George Harrison said he wanted to see 'Life of Brian' - so he handed us the money
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
From the Michael Palin interview with Cahal Milmo in 2001
George Harrison was the man who saved Life of Brian for the simplest of reasons.
When I asked him why he stepped in with the money in 1978 to make our Monty Python spoof on the life of Christ, he said: "Well, I wanted to see the film."
It was typical of a man who was ready to ignore all the shouts of "blasphemy" at the time and make a movie because he had enjoyed the script and thought he and others might want to have a look at it.
He was ultimately proven right. Just a few days before his death, Life of Brian was voted as one of the top 25 of the 100 greatest films ever made in a Channel 4 poll of viewers.
George was a man who had the courage of his convictions. He actually mortgaged his house in Henley to put the money down to set up Handmade Films, the production company that backed Life of Brian. It then went on to make a series of films that put it at the forefront of British film throughout the 1980s.
There were some productions which did not win critical acclaim but without Handmade we would never have had the likes of Mona Lisa, Withnail and I, The Long Good Friday or Time Bandits.
George's natural curiosity and his sense of humour took him to a wide range of other interests – from his spirituality to gardening to the Pythons.
When he saw the first episode in 1969, he was supposed to have sent a note to the BBC saying how much he had enjoyed it and was looking forward to the rest of the series. We never actually got the note. I suspect some BBC official took one look at it, saw it was signed George Harrison and threw it away saying: "Yeah, and I'm the Duke of Edinburgh."
But I later found out why Monty Python appealed to George – it was subversive and anti-authoritarian. The Pythons and The Beatles were both groups who stood together on their own terms and weren't bought by anybody.
He always saw the absurd side of life and so enjoyed the Pythons' take on it all. When you have been deified as The Beatles were, the world can seem insane. I think he saw the Pythons as a form of sanity.
George was pretty laid back as a producer, though he did come along to play a cameo in Life of Brian – Mr Papadopolous, a music promoter eager to propel Brian to fame.
Ironically, he didn't particularly like the trappings of stardom. George just wanted to be himself and pursue his own interests, whether it was creating his garden in Henley, spending time with his wife Olivia and son Dhani, or getting on with his next project.
George Harrison was not the quiet Beatle who sat in the corner – he was quite strong and stubborn and very mistrustful of big organisations and big groups.
He was very intelligent and had an instinctive curiosity. He would talk a lot about his spiritual side, almost boringly sometimes, but he never tried to proselytise – he just liked to explore the area of a superior spirituality.
I think it was this serious side which made him well-equipped to deal with his illness. He saw the body as a temporary refuge for the soul and, despite the pain and suffering of his cancer, believed that our time on Earth was just one stage of existence.
When I last saw him in August this year, I could see that all the treatment he had been through had taken a physical toll. But there was still a spark and inner energy about him.
His enthusiasm was undimmed. After dinner he got out all these CDs of the jazz player Hoagy Carmichael, which he played until the early hours. I was absolutely exhausted.
I shall remember George as a very generous man – generous not only with any financial commitment but with his time as a listener and with other people who hadn't done as well.
He took life on. This wasn't a man who was just prepared to go with the flow. Whatever he did, he maintained a sense of proportion and humour. I will miss him. After all, there was still so much to talk about.
Play 'spot the Beatle' below -