It's 'Yesterday' once more as the Fab Four make television history.
Most people of my generation have a story about the impact of the Beatles on their youth. You'll be relieved to hear that I'm not about to share mine. Suffice to say that 'The Beatles Anthology' was always going to be a babyboomer classic, whatever they did. So its a bonus that the series was so good. It was one-sided and uncritical. It was also, ultimately, revealing, funny, beautifully crafted social history. Quality televison invariably breaks all the rules about what makes quality televison.
Never have potentially boring things such as talking heads and distorted old recordings, visually aided by nothing but a vintage tape recorder spinning in an empty room, better been used. Unlike other recent PR events involving other major talents of our age, such as Princess Di and Lisa Marie Presley, there were no shock revelations, no salicious sexual content. Paul McCartney, on the Hamburg years, saying cheerfully, "To be suddenly involved with hard-core striptease artists who obviously knew a thing or two about sex was a real eye-opener" was about as salicious as it got. This was an official biography.
And no-one, least of all the Beatles themselves, could explain Beatlemania. Then series is content to let a picture build, uncluttered by too much analysis. The music mostly stands the test of time. But, as various Beatles pointed out, when things were really crazy, no one came to hear them. Images from the early years make the emotional feed-back loop that developed between the Beatles and their increasingly hysterical audience visible. There was the look of incredulous delight on the faces of the group in those early performances. Then answering incredulous delight from the audience as their idols responded. It was a simple and inexplicable as a love affair.
The ghost of another phenomenon, Elvis, hovers tellingly in the background. "Now that's a good job," John Lennon recalls thinking when, as a young lad, he saw the reaction Elvis got from movie audiences. I wonder if, at that moment, Elvis felt four younger, but similarly talented and charming pop gods walking over his grave.
The series is inevitably as much about the nature of reality and the subjectivity of history as it is about the Fab Four. And the editing makes the most of the ironies. George is talking about the visit to the Palace to collect their MBEs. They went off to the loo for a smoke. Years later, John told the press they had been smoking dope. "But we never," says George. Cut to Ringo. "I was too stoned to remember." Brilliant.
Paul used to be known as the 'cute one'. After this, he could well be known as the 'defensive one'. It was put about, he observed, that he had been responsible for getting the group out of leather and into those ridiculous suits. But he never. Funny the things that still rankle when one is a multi-millionaire. It has obviously also been put about that he was a bit up himself. "George was one and a half years younger," he admitted, "so I suppose I used to talk down to him a little bit...It might have been a failing of mine to tend to talk down to him as a younger kid." George's version? "He was always nine months older than me. He's still nine months older than me!" The interviews with the surviving Beatles were informed by this sense that there are multiple versions of everything.
George, the worried one, talks about the time America offered them a tickertape parade. No way. "It only seemed like a year since the assasination of Kennedy." Cut to Ringo for his recollection of that particular tour: "it was just so much fun," he said, all the partying and sex the official version left out, evident in his gleeful tone.
The project is mercifully free of sentimentally, but big on poignancy, especially when it comes to John Lennon's prickly absence. He emerges, even in the early clips, as the most distanced. His body language and wisecraks are a little arrogant, a little angry. How does he think the group will go in America, asks an earnest reporter. "Well, I can't really say, can I? Is it up to me? No."
There were brilliant sequences, like the Shea Stadium concert that, with no voice-overs and sometimes almost no sound at all, showed just how huge and how mad it got, with fans all but committing hara-kiri as John and George laughed so hard they could barely sing.
It was all near perfect, in part because the makers seemed so aware of the limitations of what could have been just another nostalgia fest. At one point, as Beatlemania is becoming international, a sweet-faced Liverpool fan talks about wanting things back the way they were when the boys were down at the Cavern. "Please let them come back to us just once, just to be the same as they used to be..." Cut to Ringo: "Its impossible to go home."
Diana Wichtel was voted the 1995 'Columnist of the Year' by 'The Listener'
Published as a 'TV Review' in 'The Listener', January 6 1996, New Zealand.
Thanks to Malcolm Atkinson for this article.