. Even the television version was given just a single broadcast over three night in June 1989 before disappearing from the archives. And so Bellman & True became the most of obscure of HandMade’s crime films.
“It’s a deal, it’s a steal, it’s the sale of the fucking century.”
HandMade Films lumbered through the rest of the Eighties in search of a hit. They found it in 1990 with the puerile crossdressing crime comedy Nuns on the Run, but it was too little too late. In 1992, HandMade dissolved; in 1994, Canadian media giant Paragon bought the company for $8.5 million, and began work three years late on the last British crime film to be released under the HandMade banner: Guy Ritchie’s debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Paragon had agreed to buy worldwide rights, but when the time came to pay up, the cash-strapped company had to sell the movie to Polygram, who promptly raked it in the moment Lock, Stock became a massive hit, generating more money at the box office than Paragon had originally paid for HandMade, and ushering in the slow ironic death of the British crime movie.
By the Nineties and early millennium, the British crime film had become a parody of itself, driven by a boorish fan base weaned on Loaded magazine and its comic strips of Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. Harold Shand was no longer an antihero; he was a bona fide British entrepreneur. And while there were occasional movies like Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast and Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No.1 (both 2000) that promised a renaissance in character-based crime, the genre ultimately regressed into tabloid gangster-worship and seething conservatism, epitomised by the like of Nick Love’s The Business (2005) and the two movie series based on the 1995 Rettendon Range Rover murders, Rise of the Footsoldier and Essex Boys.
HandMade’s contribution to British crime cinema remains untouched. No other British production company of the 1980s—with the notable exception of big-budget prestige company Goldcrest Films—could boast more films that have endured the slings and arrows of poor box office and indifferent press to emerge as classics in their own right. Of the twenty-seven films produced by HandMade over its ten-year life span, four—Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I—are BFI-certified greats, and three of those were saved from potential oblivion. Had this been HandMade’s only contribution, they would be worth celebrating; the fact that the company also produced A Sense of Freedom and Bellman & True makes them a national treasure.
Ray Banks is the author of eleven novels including the Cal Innes Quartet and a regular contributor to the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City magazine. This article is an original piece of writing prepared for NeoText, a publisher of quality fiction and long-form journalism.
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