The making of A Hard Day’s Night: “The fans had got hacksaws…”

The story behind The Beatles' landmark film debut

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Here’s our piece on the making of A Hard Day’s Night which originally appeared in the September 2014 edition of Uncut

The feature includes original interviews with director Richard Lester, associate producer Denis O’Dell and executive producer David Picker as well as cast members Pattie Boyd, Phil Collins and Lionel Blair: with a few words from The Beatles themselves…

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Looking back on his first meeting with The Beatles, film director Richard Lester remembers the unexpected topic of conversation that brought them together. “The boys found out that I was this pathetic jazz piano player,” he explains. “That gave them something to lord over me because I was the past and they were the future. John Lennon in particular hated jazz, and he told me that.”


When Lester met The Beatles in late 1963, the intention was to make a cheap, black-and-white jukebox movie to capitalise on the band’s extraordinary success. For his film, Lester assembled a remarkable cross section of talent – including Wilfred Brambell, Victor Spinetti, Pattie Boyd and Lionel Blair – who all witnessed first hand Beatlemania in full tilt. “It was becoming increasingly intense for the boys,” says Boyd, who met her future husband George Harrison on the film’s shoot.

Meanwhile Blair, an old friend of the band, recalls the logistical problems accompanying the shoot: “They couldn’t walk round the streets or anything. There were screaming girls everywhere.” But despite such obstacles, A Hard Day’s Night rose about the ruck of rock’n’roll exploitation movies: its sprightly blend of absurdist humour, French New Wave aesthetics and unshakable optimism enlivened the dreary cultural landscape of post-war Britain.

The soundtrack album, too, proved equally successful: the first album to feature all original Beatles compositions, it gave the band two No 1 singles on both sides of the Atlantic. Reflecting on what it was that made A Hard Day’s Night so remarkable, Richard Lester considers, “It was four people against the world and winning.”

“… by the end of the summer The Beatles might be a spent force…”
Brian Epstein is pitched the idea of a three-picture deal with The Beatles by American studio, United Artists. Goon Show affiliate Richard Lester is approached to direct…

RICHARD LESTER [DIRECTOR]: I first met The Beatles at The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue. They were doing a radio show. This was November, 1963. I’d just finished a film with United Artists [The Mouse On The Moon] and David Picker, the head of production there, had seen the Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film I’d made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He knew that John [Lennon] liked the Goon Show. It seemed a nice fit. UA wanted to make a very low budget black and white film, to start shooting in March, but it would have to be in cinemas in July because they felt that by the end of the summer The Beatles might be a spent force. So I was brought along to meet the band by [producer] Walter Shenson, with whom I’d made The Mouse On The Moon.

DAVID PICKER [EXECUTIVE PRODUCER]: My main responsibilities were working with the filmmakers and deciding what movies we were going to make. I was also responsible for our music and record operation. I said to our London office, if there were a couple of up-coming groups we could sign or make a relationship with, I’d be interested. One of the groups they recommended was The Beatles. I met Brian Epstein and we agreed to consider making some very low budget movies. Then they performed in front of The Queen at the Royal Command Performance and suddenly it wasn’t a little group from Liverpool. It was The Beatles, and we had ‘em.

DENIS O’DELL [ASSOCIATE PRODUCER]: I’d be away filming and I hadn’t much heard abut The Beatles. United Artists asked me if I would do this cheap film with a new pop group. I said I wasn’t really interested, but my children asked who the band was. I said it as some pop group called The Beatles and they all went mad: “You said no to it?” I called back and contracted with UA for six or seven weeks.

RICHARD LESTER: Johnny Speight was my first choice for writer, but he had other commitments. I’d worked with Alun Owen before, in the very beginnings of television. Alun had written No Trams To Lime Street, as John said, “The trouble with you, Alun, is that you’re a professional Scouser.” Alun at least had the courage to say, “It’s better than being an amateur one.”

DAVID PICKER: We shared publishing. We had the soundtrack album. The thing that made United Artists a very attractive place for some filmmakers is that once we agreed on a budget and on a script we left them totally alone. They had final cut as long as they stayed on budget.

DENIS O’DELL: From memory, I think the budget was £200,000 but I managed to bring it in for well under that. From memory again, The Beatles were paid £40,000 collectively. The deal with United Artists and Brian Epstein? I think Brian just agreed to everything that UA said. I’ll give you an example of how you worked with Brian. When we did How I Won The War, I went to see him in his office because we were a bit short on the budget. I said, “Do you think John will play a part?” He said, “Why don’t you go and ask him, he’s in the next office.” So I went and asked John and John said, “Yeah, yeah. I could do it, Denis. Yeah.” That was a deal with Brian.

RICHARD LESTER: In February 1964, we went to Paris with the boys when they were playing with Francoise Hardy at the Olympia. That was a key moment. They took a suite of rooms at the George V. Alun Owen and myself had rooms with them. The film was writing itself as we went. You got that sense of being told where to go, what to do, and being pursued a lot. We watched how they went from the car to the hotel, and the hotel to the Olympia and back and then to a club. We wrote a script to ask them to do things they knew. Messing about in hotel rooms with large blondes. Those elements of being let a bit off the leash and then being tugged back is very much a part of the early sequences of the film. They’re in low rooms, trains with low ceilings, being told what to do and organised.

“… They had this ability to find people that they thought weren’t going to do them down….”
Monday, March 2, 1964. The Beatles join actors’ union Equity minutes before starting work on their first film. Cast and crew head off from platform 5 at Paddington station as shooting begins…

DENIS O’DELL: In the original script, all those scenes with The Beatles on the train were written as rear projection. I suggested to Richard quietly, “If I could get a real train, what do you think about the idea of shooting on that?” I spent the next two weeks arguing with British Rail to get the train. Then I had to get almost a private line so we could use a train as and when we wanted it. I got little platforms made up for the camera to go up and down the corridor of the train.

RICHARD LESTER: There were no rehearsals, everything started on March 2. By the time we started shooting, The Beatles had gone to America and done the Ed Sullivan Show. The film was already in profit because of advanced sales of the album. We started with them running for the train with about 500 people screaming after them.

PAUL McCARTNEY (1964): The film virtually opens with our departures from somewhere like Liverpool to somewhere like London, and that’s how we come to be on the train.

PATTIE BOYD [ACTRESS]: I was working as a fashion model. I got a phone call from my agent asking if I had my porfolio with me. If so, would I go to an address in Soho for a go-see. I went and there were loads of girls in the same room, waiting. We were called in and I saw Dick Lester, who I’d met on a TV commercial. Later that afternoon my agent phoned and said I had a part in the Beatles film! I did two days on set. We got the train from London to Cornwall and back. We got on at Paddington. After about twenty minutes, we stopped at a very small station, there were only four people on the platform – it was The Beatles. They came into our carriage – there were four of us girls, all dressed in school uniforms. They drew back the glass door and introduced themselves. It was so charming. The energy was explosive as they came in smiling and laughing.

RICHARD LESTER: I thought they were extraordinarily like each other. And that they liked each other. They protected each other. If one of them was down a bit, they would take over and protect them. Two or three nights later someone else would be down and they would pick them up. We tried to artificially create a difference between the four, so each had a unique characteristic. It’s probably apocryphal, but George was the mean one, they picked on Ringo, John was cynical and Paul was cute. It was something to hang things on. In real life, John was not known to suffer fools. I think I probably fell into the fool category. I have wounds, but I have huge admiration for John. I hope I formed a relationship with all of them. They had this ability to find people that they thought weren’t going to do them down. I spent a lot of time with John and was never less than impressed. How was it to direct Paul? I think the problem with Paul is he is so enthusiastic towards what’s going on, that it got in the way. Sometimes he tried harder than he should have. George was the most effective actor all the way through in that he attempted less but he always hit it right in the centre.

PATTIE BOYD: The shoot took over two or three carriages. The boys didn’t hide away. They were mixing quite a lot. I think the train stopped for lunchtime. I remember going to sit with George. We were talking quite a bit. For some reason I imagined that he’d want to sit with the others but he said, “Come on, let’s sit here.” I thought he was really, really good looking. He wasn’t as vocal as John and Paul were; they seemed to behave in a more clownish way. George was quieter, more my level because I’m very shy.

RINGO STARR (1964): In the film, John is going to play mouth-organ for the first time in ages. He’ll do it during a number called “I Should Have Known Better”, which we’ll probably use in the guard’s van scene.

DENIS O’DELL: I first met them on the train, on the first day of shooting. They seemed like a really nice bunch of young fellas for musicians. They were very polite. I was on set almost all the time. It turned out to be quite a dangerous operation. Kids were jumping in front of the bloody train to try and stop it.

“… 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.

“… Dad! We got the horse…”
Shooting finishes on April 24. The film receives two premiers – one at the London Pavilion (July 6) and one at the Odeon Cinema, Liverpool (July 10). The film takes $20,000 in its first week at the Pavilion; there are 1,600 prints in circulation. The soundtrack album, released on July 10, enters the charts at No 3: kept off the top spot by Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones.

RICHARD LESTER: It was rushed. There wasn’t a lot of time to sit and chat. We only had three and a half weeks to dub the film, cut the negative and get our showprint ready for the premier at the London Pavilion. The film was in 10 minute reels. If something went wrong with the take, you’d have to stop, take all the reels off the projectors, put them on a bench and rewind them back to zero. In the dubbing theatre, we marked out a badminton court using camera tape. We had a league going in the ten minutes it took to rewind all these bloody bits of film. At that point, we showed it to United Artists, who hadn’t seen a frame of it.

DAVID PICKER: I didn’t see the movie until it was finished. We didn’t even look at dailies. It was simply the way we operated. I first saw A Hard Day’s Night in London in a small screening room.

DENIS O’DELL: All the executives were sitting in the projection room. I’m not sure if Richard was there, he was a bit shy about these things. To my astonishment, at the end of the film, I think it was [UA vice-president] Arnold Picker’s wife who said, “I think it’s lovely but we’ll have to dub the film. I can’t understand a word they say.” Can you believe dubbing The Beatles? It was extraordinary. These guys were powerful people.

RICHARD LESTER: We showed them the film in a cinema in Curzon Street and at the end they all thought it was terrific and they all – from United Artists – agreed that as soon as we could dub it, it would be terrific. We all said, “No.”

DAVID PICKER: Was there any concern about the accents? Why, no.

RICHARD LESTER: I went to the London premier at the Pavilion. They had an organist playing Beatles hits, with a spotlight on him. The lights were just about to go down, the film was about to start, but he hadn’t finished. I had made sure that there were no credits or titles before the first chord that opens “A Hard Day’s Night”. But this mighty Wurlizter was still finishing off his version of “Can’t By Me Love” and ran over it. We heard nothing during the film. There was wall to wall screening for 90 minutes.

PATTIE BOYD: I didn’t go to the premier. Brian Epstein was so keen on promoting The Beatles as single guys so they could be potentially available to their fans. Even though George and I were going out, Brian invited Hayley Mills to accompany George to the premier. She was the young English actress, it would have been a good look.

DENIS O’DELL: The premiers were incredible. While we were filming at the Scala, Paul had said to me, “It’s my dad’s birthday and I don’t know what to get him.” I bred race horses as a hobby. I said to Paul, ‘Does your dad ever have a bet? My father used to have a shilling each way on horses. Why don’t you buy him a race horse?’ Paul said, ‘Where do you get ‘em? How much do you pay for one?’ So I bought a horse called Drake’s Drum. I had a trainer in the north of England, a very straight, proper military man. He looked after the horse for a couple of months. Then Paul asked me to get a painting of the horse – ‘Drake’s Drum, Owned By James McCartney’. At the party after the premier, Paul called me over to join the band and one or two other people as Jim McCartney received his birthday present, wrapped in brown paper. He unwrapped it, looked at the painting and said in amazement, “What’s this?” I said to Paul, “Did you tell your dad we’ve got the horse?” “Oh, no! I forgot. Dad, we got the horse!” The horse won or three races afterwards, so that was a great success.

RICHARD LESTER: There was another premier in Liverpool, but I’d gone on holiday by then.

DENIS O’DELL: The biggest premier was in Liverpool. I’ve never seen so many people turn up in my life. It was amazing. We charted a train. All of us went up by train. There were thousands and thousands of people on the sidewalks from the railway station up the town hall. We were standing with the mayor and The Beatles on the balcony of the town hall and I couldn’t believe the amount of people we could see.

LIONEL BLAIR: I went to the premier in Liverpool. We went to the town hall. There was a balcony. We all walked out, even me. There were thousands there, screaming. Before the film started, they said, “We’ve got some of the people who were in the cast.” I went up on stage, and they went mad for everybody. Everybody that was associated with them, they went crazy for.

DENIS O’DELL: There was such a burst of interest, before we’d even finished it. I ended up running around the country delivering prints to the cinemas for UA to save time. They couldn’t get it out quick enough. What did the boys think of the film? They loved it, of course. Some years ago we went to a showing of it. Paul was there. We had a laugh about it. I think we did about eight pictures together, Richard and I. And my association with The Beatles went on for six or seven years.

RICHARD LESTER: How do I feel about the film now? I knew while we were filming, probably the second week, that one day in fiftysomething years time, if I fell under a bus and died the newspaper headlines would say, “Beatles director in death drama”, no matter what else I did. And that has absolutely come out to be the way it’s been. If I managed to produce the way I felt about them on the screen in a way that holds up, I’m just grateful. They were a marvellous part of my life.

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