When The Beatles split up, George Harrison thought his life would be plain sailing. The days of working under bolshie creative leaders had ended once he’d swam away from the grips of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney partnership. However, one prickly film director sent Harrison on an unwanted trip down memory lane.
For the first time in a long while, Harrison had the freedom to do whatever he pleased after the dissolution of The Beatles. If he had a desire to create a solo record, he’d find a studio to turn that ambition into an actuality. When he missed the camaraderie of life in a band, he called up some famous friends and formed The Travelling Wilbury’s. Harrison never thought too many steps ahead and went wherever the water took him. His accidental parry into the illuminating world of film production was beautifully organic.
The so-called ‘Quiet Beatle’ was blessed with funny bones and was always captivated with comedy, especially Monty Python. He even wrote a fan letter to the BBC after the first episode of Flying Circus aired in 1969 when The Beatles were at the height of their fame. Over the next few years, his friendship with Python’s Eric Idle would blossom. “His friendship meant an enormous amount to me,” Idle once said. “I was going through a broken marriage at the time. He was very encouraging and friendly and supportive. We’d go to his house and play guitars.”
When EMI pulled the funding on Monty Python’s feature film Life Of Brian in 1978 after chairman Lord Delfont expressed his repulsion at the script, Idle made a call to Harrison, and the film was miraculously back on.
Harrison gambled everything by remortgaging his Oxfordshire mansion to finance the movie, and his bold risk paid off in spectacular fashion. His production company, HandMade Films, became a passion project that Harrison wholly adored. However, when he produced 1981’s Time Bandits, he found himself clashing heads with Python director Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam’s creative vision vehemently grappled with Harrison’s. The latter was under the impression that the soundtrack would be full of original tracks that he’d written, yet, the director had other plans. Not only was Harrison the one funding the film, but he was also a former Beatle. Nevertheless, that didn’t matter to Gilliam, who wasn’t prepared to be walked over. Understandably, Harrison was incensed and reportedly told the director: “You remind me of John Lennon. You’re so difficult, so bolshie.”
The two visionaries ended up coming to a compromise with Harrison’s track ‘Dream Away’ soundtracking the closing credits to the film. Time Bandits was a rousing success at theatres and reaped over $42 million at the box office from just a $5 million budget. Seemingly, there was no lasting bad blood between Gilliam and Harrison. When the director opened up about their friendship with Metro in 2016, the national treasure had nothing but superlatives to say and described him as a “joy”.
“With George, he’s always referred to as the ‘quiet Beatle’ – not at all! Just a jabber mouth,” he lovingly remembered. “He was incredibly funny, that’s the other side that people aren’t aware of. They go ‘ohhh spiritual’. No, he was incredibly funny and we just had a great time.”
Gilliam went as far as saying that his whole career as a director is thanks to Harrison taking a risk on him and allowing him the opportunity to make his directorial debut. “I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it wasn’t for HandMade Films,” he added to the publication. “The world wouldn’t have Time Bandits, A Private Function. It wouldn’t have any of these things…It’s very simple. To have a Beatle as a patron is what you need in life, it really was. I mean George stepped in and saved our arses basically.”
Fiery disagreements were nothing out of the ordinary for Harrison, who had spent a decade in the sweltering cauldron of The Beatles. He was adequately equipped to take on Gilliam in a hostile war of words, and they eventually came to an agreement that kept them both happy.
The two zealous characters struck a delicate balance that didn’t compromise the director’s artistic freedom, and Harrison still got a track featured. Ultimately, the pair would laugh their way to the bank and create a stone-wall comedy classic in the process.