The story behind The Beatles' landmark film debut
“… The fans had got hacksaws…”
Lionel Blair and Phil Collins are among those who witness over-zealous fans disrupting the shoot. Filming locations include The Scala Theatre, where the band’s TV concert takes place…
RICHARD LESTER: We couldn’t control the crowd. It became impossible to shoot. Every day we got one take. We got police permission to shoot in whichever street. We’d do Take 1 and suddenly 2,000 kids would arrive from nowhere. I think we had a mole in our production department. The police would rip up the permit and we’d have to go off and find a street six blocks away and hope we could get another take in before they found us again. It was total guerrilla filmmaking.
DENIS O’DELL: I knew shooting exteriors would be a problem. I arranged the schedule so we did half a day on location and half a day in the studios. I was aware there was a studio in Twickenham that had closed. It was 15 minutes from the London, so it would be easy to dive in there when we were in trouble. I talked to Ken Shipman, who owned the studios, and I agreed to rent them. It worked out so well. I had the idea of filming the television show scenes at the old Scala Theatre on Charlotte Street. I took a week’s lease on the theatre and we moved in there: lock, stock and barrel.
GEORGE HARRISON (1964): When we get to the big city we have to make our way to a television studio for a bit of a show – and that’s where the speciality acts like Lionel Blair Dancers come in.
LIONEL BLAIR [TV CHOREOGRAPHER]: I worked with The Beatles on Big Night Out with Mike and Bernie Winters up in Manchester. Then when Big Night Out came to London, they were our first guests. We filmed at Teddington Studios and the girls were waiting there from Saturday night for them to arrive. They came up the river in a boat then we had an open car to take them into the studio. As they got in, a girl got out of the crowd and threw herself inside the car. I said to her, “Why are you here?” She said, “We want to breathe the same air they are.” Anyway, I knew Dick Lester, and he said, “We’d love you in it, because there’s a scene where they’re supposed to be at the Palladium so we’d like you and your dancers in it.” That was at the Scala.
RICHARD LESTER: When we were shooting in La Scala Theatre, the fans had got hacksaws and sawed through the iron bars of the fire escape doors.
DENIS O’DELL: There was one situation where the kids had gotten a ladder and climbed out on the roof to try and get in the roof of the Scala as I’d had it barred up there to stop intruders.
PHIL COLLINS [EXTRA]: I had just started going to the Barbara Speake Stage School in East Acton. One of the first jobs I got sent out on was with about 20 or 30 other kids from the school. We didn’t know where we were going or what it was for. We arrived at the Scala. There were loads of other kids there from other stage schools. We traipsed into the theatre and saw The Beatles drum kit on stage. Then suddenly they rushed out and lip-synched. They did “She Loves You” – although I don’t know if that was in the movie – “Tell Me Why”, “I Should Have Known Better”, all that stuff.
RICHARD LESTER: I met George Martin about half way through. I was given a group of 10 songs and chose the eight that I wanted because I thought they would fit the rhythms of the film. Then we put old bits of the songs when we needed them. When they’re playing the songs in the film, they were working to play back. I was slightly miffed in the end that George wrote two and a half minutes of background music and got an Academy Award nomination.
LIONEL BLAIR: One thing I remember was there was a piano on the set and Paul was fiddling around. He wrote “Yesterday”. On set, we’d fool around. They wanted them to do dance steps. I said to Paul, “Look, let’s do this…” and he said, “No, I don’t want to do any dance steps, Lionel!” They never did. Dance, that is.
RICHARD LESTER: The boys were pretty well behaved. One day, John was too hungover to turn up. So I borrowed his shoes and operated the camera. I started with my feet and then panned up to the other three. We had to do things like that to keep going because we had a very short schedule. I wasn’t surprised by their ease in front of the cameras. I think performers are performers, and we were only asking them to do things they were comfortable with. They’d done press conferences, they’d done shows, they’d been in hotel rooms, they’d gone to nightclubs. There were a few lines that were improvised. But most of the dialogue in the film was written down.
DENIS O’DELL: They had a very busy schedule, but it didn’t make any difference to them at all. They just sailed through what they had to do on a day and spent most of the nights at nightclubs. They were very professional for youngsters who’d never seen a film studio in their lives.