The flash in the Beatles biographer’s eye


The game is afoot. A new piece of the puzzle is discovered.

It was my good fortune to attend the ‘premiere’ screening of the 50th anniversary souped-up, “very clean” re-release of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night at the BFI in London on Thursday (3 July 2014). I also got to see one truly special moment as the Beatles story inching one factoid closer to completion.

Oh by all means, I’d be quite prepared for that eventuality
I hadn’t seen it in years, but the film is as exhilarating, funny and joyous as it ever was. It looked and sounded phenomenal in its nicely scrubbed-up new guise. It’s one of those films in which any scene could be someone’s favourite, and with legitimate cause. At the moment, this is my favourite sequence. I love George Harrison’s beyond-deadpan delivery of the following lines: “She’s a drag, a well-known drag. We turn the sound down on ‘er and say rude things.”

Working like a dog
The real treat of the evening came before the film: a lengthy interview on the BFI stage with 80-something director of A Hard Day’s Night (and a ton of other films too, regard) Richard Lester. Lester is such a warm, charming gent. He has stories.

I was amazed to hear that A Hard Day’s Night was rushed through production in just a few short months, with an absolute opening date deadline of (I think) 7 July 1964. The reasons for this deadline were twofold: to coincide with the school holidays; and because it was felt that if the film appeared any later, the Beatles phenomenon would be pretty much over. How true that proved.

It dawned on Lester during production that no matter what else he did in his life, this film would define his reputation. He described a 1960s fancy that he might be knocked down by a bus 57 years later, and the headlines would read “Beatles director killed.”

Lester’s assessment of the Beatles was fascinating. A self-organising ‘us against the world’ unit of four extremely independent and strong-willed individuals, with the other three willing to come together to protect any one member during tough times (illness and hangover being the two main reasons cited). Lester said he’d never seen people working together in this way anywhere else. I’m not sure I have, either.

Who’s the Beatles try-hard?
Precious about A Hard Day’s Night? Nope. The film is no great shakes for him. Lester said he hadn’t seen it in 30-plus years (and had even approved the upcoming DVD/Blu-ray re-release sight unseen, as he got ‘does not work in your region’ messages when he tried to view the preview discs. This approach was “a good way to make it through your 80s,” he noted). He didn’t stick around for Thursday’s preview screening, either, as he was flying out to Bologna at 3.30am the next day. But he conceded there was a high risk he’d end up breaking his three-decade Hard Day’s Night fast in Bologna.

On their acting prowess, Lester was most pleased with George, as despite his limited range, “he didn’t try to do too much, but always hit it right in the middle.” Paul, by contrast, was perhaps guilty of trying too hard.

The flash in the Beatles biographer’s eye
So who is the Beatles biographer in the title of this post?

Mark Lewisohn, self-described as “the world’s only professional Beatles historian.” Lewisohn is engaged in penning a three-volume Beatles biography entitled All These Years, which invites the adjective “monumental.” Only one volume has thus far been released. The ‘regular’ edition weighs in at 960 pages, the special expanded edition at 1,728 pages. He knows his stuff. I’ve just ordered the ‘regular’ edition, on the basis of what I saw on Thursday.

Lewisohn conducted the BFI interview with Lester. He was an impressive, professional interviewer, wearing his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Beatles lightly and keeping the chat lively and fast-moving. He illustrated the themes of the talk with a beautifully chosen slide show. The slides conveyed the depth of his research not just regarding the Beatles, but everyone that played any role in their story.

Regard the image at the top of the post (reproduced by kind permission of Chris Brake). In the background you can see a slide that Lewisohn had somehow unearthed, depicting an Xmas 1955 TV Times listing (!!!) for a one-off improvised comedy show starring Richard Lester (which Lester described as disastrous, but also fortuitous, as it brought him to the attention of Peter Sellers).

I got to see the flash in the Beatles biographer’s eye. Lewisohn’s smooth and thoughtful professionalism was overtaken for a fleeting moment by the thrill of the hunt, as Lester let slip a tiny Beatles fact that would otherwise have been lost to history.

Mr Lewisohn remarked how odd it was that the Beatles were the seventh act to have gone from recording with George Martin to making films with Richard Lester (can’t remember all the other six, but they included Peter Sellers, Clive Dunn and the Temperance Seven). Lester replied with words to the following effect: “And the funny thing was, I’d never met George Martin at that point.”

The world’s only professional Beatles historian was clearly taken aback by this comment, leaning in with a delighted, momentary “How did I not know that before?” look as his picture of the Beatles got that tiny bit more vivid. This is what he lives for.

Make your own life that little bit better: please do watch A Hard Day’s Night at your next opportunity.

Treat yourself:

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