“We goofed,” Paul McCartney said half-jokingly on the morning of December 27th, 1967, trying unsuccessfully to make light of the Beatles’ first disaster. His father, who was staying with him for Christmas, had just brought him the morning papers and the Beatle was sitting in bed reading venomous reviews of the group’s television film which had been shown the previous night. I, a young reporter at the time, was on the other end of a phone asking for his reaction.
The film was Magical Mystery Tour, and, written and directed by the Beatles themselves, it had been intended by the BBC as perfect Christmas entertainment. It hadn’t worked out like that. And now a large section of 15 million viewers who had looked forward to seeing an hour of innocent Beatles banter and songs in the style of A Hard Day’s Night, felt they’d been cheated out of their Boxing Day treat by a gang of millionaire, druggy pop stars.
Difficult to follow with wrestling dwarfs, priests playing blind man’s buff, a fat lady, a sinister looking eccentric who called himself Mr Blood Vessel, a stripper in a nightclub, a recruiting sergeant, outtakes of Greenland from the film Dr Strangelove, a working class sing-song and the Beatles wearing either bald, egg shaped wigs or a walrus suit, the film remains the only failure the group ever encountered.
“Many viewers seemed upset and mystified,” a BBC presenter said diplomatically a couple of hours after it had been transmitted and protests were jamming the switchboards. Indeed they were. Quickly plans to sell the film to America were shelved when the anticipated US network took fright and Magical Mystery Tour was consigned to the vaults…where it was to remain until now.
This coming Saturday(October 6), accompanied by an Arena special documenting the times and the outrage of 45 years ago, the BBC will give it another try, while a DVD, with a commentary by McCartney, will go on sale next week.
But was it really as bad as the critics suggested? I thought so at the time, which didn’t go down very well when McCartney asked for my honest opinion that morning after all those years ago. I was, he told me, the only person he knew who hadn’t enjoyed it.
I didn’t say it, but I remember wondering at the time whether that was one of the minor problems of being a Beatle.
Anyway, you can judge for yourselves, but, having just taken another look, it seems to me that while it’s still a filmic dog’s dinner and a perplexing choice of entertainment for a family Boxing Day, criticism now will almost certainly be more muted.
This isn’t only because as viewers we’ve been softened, or maybe hardened, by decades of equally incomprehensible pop videos on YouTube since then, or because in its anarchic style it seemed to predate the Monty Python sketches. But also because it shows us things about the Beatles we’d never seen before.
At the time we viewed the Beatles as supremely confident musicians and brilliant song writers, whether they were the cheeky mop-tops of She Loves You or the fancy dressed loons of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album that was topping the charts when the filming of Magical Mystery Tour had begun the previous September.
They, however, wanted to see themselves more in the tradition of glorified art school students who’d been given a camera and a few rolls of film with which to play. Lennon and McCartney had enjoyed some Fellini films, and, both admirers of Magritte, off they’d gone into the avant garde in a psychedelically painted charabanc.
And, yes, maybe the hallucinogenic drug LSD had played a part, too, although probably less than critics imagined.
From the beginning the project was only half thought through. And as the coach, with its stars, comics, friends and eccentrics, led the way down to Cornwall, like the cultural Pied Pipers the Beatles had become, I joined a following half- mile-long tail of cars containing newsreel teams, fans, photographers and other reporters.
I didn’t know anything about film making then, but I did know that a script was pretty important. Unfortunately that was something that hadn’t been written.
“We pooled ideas and memories often from our Liverpool childhood,” McCartney says now in the Arena programme, “and then made it up as we went along”.
In practise it became cinema verite style verging on an expensive home movie as I watched him march enthusiastically around a Newquay beach, always busy as the de facto director, while the coach’s puzzled passengers and excited holidaymakers gaped at the merry confusion.
Not surprisingly, such was the excitement whenever a Beatle was spotted, filming in public had to be abandoned within a week, and the rest of the tour took place on a disused but private airfield.
Only Ringo had ever actually been on a coach mystery tour – when he’d been to see the Blackpool Illuminations as a boy on an outing from Liverpool. So the others simply dreamed up scenes of vague anarchism.
Of course there were some interesting sequences, one of the best being a romantic interlude on a beach between the Fat Lady and Mr Blood Vessel to an orchestrated All My Loving. This was the romantic heart of the film, but somewhat puzzlingly, the BBC considered it “weird”, says McCartney, and ordered it to be cut before the film could be transmitted. Even the Beatles didn’t get all their own way.
With a writer to provide decent dialogue, some kind of narrative structure, and more time to prepare Magical Mystery Tour might have stood a chance, because it was potentially a good idea. But that wasn’t the Beatles way at that moment in their careers. They wanted to have control over whatever they did. And they wanted to do it instantly.
After so much success did they feel artistically omnipotent after the overwhelming praise they’d received for their Sergeant Pepper album? Probably. But, as it turned out, although several of their biggest hits were still to come, Magical Mystery Tour marked the beginning of the end for them. The innocence and fun of the early years was gone.
Their manager, Brian Epstein, had died from a drugs overdose shortly before filming had begun, and in his absence, and with McCartney taking a more central role in the band’s direction, cracks were beginning to show in their friendship. Years later John Lennon would blame Paul, whose idea it had been, for the debacle, but that was unfair. It was a joint venture.
The high point for both the public and the Beatles was, of course, the songs. Though there were only five, two became classics, McCartney’s dreamy Fool On the Hill, which was shot like a pop video a few weeks later in the South of France and then shoe-horned into the film, and Lennon’s I Am The Walrus, which was to become a classic.
After all these years you might think that the set-back would have been forgotten, but clearly it still bothers its director. “It got hammered mightily,” says McCartney, adding that Steven Spielberg told him they still show it at film schools in California as an approach to a “different way of film making”. Which it was…
As for the reception it received the first time it was shown the, still prickily, ex-Beatle adds: “And thank you to the critics for such kind reviews.”