John Harris

Journalist & Author

Fab furore: Is it time to re-evaluate the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour?

The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour caused outrage in 1967 – and is now being compared to Buñuel and the Pythons. John Harris hears the true story of the shoot from those involved

On Monday 11 September 1967, two hours later than scheduled, a coach pulled out of Allsop Place, just behind Baker Street tube station. Filling 40 of its 43 seats were actors, technicians and camera operators – along with Paul McCartney, and a crowd of friends and associates of the Beatles. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were soon picked up near their commuter-belt homes in Surrey – whereupon the coach headed for an inconclusive and ill-starred trek around the West Country, ending in the less-than-glamorous environs of Newquay in Cornwall.

Just over three months later, after further filming at a Kent airfield, BBC1 screened the hour-long film the Beatles titled Magical Mystery Tour. It went out on Boxing Day at 8.35pm and 15 million people tuned in – but, presented with a bamboozling melange of unconnected scenes, often shakily shot and seemingly stuck together at random, most were not best pleased. Indeed, history records that the BBC’s so-called reaction index – a number arrived at after quizzing viewers about what they had seen – scored its lowest-ever rating: 23 out of 100.

This rum turn of events, only a few months after the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, has long been seen as the Beatles’ one true disaster. “Beatles mystery tour baffles viewers” was the headline in the Mirror, flagging up claims that “by the thousand, viewers protested to the BBC”. The Express called it “tasteless nonsense” and “blatant rubbish”. In the States, NBC cancelled an agreement to show the film on its broadcastleaving a print of it to be passed round US universities; it would not be shown again in Britain for over a decade. Only the Guardian offered any respite, praising “an inspired freewheeling achievement … a kind of fantasy morality play about the grossness, warmth and stupidity of the (Beatles’) audience”.

Anthony Wall, editor of the BBC arts programme Arena since 1985, was in his mid-teens back then. At his home in south London, he sat watching Magical Mystery Tour with his family and some neighbours, whose angry bafflement was of a piece with what would pour forth the next day. “I am that textbook 16-year-old who sat there in the front room, with the indoor aerial in one hand, thinking I was watching something completely wondrous,” he says. “I can remember looking back at my mother and the neighbours, who were saying, ‘Absolutely shocking – outrageous.’”

Wall goes on: “For years, you had to be a bit trepidatious about saying you liked Magical Mystery Tour. It was the same thing as Carry On films and spaghetti westerns being regarded with absolute contempt – whereas they’re now seen as masterpieces. To say you liked Magical Mystery Tour was almost an indication that there was something wrong with you. It’s taken all this time for it to be reassessed.”

Talking me through a film still seen by many as a yawn-inducing mish-mash, Wall reels off some lofty reference points. “There was a sense that anything went. You could have the avant garde of [Michelangelo] Antonioni at one end, where everything would be perfectly orchestrated and fashioned; and, down at the other end, you’ve got Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or William Burroughs. The big point for me was when I saw Un Chien Andalou, the Buñuel and Dalí film, at much the same time. Magical Mystery Tour is a kind of acid-rock, 1967 version of that.”

This is the essential argument of Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, an Arena programme that will be screened next week, just as a spruced-up version of the film, complete with outtakes and a commentary from McCartney, is released on DVD. Directed by Francis Hanly, director of the acclaimed recent series Jonathan Meades on France, the Arena film will feature McCartney and Starr, along with such appreciative voices as Martin Scorsese and Paul Merton. It puts the film in the context of the cutting-edge company the Beatles kept in bohemian London, and suggests that when their visions collided with a Britain still clinging to sensibilities of the war, there was always going to be trouble.

“Magical Mystery Tour was quite easy to dismiss at the time,” says Hanly, “and it subsequently hasn’t had a great press. I think maybe because people haven’t seen it. The other films, Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, have been knocking around, and they have a degree of professionalism – but to my mind, this is more interesting as a document of the band. It’s got that little bit more edge to it.”

The film remains a challenging viewing experience. When it starts, there are fleeting signs of a conventional, if amateurish comedy: Starr boarding the coach with his irritable Auntie Jessie; a camped-up introduction from a tour guide named Jolly Jimmy Johnson, a role for the grim-faced Scottish poet and humorist Ivor Cutler. But within about five minutes, the film begins leaping around with no regard for narrative sense.

The editing is often awful. None of its early comic threads are developed. Some scenes aren’t just inexplicable, but arm-chewingly tedious. By the end, all that seems to point to redemption are such musical interludes as Lennon’s I Am the Walrus and McCartney’s The Fool on the Hill. But even these aren’t up to snuff: Harrison’s Blue Jay Way, a distracted evocation of staying up late in LA, is notable only for the fact it repeats the line “Don’t be long” 29 times. In that sense, the Arena film and the DVD rerelease might be seen as proof of the revisionism regularly perpetrated by the two surviving Beatles and Apple Records (see also 2003’s Let It Be … Naked, the stripped-down recasting of the Beatles’ worst album).

And yet, and yet. To its devotees, Magical Mystery Tour may be flawed, but it has plenty of merit: if it spurns the imperatives of storytelling and simple coherence, that stands as proof of the Beatles’ creative bravery and their understanding of countercultural cinema. “For me,” says Scorsese in the Arena documentary, “the freedom of the picture was very important.”

Moreover, its key element is an apparent drive to send up an England of decaying authority, bad food and anti-climactic entertainment: the country in which the Beatles had grown up, embodied by the hollering sergeant played by their actor friend Victor Spinetti; the dream sequence in which Lennon serves bucketfuls of vomit-like spaghetti; and the very idea of a mystery tour on a coach. Not for nothing, perhaps, did Harrison claim that the one group who later developed the Beatles’ essential sensibility was Monty Python.

Gavrik Losey, now 74, was Magical Mystery Tour’s assistant producer. The son of the Hollywood film-maker Joseph Losey, who was chased out of the US during the McCarthy era, he came to the film after the crawl around the West Country had ended. “There was nobody there blowing a whistle and stamping their feet and saying, ‘Do this and do that’,” says Losey, who, although not as fulsome in his praise as some, goes along with the idea of the film as a Pythonesque social commentary. “It remains a very interesting observation of English society from the point of view of four very bright guys who had the money to pay for it.” As soon as he began work, he says, the Beatles “kept talking to me about their past experiences, and how it was when they were little”.

Losey has vivid memories of the constant improvisations. “John decided that for the race scene, he wanted six midget wrestlers,” he says. “I got one of the girls who was working for NEMS [the Beatles' management company] out of bed and said, ‘I don’t know how you do this, but have you got some way of producing six midget wrestlers by midday tomorrow?’ And a car arrived with six midget wrestlers in it. They had people on their books who could do these things.”

There were also, he adds, the normal disasters of film-making: “Like when the generators collapsed before the formation dancers had to go home. Bribes had to be produced, and signed pictures. They were Come Dancing dancers, the real thing, brought down from Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham. We had about 20 busloads. The Beatles were a great calling card.” The whirling couples appeared in the finale, soundtracked by McCartney’s Your Mother Should Know, along with a posse of female RAF cadets. This section, says Wall, calls to mind a recent all-singing, all-dancing spectacular.

“What the Beatles grew up with was a Britain that has increasingly disappeared,” he says. “But I think we saw a revival of it in the opening of the Olympics, which I thought was like a kind of grand staged version of Magical Mystery Tour. It was full of English things: nurses, policemen, mills, whatever.” He sums up the film as “a softly satirised presentation of the culture they grew up in. They celebrate it but take the piss. All this Come Dancing stuff, the girls in uniforms, and coming down a staircase in white suits is kind of ridiculous, but they’re also revelling in the peculiarity of it.”

And that, he reckons, is the thread that joins the Beatles, Buñuel and Dalí, and the end of the pier. “All light entertainment,” he says, “is only one step away from surrealism.”

Magical Mystery Tour Revisited is on BBC2, 6 October at 9.45pm, followed by a showing of the film. The DVD is released on 8 October. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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