Monday, January 10, 2011

TV Bites: A Hard Day's Night

Scouse (Beef & Lamb Stew) w/ Sir Paul McCartney's Mashed Potatoes

Earlier last year, the Vatican decided to "forgive" the Beatles with this odd pronouncement written in the L'Osservatore Romano, the official Pope newsletter: "It's true they took drugs, lived life to excess because of their success, even said they were bigger than Jesus and put out mysterious messages that were possibly even Satanic, [but] what would pop music have been like without the Beatles?"

Sure they did all sorts of things the Church condemns and would demand a tsunami of penance if one of their followers committed such acts, but hey, they sung Yellow Submarine, right? Madness, my friends, it's a world gone mad.

So, a few years ago, Sir Paul McCartney was on tour and passing through Dallas. A friend of mine was his tour manager and I asked her if it was possible to get me backstage to meet him as it would be my birthday and all. (I had met Ringo about 10 years earlier and missed meeting Lennon in the early 70's when he was recording with Elephant's Memory by a few minutes.) She told me it would pretty near impossible and so I passed on driving 3+ hours to go.

About four months later, I was on the small East African island of Zanzibar and decided to go to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner with my friend Neil. In the middle of dinner, in walked Paul with his then-wife Heather. To make a long story short, we went over and I said, "I just want to thank you, I think, for everything." He smiled and explained that he & Heather were vacationing on nearby Pemba Island. We chatted a bit like four tourists, then I found myself babbling about how I had hoped to meet him just four months earlier. When he found out I knew his tour manager whom we all adore, we were now friends. He asked me then that since I didn't get to see him for my birthday, would I like for him to sing to me now. I bounced my head up and down and he began to sing "O Solo Mio" to me. At that moment, the waiter brought them their food, we excused ourselves and calmly walked down the stairs to the exit. Once on the street, we began to squeal like a couple of 13 year-old girls and ran to the nearest Internet Cafe to email everyone we knew how we met Paul McCartney in a Chinese restaurant in Zanzibar. Life doesn't get any more perfect than that.

The film is availabe to stream for FREE via Hulu and Veoh and is rentable via Netflix.


"Lookit, I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery and so far I've been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room. Maybe that's all right for a bunch of powdered gewgaws like you. But I'm feeling decidedly straight-jacketed."

The above quote cuts to the heart of what A Hard Day’s Night is about. Writer Alun Owen was sent by producer Walter Shenson to explore what a day in the life of the Beatles was like as a possible story line for the movie and what he found was: “We went right from the hotel, straight to a press reception, straight to the theater, and at no time were they actually allowed to enjoy what was supposed to be their success.”

When Alun came back,” Shenson said, “he said basically the Beatles were prisoners of their success.”

Well I thought, God, this goes on every day of their life,” continued Owen. “And if one could compress this feeling of claustrophobia; there’s a price to pay for that sort of success. You see them running from place to place, doing things and things, but at the same time being impelled. And the only freedom they ever actually get is when they start to play their music. And then their faces light up. And they’re happy. But mostly they’re confined.”

That simple but perfect story line took away the distance between them and us. They didn’t have swell heads. They weren’t seeking out all this attention. They were just sweet good-natured lads who want to sing us songs. It deflected their detractors and endeared the fans even more to them.

For a while we had been thinking about making a film,” said Paul. “We’d seen those little American productions and, although they were low budget and not very good, they did have music and we always went to see them.... So we wanted to be in one, but we wanted it to be a good one. Most [scripts people brought to us] were knocked together with a loose story about a DJ who has to go around with a band. They were terrible stories.”

[A]nd then Walter Shenson, the producer came along, and with Dick Lester, the director, and we liked them immediately,” remembered George. “They had good ideas. We all got together and they said they wanted a film that we would all enjoy making and enjoy seeing in the end. So we just waited until this offer came along and we did that.”

Shenson had proven himself to be a competent producer who worked well with the British with films like The Mouse That Roared. The record division of United Artists asked him if he would be interested in doing a film with the Beatles. They told him, “We need a film for the express purpose of having a soundtrack album.” Shenson said he'd do it and noted the execs only instructions were to, "Just make sure there are enough new songs by the Beatles for an album... and don’t go over budget.

But this was in the fall of 1963. The Beatles were still just a British oddity and hadn’t yet invaded America’s shores. Richard Lester, another American living in England, was Shenson's choice for director. Also, Lester had worked on The Goon Show television program, whom the Beatles were fans of and so immediately trusted Lester to direct.

"He’d worked with the Goons,” said Paul. “That was enough for us.”

We were the sons of the Goon Show,” added John. “We were of an age. We were the extension of that rebellion, in a way.”

The deal was made and the Beatles then went off to the Caribbean to recreate but also write songs for the movie. Then they headed to New York to play the Ed Sullivan Show which quickly made them more than a passing fad, and into a worldwide phenomenon. (In passing, I'll note that I think one reason the Beatles were so taken in by America because it was only 4 months since the assassination of John Kennedy and the Beatles projected a lightness and positivity that American youths were welcome to latch on to.) The Beatles then returned to London to begin working on the film.

John once remarked: "Alun Owen was a bit phoney.... He stayed with us for two days and wrote the whole thing based on our characters then: mine - witty, Ringo - dumb & cute; George this, Paul that.”

I think this says more about Lennon than it does anything else. In another interview, he noted, however, "[It] was a comic-strip version of what was actually going on.... It was a good projection of one facade of us - on tour, in London, and in Dublin. It was of us in that situation together, having to perform before people. We were like that."

To me it is Owen's brilliance in that he figured out quite quickly that he needed to distill the Beatles' characters into easy to digest archetypes that would endear them to audiences.

Paul had a more realistic take: "Alun picked up lots of little things about us.... Little jokes, the sarcasm, the humor, John’s wit, Ringo’s laconic manner, each of our different ways. The film manages to capture our characters quite well, because Alun was careful to try to put words into our mouths that he might have heard us speak."

In a sense, it hearkens back to the idea of being victims of their own celebrity in that they felt they weren't able to show the world different aspects of their personalities (and John more than any of the others would always seek to rebel against his Beatle persona). Once the public saw A Hard Day's Night, they would always be seen through that lens. But such was the success they had.

George sums it up best: "I think that was an important part of the Beatles - people associate humor with us. When all the new bands first came out - Gerry & the Pacemakers and others - nobody could tell who was who; one hit was the same as another, everybody got the same amount of coverage.... And in our case, the humor was made even stronger by the fact that there were four of us bouncing off one another. If one dried up, somebody else was already there with another fab quip."

In general, the boys had a great time making the film, even though at first they were pretty terrified they'd look like a bunch of amateurs. George said, "None of us rate ourselves as actors, but, you know, it’s a good laugh and we enjoy doing it."

While people often think the whole film was improvised, Owen had crafted a script that felt like it was, but wasn't. However, the Beatles were invited to ad-lib, something John was best at, and a few scenes, like the press conference was actually filled with real press and we got to see the Beatles answering questions off the cuff the way they had become used to in "real life."

"I didn’t care whether we got everything right, what I wanted to do was catch the moment," said director Lester about the film.

Another example, is the scene of Ringo on his own, having various adventures around London. "I had come directly to work from a nightclub (very unprofessional) and was a little hungover to say the least. Dick Lester had all his people there and the kid that was I supposed to be doing the scene with, but I had no brain. I’d gone," Ringo recalled. "We tried it several ways. They tried it with the kid doing his lines and someone off camera shouting mine. Then they had me doing the lines of the kid and the kid going ‘blah, blah, blah.' Or me saying, 'And another thing, little guy....' I was so out of it. They said, 'Well, let’s do anything.’ I said, ‘Let me just walk around and you film me’ and that’s what we did. And why I look so cold and dejected is because I felt like shit. There’s no acting going on. I felt that bad."

Now there are three versions I found of how the film got its title. Actually, it's the same story but in Walter Shenson's and Paul's version, Shenson's the one who suggests the title and in John's version, it's Dick Lester.

Basically, it goes like this - Ringo was famous amongst the Beatles for his use of malapropisms which the band had dubbed "Ringoisms," and several times became song titles, including "Eight Days a Week" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." John mentions how Ringo does this and either Shenson or Lester asks for an example. John, who had previously used the Ringoism "a hard day's night" in his book of short stories, In His Own Write, said that. And either Shenson or Lester said that it sounded like a good title for the movie.

"The following morning at 8 o’clock, we were still filming in the studio," said Shenson, "and John & Paul summon me up to their dressing room. They were siting there with their guitars at the ready and on the dressing table there was a matchbook with the lyrics of a Hard Day’s Night. And they sang and played A Hard Day’s Night for me. And remember I just asked for this the night before. Think about it – getting a hit song on demand."

Two bits of trivia. (1) one of the kids in the audience at the theater is a prepubescent Phil Collins. (2) one of the girls they talk to on the train is Patti Boyd who went on to marry George, later divorcing him and marrying Eric Clapton. Rumor has it that the song "Layla," is about her.

The film received two Oscar nominations: Alun Owen was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and George Martin for Best Music Adaptation. All four Beatles were nominated for BAFTA awards for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles and the score was nominated for a Grammy.


The cool thing about this Background & Context section is that I can basically write about whatever strikes my fancy as long as it gives you some insight into something related to the movie. At first, I thought I'd take maybe a sociological look at Beatlemania and whatever scientific research has been done to explore just what exactly happens to young teenage girls that turns them into a pack of wild she-beasts. As Rolling Stone Keith Richards explains in his autobiography: "It was all dripping with sexual lust, though they didn't know what to do about it. It's a frenzy. Once it's let out, it's an incredible force. You stood as much chance in a f--king river full of piranhas.... These chicks were coming out there, bleeding, clothes torn off, pissed panties, and you took that for granted every night. It was the gig." But then, really, I just wanted to get that quote in more than anything.

I changed my mind when I stumbled on the following quote. George Harrison had met actor Victor Spinetti after seeing him on stage in Oh, What a Lovely War!, and told him: "You've got to be in our movie, you've got to be in all our films ... if you're not in them me Mum won't come and see them — because she fancies you." And indeed, Spinetti is not just in A Hard Day's Night (he plays the TV show director), but also in Help! and Magical Mystery Tour. And so I thought, why not do a little bit on Mr. Spinetti?

Now I just got off the phone with a friend in London who was friends with Victor through an old girlfriend and told me a really - as they say over there - "cheeky" story about Victor, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton at the premiere of The Return of the Pink Panther (@2:34), but we'll save that for another day...

Of Welsh and Italian descent, Tony award winning actor Victor Spinetti has appeared in over 30 films, and countless theatrical productions and television programs, but is probably most known for his association with the Beatles. He is certainly one of the many "5th Beatles" in my opinion. In addition to appearing in the trio of films noted above, he co-authored and performed with John Lennon in, as well as directed, the theatrical adaptation of Lennon's collection of short stories In His Own Write.

Spinetti has so many wonderful stories about his relationship with the Beatles. And rather than try to transcribe them all, give yourself a treat and watch this 3-part video at YouTube. But here's just one which he uses to illustrate the different personalities of the Beatles (as we discussed above) as he saw them....

"When we were filming, I got the flu. And the Beatles came to the hotel to visit me, each in their own turn. The first to arrive was George Harrison, who knocked on the door, came in and said, 'I've come to plump your pillows, Vic. Whenever anyone is ill in bed they have to have their pillows plumped.' So he plumped my pillows and then he left. Ringo came in next, sat down by the bed, picked up the hotel menu and said: 'Once upon a time there were three bears, mummy bear, daddy bear and baby bear...' And then he left. John Lennon came in shouting 'Sieg Heil, Schweinehund! The doctors are here, they are coming to experiment upon you, Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!' And he left. Finally, Paul McCartney opened the door and said, 'Is it catching?' I said 'Yes.' And he closed the door and I never saw him again."


"Scouse" is a word with two meanings, but both related to the natives of Liverpool. The first is their accent. Wikipedia calls it "highly distinctive," and "is noted for a fast, highly accented manner of speech, with a range of rising and falling tones not typical of most of northern England."

An article in the North Wales Daily Post notes that it is "[a]rguably one of the most well recognized [accents] in the world, many myths surround its creation, from the discarded theory that bad air conditions caused by burning coal led to a thickening of the vocal chords, to the more common idea that it arose from a mixture of accents entering the city through the port."

However, "[i]t was in 1963-64 that Scouse entered into a modern mythology, as the result of the rise to fame of The Beatles," says this article. "The Scouse inflection contributed to their distinctive image. It associated them with a particular location, and stories of the 'Liverpool sound' and the 'sound of Scouse' dominated the British media." And indeed, to those of us not in the UK, it was virtually unknown to our ears before then.

The second meaning of "Scouse" is culinary. Again, according to Wikipedia: "The word comes from lobscouse (originally lob's course) or lapskaus, Norwegian for 'stew' and refers to a meat based stew commonly eaten by sailors throughout Northern Europe, which became popular in seaports such as Liverpool.... [It] is still a popular dish in Liverpool, where it is a staple of local pub and café menus...."

Now according to Liverpudlian expert Ken Pye, "Under no circumstances though, should you drink lager with your Scouse; that is a heresy!" He recommends, "A good, large mug of steaming, strong, Yorkshire Tea; or a large glass of full-bodied red wine are good accompaniments. However, best of all is a huge glass of your favourite British beer, such as Newcastle Brown, Ruddles, Flowers Bitter, Old Speckled Hen, Bombardier, London Pride, Bishops Finger, or Beamish Red." I've taken it a step further by pouring some Newcastle into the stew.

Back when the "Lads from Liverpool" were making A Hard Day's Night, they hadn't yet met any gurus nor probably any vegetarians. So, rather than turn up their noses at today's snack (meal, actually), they probably would have dove straight in.

The idea for this whole post came from viewing this crazy video of Sir Paul demonstrating how to make mashed potatoes and then figuring I could do a somewhat deconstructed Scouse, which is usually made with potatoes in the stew, but in our case, I've removed the potatoes and prepared them separately, then brought them back together for serving.

I know that I had a wonderful winter's afternoon transporting myself back to 1963 with the Beatles and bowl of Scouse. I hope you enjoy it, as well. As always - cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Scouse (Beef & Lamb Stew) w/ Sir Paul McCartney's Mashed Potatoes
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Serves 4

(um, kind of went overboard with leftover parsley, please ignore)

1/2 pound lamb stew meat, cubed
1/2 pound beef stew meat, cubed
flour, for dusting meat
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 large onion, peeled & halved
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
1 large parsnip, cut into chunks
1 cup beef stock
1 bottle (12 oz) Newcastle Brown Ale, room temp
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground thyme
salt and pepper, to taste

Dust meat with flour. Heat oil in medium pot and brown meat in batches. Remove meat from pot.

Remove pan from heat and add remaining ingredients, as well as salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil, then lower to simmer (adding meat back in) for 1 1/2 hours.

Serve over mashed potatoes.

For Potatoes:
Adapted from this video
serves 4

3 to 4 Idaho/russet potatoes, peeled and cubed (depending on size)
1/4 cup onion, diced
4 tablespoons margarine or butter
1/4 cup skim or soy milk
sea salt, to taste

Peel potatoes and keep in ice bath until ready. Boil in heavily salted water, cook for 20 minutes, or until done.

Peel and dice onions.

Drain out water and mash potatoes until there are no lumps.

Add margarine or butter (Sir Paul says margarine, then says butter... old habits. me like butter.)

Sir in onion. Salt to taste.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley, if you so desire.

Official Beatles Page
A Hard Day's Night screenplay
The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1964
Filmmaker Alan Arkush discusses A Hard Day's Night @ Trailers from Hell
Interview with Producer Walter Shenson @ Salon

A Hard Day's Night DVD
Amazon's Beatle CD/MP3 Store
The Making of A Hard Day's Night - Documentary DVD
The Beatles Anthology - Documentary DVD
The Beatles - The First U.S. Visit - Documentary by the Maysles Brothers DVD
Beatle Books @ Amazon
Up Front: His Strictly Confidential Autobiography, by Victor Spinetti

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