Sixties City presents a wide-ranging series of articles on all aspects of the Sixties, penned by the creator of the iconic 60s music paper Mersey Beat
Beatles’ television film was conceived before Brian Epstein’s death, discussed
with him and became the group’s first solo venture after Brian died. The
concept was Paul McCartney’s and he had planned the venture on a flight
back to England from America where he’d been visiting Jane Asher during
her theatre tour. While there he’d been reading about the adventures of
Ken Kesey (author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) and his Merry
Pranksters who had been travelling cross-country by bus.
Paul’s idea was for The Beatles to produce their own television spectacular, writing and producing it themselves, using the knowledge they had gleaned from Dick Lester and Walter Shenson while making their first two feature films. The Beatles reckoned that, if ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ proved a success on television, they would go on to produce their third feature film themselves.
Press officer Tony Barrow has said that Paul was originally hoping that ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ would be suitable for cinema release and was disappointed to be told that this was out of the question. The 55-minute special, edited down from ten hours of filming, featured six numbers:
‘Magical Mystery Tour’, ‘Your Mother Should Know’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Fool On The Hill’, ‘Flying’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’. Two other songs they wrote for the project were never issued – ‘Jessie’s Dream’ and ‘Shirley’s Wild Accordion’.
The idea involved a surrealistic mystery trip on a gaily-painted yellow
and blue coach. The coach left London on Monday 11th September 1967 and
filming of the actual trip was completed on Friday 15th September. Paul
McCartney met up with the various Mystery Tour passengers at Allsop Place,
near the London Planetarium, which the group had often established as a
meeting place prior to some of their British tours. Painting still hadn’t
been completed on the bus and it arrived two hours later than its appointed
10.45am departure time.
Once they set off they headed for Virginia Water, Surrey, to pick up John, Ringo and George as it was close to Weybridge where two of them lived. They then set off for the West Country and Hampshire, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. In all there were 43 passengers, apart from The Beatles and film crew (Ringo was billed as Director of Photography). They included four fan club secretaries: Frieda Kelly, Barbara King, Sylvia Nightingale and Jeni Crowley. There were Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans plus a small party of dwarfs, one of whom was Rayston Smith who died in mysterious circumstances in 1989. His biography, Little Legs, revealed that he was a hit man who had killed several people and had served seven years in jail for manslaughter. Neil was now the headman at Apple and was later to comment, “We went out to make a film and nobody had the vaguest idea of what it was all about. What we should have been filming, if anything, was all the confusion because that was the real mystery tour.”
Also on board were Luke Kelly, the coach driver Alf Manders, Bill Wall,
Linda Lawson, Pamela and Nicola Hale, Elizabeth and Arthur Kelly, Liz Harvey
and Michael Gladden. There were also a number of actors and actresses for
whom basic parts had been outlined on which they could improvise. They included
Scottish actor/poet/comedian Ivor Cutler who portrayed Buster Bloodvessel,
a passenger who travelled on all the mystery tours and who developed a passion
for Ringo’s Aunt Jessie, played by Jessie Robins. Paul had first spotted
Cutler on the television show ‘Late Night Line Up’ and remembered him when
casting for the special.
One sunny morning, while John and George filmed a sequence at the Atlantic Hotel, Paul and Ringo set off for Tregurrian Beach where they filmed a romantic interlude between Cutler and Robins. The BBC cut this scene when the special was televised, however, they reinstated it when they re-screened ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ in 1979.
‘Rubber Man’ Nat Jackley was filmed by John and George at the Atlantic Hotel swimming pool for a comedy dream sequence in which he was joined by several girls in bikinis. This scene was also consigned to the cutting room floor but it was included in the cartoon storybook of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ that accompanied the film’s soundtrack EP/album as this was completed before the film was finally edited. Jackley was a British music hall comedian whose gimmick was his ability to twist his neck as if it were rubber. Jackley died at the age of 79 in September 1988.
There was also Little George Claydon, a tiny actor who played the Amateur Photographer; Maggie Wright as Maggie the Lovely Starlet, Paul’s mini-skirted girlfriend; Shirley Evans, a professional accordionist; Derek Royce as Jolly Jimmy Johnson, the Tour Courier (he died in January 2000 aged 61) and Mandy Weet as the Tour Hostess. There were various other friends such as Paul’s hairdresser Leslie Cavendish, Paul’s brother Mike McGear and the Apple electronics wizard Alexis Mardas.
through Devon and Cornwall they picked up a few extra passengers, such as
Spencer Davis (leader of the Spencer Davis Group) with his wife Pauline
and their children. The family had been on holiday near Newquay. There was
a clip of Winwood’s group Traffic performing ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry
Bush’, but this also ended up on the cutting room floor. Most of the interior
scenes had to be filmed at West Malling RAF Station near Maidstone, Kent,
as Apple Films were unable to book Shepperton Studios in time. One of the
scenes shot on Monday 18th September was a sequence filmed in Paul Raymond’s
Revue Bar in Soho. It featured the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band performing ‘Death
Cab for Cutie’, while popular stripper Jan Carson performed her act. Despite
the fact that her bare breasts had a ‘censored’ strip covering them, the
entire sequence was excised in Japan.
The sequence featuring Paul singing ‘Fool On The Hill’ was filmed in Nice, France, on Monday 30th and Tuesday 31st October. When Paul flew to France for the filming he forgot both his passport and his wallet – he was so used to someone else looking after those details! The French authorities wouldn’t allow Paul any credit and filming was delayed while he arranged for money to be sent over from England. The basic story concerns a coach trip that Ringo and his Aunt Jessie have decided to take. They visit a tour office and are talked into going on the Mystery Tour by a young man (John Lennon) wearing a thick moustache.
Meanwhile: “Away in the sky, beyond the clouds, live four or five magicians. By casting wonderful spells they turn the most ordinary coach trip into a Magical Mystery Tour.” The magicians, of course, are played by the four Beatles and Mal Evans, dressed in long wizards’ robes and pointed hats. We meet them several times during the course of the journey.
The coach started off to the tune of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and the second number we are treated to is ‘Fool On The Hill’. At one point, Paul chats with five-year-old Nicola Hale, a touching scene that wasn’t planned or rehearsed.
Many of the episodic scenes during the trip are surrealistic, the most visually
intriguing being the one set in front of the high, concrete walls of the
deserted West Malling Aerodrome (the walls were finally demolished in 1991).
There, ‘I Am The Walrus’ was filmed, with The Beatles in their animal masks
and with egg-headed spectators and swaying policemen on top of the wall.
The Marathon Race was held on the same set, with Ringo driving the coach
followed by a line of egg-heads, four midget wrestlers, racing motor cyclists,
a rugby team, a dozen children, five clergymen and a host of passengers
scrambling across the airfield.
For ‘Blue Jay Way’, the slightly mystical George Harrison song, a host of people find their way inside a tiny tent to watch George perform the number seated amid swirling smoke clouds. In another scene, Paul plays Major McCartney, with Victor Spinetti as the Recruiting Sergeant. Victor couldn’t take up the invitation of accompanying The Beatles on the trip, but took time off from the film he was making to act out this one scene, which is a variation of his ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’ role.
One of the strongest sequences is ‘Aunt Jessie’s Nightmare’ in which the overweight Jessie dreams of lashings of spaghetti while a greasy-haired waiter (John Lennon) heaps pasta on to her table by the spade-full. In the climactic scene, to the tune of ‘Your Mother Should Know’, The Beatles descend a grandiose staircase, dressed in white evening wear, to join a spectacular gathering of dancing couples and saluting girl cadets. Two hundred people were involved in this final scene, including 24 young girl cadets from the Women’s Air Force, who were locally based, and 160 members of Peggy Spencer’s formation dance groups.
The Beatles spent six weeks editing the film in a small office in Old Compton Street, Soho, London, engaging a professional film editor, Roy Benson, to help them. The 55-minute film was colourful, funny, mystical and musical. Unfortunately, it received almost universal condemnation from the critics after its initial screening in black and white on BBC 2 on Boxing Day, 1967, when a reported viewing audience of about 13 million people watched it instead of the anticipated 20 million.
TAM (Television Audience Measurement) estimated the viewing figures of other shows that evening as:
| The Square
Peg, a Norman Wisdom film – 17 million; Top of the Pops – 15 million; David
Frost Over Christmas – 14 million and the film Brigadoon – 13.5 million.
In the Christmas ratings, Magical Mystery Tour was only placed at No.25.
However, it must be recognised that BBC 2 was, and remains, a minority channel
whose programmes don’t generally approach the figures of ITV and BBC1.
Negotiations had been taking place with CBS, NBC and ABC in America to buy the film for Stateside screening for $1 million (it cost $100,000 to make), but following the harsh criticism in the British press, the US TV networks lost interest. The American Time magazine was to report: “Paul directed, Ringo mugged, John did imitations, George danced a bit and, when the show hit the BBC last week, the audience gagged.” The show was repeated on BBC 2 on 5th January 1968 in full colour.
In the meantime, Paul had appeared on TV and radio shows in an attempt to reply to the hostile reaction from the critics. He was to ask: “Was the film really so bad compared to the rest of Christmas TV?” He added: "You could hardly call the Queen’s speech a gasser! Our problem is that we are prisoners of our own fame. We could put on a moptop show but we really don’t like that sort of entertainment any more. Sure, we could have sung carols, and done a first class 'Christmassy' show starring The Beatles with lots of phoney tinsel, like everybody else. It would have been the easiest thing in the world, but we wanted to do something different, we thought we would do a fantasy film without a real plot. We thought the title was explanation enough. There was no plot and it was formless – deliberately so, and those people expecting a plot were probably disappointed.”
In 1968 ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was screened by Dutch Television on 10th February and it was sold to Japanese Television in April. In May it was shown at special screenings at selected cinemas in America, mainly in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a few months later it was premiered at the Savoy Theatre, Boston, where it received positive reviews.
In the years since it was first screened, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ has been
reappraised. Many have now agreed that the virulent criticism at the time
of its initial screening was unjust and perhaps biased, affording critics
their first opportunity of knocking The Beatles, who had been riding high
for so many years.
The journey begins with the words, ‘Away in the sky, beyond the clouds, live four or five magicians. By casting wonderful spells they turn the most ordinary coach trip into a Magical Mystery Tour. If you let yourself go, the magicians will take you away to a marvellous place. Maybe you’ve been on a Magical Mystery Tour without even realising it. Are you ready to go? Splendid!”
Paul wrote the title song ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’ He wanted to convey the sensation of excitement and jollity amid the car and coach noises as the trip got underway and a sound effects album from the Abbey Road archives was used, ‘Volume 36: Traffic Noise Stereo,’ when the recording began on Tuesday 25th April 1967.
four trumpeters were hired to overdub a brass section: Roy Copestake, Elgar
Howarth, David Mason and John Wilbraham. The song was featured on the British
double EP set of ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ the American album of the same
name and also a British album of that title issued in 1976. The track was
also featured on the ‘Reel Music’ compilation.
The Magical Mystery Tour Bus is one of the most recognisable pieces of memorabilia in rock history. It was (is) a Luton-built 1959 Bedford VAL Panorama.
The VAL was built with a number of bodies from different coachbuilders and the majority of VAL14s were of Duple or Plaxton origin, although VAL14s were also modified by several other manufacturers including Harrington and Yeates. It was a Plaxton bodied example, URO 913E new to Fox, Hayes, in 1967, that featured in the film Magical Mystery Tour.
The Beatles hired the coach from the Middlesex firm but, after filming, it disappeared for nearly 20 years.
The owners of the Hard Rock Cafe bought the vehicle - a luxury six-wheeler - from 'a man in England' in 1988 and the coach was then transported to the U.S. where it was stored it in a warehouse in Miami for several years before being converted into a promotional bus for HRC. It took four months and 2,000 man-hours to refurbish, at a cost of $100,000 and using actual vintage parts, to restore it to the original external designs and specification. The inside of the vehicle was initially converted for 'retail' use but later eventually restored to its original Magical Mystery Tour condition.
|Bill Harry attended the Liverpool College of Art with Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon and made the arrangements for Brian Epstein to visit The Cavern, where he saw The Beatles for the first time. Bill was a member of 'The Dissenters' and the founder and editor of 'Mersey Beat', the iconic weekly music newspaper that documented the early Sixties music scene in the Liverpool area and is possibly best known for being the first periodical to feature a local band called 'The Beatles'. He has worked as a high powered publicist, doing PR for acts such as Suzi Quatro, Free, The Arrows and Hot Chocolate and has managed press campaigns for record labels such as CBS, EMI, Polydor. Bill is the critically acclaimed author of a large number of books about The Beatles and the 60s era including 'The Beatles Who's Who', 'The Best Years of the Beatles' and the Fab Four's 'Encyclopedia' series. He has appeared on 'Good Morning America' and has received a Gold Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.|
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