Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour

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Ringo, George, John and Paul  in the Magical Mystery Tour 

When I sat down to watch the original TV screening of  The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour on Boxing Day back in 1967 I was a month shy  my  seventeenth birthday, had yet to experience any hallucinogenic drugs, was still largely ignorant of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and knew little of the West Coast acid tests or the European avant garde.  No wonder the experience left me confused and a little disappointed.  Not that I admitted it at the time of course. Like all of my friends I had been thrilled to get the chance to watch a Beatles film on prime-time telly. Sandwiched between Petula Clark and Norman Wisdom on BBC 1 on a Christmas bank holiday evening when there was really little else to do but watch the box. It had a captive audience. Everyone would be tuning in but, unfortunately for the Beatles, only a tiny minority would also be turning on and dropping out. 


The film was broadcast in grainy black and white, making  its carefully contrived trippy colour filter effects not only pointless but something that actually degraded an already diminished viewing experience.  The storyline such as it was - The Beatles going on a magical mystery charabang tour with a group of  strange friends and hangers on -  was held together with largely improvised set pieces played out by the fab four and a handful of actors and extras including Ivor Cutler, Nat Jackley and Victor Spinetti. There were six new songs but only I Am The Walrus was seriously innovative. The backlash from middle England was swift and savage. They hated everything about it. Teenagers like me meanwhile were desperate to love this crazy film but despite talking it up  we knew in our heart of hearts that, even though it had had its moments, that this was a project that was either badly flawed or, worse still, we just didn't get it.

Seeing it again last night, 45 years down the line, Magical Mystery Tour  made a whole lot more sense. Not only had the film been restored and remastered but it was now being screened in colour. It's influences may have become clear years ago but by the time people like me  become well versed in anarchic art school happenings, the joys of experimental music, film and art  and the interesting effects of mind-altering drugs the idealism of the 1960s was  giving way to the helter-skelter hedonistm of the seventies.  At the turn of the decade The Beatles were in meltdown. The Magical Mystery Tour was a thing of the past. 

It is only now perhaps that its influence on popular culture can be properly gauged. It may have been shot on the cheap (£40,000 not very wisely spent) but it excited people like Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg who were thrilled at the sudden realisation that you didn't have to stick to any rules when you made movies. Much of the acting was wooden, the design virtually non-existent and the costumes pathetically cheap but it did have a real sense of freedom about it . In 1967 it was difficult for a self-concious teen to understand this mash-up of psychedelic revery, seaside postcard humour, music hall entertainment and Buneul inspired surrealism, particularly as it was being delivered by the nation's favourite pop group.

 The Beatles had of come a very long way since recording Love Me Do just five years earlier. The fans striuggled to keep up. Of course I bought Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and  joined the Flower Power revolution like everyone else but really at that stage the bells, beads and home-made kaftan were little more than fancy dress and a nod of recognitioin to snippets of information read in newspapers and seen on TV.   I now know everything about the London counter-culture, the Indica bookshop, Fluxus, the International Times, Robert Fraser, Allen Ginsberg…you name it. Back then  the way I dressed, the places I went and the bands I saw probably marked me out as being an insider. the truth was I was just another suburban schoolboy stating a lifestyle preference.

Victor Spinetti2

So for me the Magical Mystery Tour revisited finally scores because it is now possible to see its what an important position it holds in the history of  popular culture. It wasn't a great work of art but it was fun and kicked open a lot of  doors. It also has  one or two great moments  like the brilliant Spinetti (above and left) who appeared as a crazed Army recruiting sergeant. This wasn't entirely alien territory for Spinetti. He had appeared in all three Beatles films  after, he claimed, George Harrison's mum said she fancied him and he had also won a Tony Award for his portryal of the drill sergeant in Joan Littlewood's productioin of Oh What A Lovely war! on stage. Ironically the new screening of Magical Mystery Tour came just a few days after Paul McCartney had attended a memorial service for Victor who died aged 82 this summer.

I met the wonderfully indiscreet Mr Spinetti  a few times and he used to tell me about  working with The Beatles who had remained good friends ever since they first met on A Hard Day's Night. Victor always maintained that "underneath it all they were surprisingly normal chaps".  It's a lesson worth learning.  No matter how weird and wonderful the adventure, no matter what mind-altering substances and exotic encounters you dabble in, you're still you and it's important to remain as grounded as possible and take care of your physical and psychological well-being. I've known a fair few shot-away acid casualties and it's a terrible waste.  Use your knowledge wisely, look after yourself and, above all, treat people well.

I ran into McCartney once too. It's a long story but it involved me and a couple of photographers getting ourselves smuggled into a 15th century castle in pursuit of an interview. Wings were secretly recording what would turn out to their lamentably bad Back to the Egg album. Macca politiely declined to talk to me  and had us thrown out in an impeccably polite manner. He really was a surprisingly normal chap.


© Jeremy Miles 2020