Sunday, October 02, 2005

Up Against What Might Have Been

Johnnie, I think we should have stuck with Joe Orton...

Casual students of the Beatles might be surprised to find out that at the time of the recording of Sergeant Pepper, a third BeatleFilm -- a live-action fictional movie in the spirit of A Hard Day's Night and Help! -- was being contemplated by Walter Shenson, the impresario who brought forth the first two. The times being what they were, the project was abandoned in the writing stage, which is a bit sad, I suppose. But in retrospect it should cheer us that we can now freely indulge our imaginations: A third live-action Beatles movie, made just as they'd begun to soak themselves in LSD and Stockhausen and Transendental Maharoonie-ism! The mind reels at the possibilities.

The indispensable The Lennon Companion: Twenty-Five Years of Comment, edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Guterman, is a wonderful collection of contemporary primary-source material on the Beatles' rise and fall. It begins with William Mann's well-known 1963 essay -- often cited contemptuously by casual biographers as an indicator of just how badly the highbrow press of the time was unequipped to explain the Beatles' mindbogglingly challenging music -- in which Mann memorably refers to the "Aeolian cadence," used in Mahler's Song of the Earth, that ends "Not a Second Time." (Rereading it, there's nothing at all in the essay that's even faintly obtuse or thickheaded, and in fact it's an insightful and useful exploration into 1963 Beatle songcraft by a very fine, if fatally academic, writer. We owe Mann an apology.) The book ends, of course, with anguished and still soul-wrenching outcries at Lennon's murder, from Philip Larkin, Peter Schickele, John Rockwell, and others.

We are given exerpts from the redoubtable John Lahr's Introduction to Joe Orton's Beatle screenplay, Up Against It, about the stillborn third Beatles movie. In the course of the exposition, we get a remarkable insight into the madhouse that surrounded the four Fauntleroys who were at the time busily, if largely unwittingly, redirecting the course of Western Civilization. (Fans of the extremely good Steven Frears film Prick Up Your Ears will be vaguely familiar with the outlines of this story.) Orton was asked by Shenson to read an existing script that the Beatles had commissioned but disliked, and provide suggestions for improvement. Orton, at the time tired of working on drafts of What the Butler Saw and looking for diversion, agreed. This is from his diary:
Like the idea. Basically it is that there aren't four young men. Just aspects of one man. Sounds dreary, but as I thought about it I realised what wonderful opportunities it would give. The end in the present script is the girl advancing on the four to accept a proposal of marriage from one of them (which, the script coyly says, we shall never know). Already have the idea that the end should be in a church with four bridegrooms and one bride.... Lots of opportunities for sexual ambiguities -- a woman's bedroom at night, her husband outside and four men inside....
Are you starting to see how this might have been just a wee bit more fun than Yellow Submarine?

Continues Lahr, "Shenson had promised to arrange a meeting between Orton and The Beatles. In his talk Orton heard the first seductive stroke of the movie rubdown, the slap and tickle of famous names and big paydays." [It's to be noted, Orton was at this time, despite his phenomenal success as a playwright, still earning £3/10 a week on the dole.]
"You'll be hearing either from Brian Epstein or Paul McCartney [Shenson told Orton on January 17]. So don't be surprised if a Beatle rings you up." "What an experience," I said. "I shall feel as nervous as I would if St. Michael, or God was on the line." "Oh, there's no need to be worried, Joe," Shenson said. "I can say, from my heart, that the boys are very respectful of talent.... I can really say that, Joe."
The Beatles called a week later, through Brian Epstein's "personal assistant" (a designation, Orton can't refrain from observing, that reminds him that the English have never got around to finding a respectable word for "boyfriend"). He was invited into the Epsteinian world of sumptuous Fabulousness:
Arrived in Belgravia at ten minutes to eight... I rang the bell and an old man entered. He seemed surprised to see me. "Is this Brian Epstein's house?" I said.... I suddenly realised that the man was the butler. I'd never seen one before.... He took me into a room and said in a loud voice, "Mr. Orton." Everybody looked up and stood to their feet. I was introduced to one or two people. And Paul McCartney. He was just as in the photographs. Only he'd grown a moustache.... He was playing the latest Beatles record, "Penny Lane." I liked it very much.
Joe and Macca got acquainted over a hobby they held in common -- and another they didn't:
We talked of drugs, of mushrooms which gave hallucinations -- like LSD. "The drug not the money," I said.... There was a little scratching at the door. I thought it was the old retainer, but someone got up to answer the door and about five very young and very pretty boys trouped in. I rather hoped this was the evening's entertainment. It wasn't, though. It was a pop group called the Easybeats.... I talked to the leading Easybeat, feeling slightly like an Edwardian masher with a Gaiety Girl. I had a last word with Paul M. "Well," I said," I'd like to do the film. There's only one thing we've got to fix up." "You mean the bread?" "Yes." We smiled and parted.
Orton accepted £5,000 for writing the first draft. In his approach to plotting, he was "inspired" by a novel he'd written but never published called The Vision of Gombald Proval. Some weeks later (February 11, 1967, a day that saw John Lennon overdubbing dialogue on the Richard Lester film, How I Won the War, according to Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Chronicle), Orton was summoned to Shenson's office to be admonished that "the boys" shouldn't be made to do anything in the film "that would reflect badly on them..." "You see," he was told, "the kids will imitate whatever the boys do."

Said Joe to his diary, "I hadn't the heart to tell him that the boys, in my script, have been caught in flagrante, become involved in dubious political activity, dressed as women, committed murder, been put in prison and committed adultery. And the script isn't finished yet. We parted...with the good as signed. And on my part, the film almost written."

History does not privilege us to know exactly who pulled the plug on the project and diverted resources and attention to the saccharine and just plain icky Yellow Submarine property instead. But Orton gives us this bit of calumny:
[Brian Epstein is] an amateur and a fool. He isn't equipped to judge the quality of a script. Probably he will never say "yes"; equally hasn't got the courage to say "no." A thoroughly weak and flaccid type.
The script was returned a few days later.
No explanation why. No criticism of the script. And apparently, Brian Epstein has no comment to make either. Fuck them.


Nobody said...

I've been reading about this script for years and have simply never come across a physical copy of it in my local library or bookshops, though I remember Neil Tennant referencing it a mid-90's interview that made me wonder how on earth the Beatles would have written any songs to fit a project so potentially offensive to so many people.

I read this link a while ago and had a chuckle to myself. Check it out. McCartney's quoted reason for turning down the film is pretty damn funny.

I agree. The Beatles *weren't* gay. However, 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' makes Kenneth Williams look like John Wayne. It's the fruitiest, minciest thing you'll get outside the Christmas Season.

Anonymous said...

They must've been passing around something good if he thought the Easybeats (including Angus and Malcolm Young's older brother George -- that's him on the left, I believe) were "young and pretty boys."


Bobby Lightfoot said...

This rules. Rules. This black 'n' white London Film and Art world intrigue is so Profumo to me.

I'm always amazed by these reports of Epstein as a fool. I always assume that the best band in the world would have the best manager; otherwise they'd never break in. It's hard for me, coming from my background, to understand a pop phenomenon as anything other than a marketing coup.

And the Beatles just weren't like that. Much.

Except that they had to release three times in the States to get any notice. And it wasn't until Capitol got behind them that a thing happened. And then Sullivan.

I love the Mann essay. I think these kids knew exactly what an Aeolian cadence was. They just called it "that thing". And a Neopolitan was "that other thing". And a Plagal was "that cool thing with the B minor where you keep an A on the bass".

>>>Simon---songs to fit a project so potentially offensive to so many people

Three words- "Venus And Mars"

I think the Easybeats look Pawzitively Sqruuuumptious.