Behind the scenes with the Beatles and Richard Lester

A new exhibition at BFI Southbank includes rare images, many from the private archive of director Richard Lester, showing the Fab Four playing around on the set of their swinging 60s pop film classics A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

Nathalie Morris
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Richard Lester and Paul McCartney on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. Director and star play on Ringo’s drums. Lester is himself a talented musician

Richard Lester and Paul McCartney on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. Director and star play on Ringo’s drums. Lester is himself a talented musician

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential music films ever made, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Produced over a mere 16-week period between March and July 1964, the film follows a day in the life of the Beatles as they prepare for a big London performance. A Hard Day’s Night was made to capitalise on the group’s phenomenal success and was rushed into production in case ‘Beatlemania’ had waned by the time of its release. Its producers needn’t have worried.

But it’s not just the enduring popularity of The Beatles that sets A Hard Day’s Night apart from the pop star film vehicles that came before. With this film, director Richard Lester broke the mould for how pop music was presented on screen. Working from Alun Owen’s quirky script, which drew on the screenwriter’s personal observations of the band and their hectic lifestyle, Lester brought his own distinctive wit and style to the film. Its cinéma vérité-influenced handheld camerawork, dizzying camera angles and snappy editing all combine to create a film that remains fresh, energetic and iconic, even half a century after it was made.

To celebrate the anniversary, a new exhibition at BFI Southbank looks at both A Hard Day’s Night and Lester’s second Beatles film, Help! (1965), exploring them in the context of the pop music film as well as Lester’s own filmmaking career. Scripts, photographs, posters and production paperwork donated by Lester to the BFI in 2010 are on show, as well as costume designs by Oscar-winning designer Julie Harris.

Here we present a selection of highlights.

A Hard Day’s Night

‘Mop tops’ promotional photograph. The press campaign book caption for this photograph comments on The Beatles famous ‘mop top’ hair styles. In the film, one witty line has a journalist asking George ‘What would you call that haircut you’re wearing?’, to which George replies: ‘Arthur’. Doing George Harrison’s hair in this shot is Pattie Boyd, who played a small part as a schoolgirl in A Hard Day’s Night and would marry Harrison in 1966

‘Mop tops’ promotional photograph. The press campaign book caption for this photograph comments on The Beatles famous ‘mop top’ hair styles. In the film, one witty line has a journalist asking George ‘What would you call that haircut you’re wearing?’, to which George replies: ‘Arthur’. Doing George Harrison’s hair in this shot is Pattie Boyd, who played a small part as a schoolgirl in A Hard Day’s Night and would marry Harrison in 1966

Lester was keen to use authentic locations as much as possible. He chartered a real train for the scenes in which the Beatles travel to London by rail. The train travelled back and forth from Paddington for several days, with the Beatles being dropped off outside of London at the end of the day, to escape the attention of their ever-present fans

Lester was keen to use authentic locations as much as possible. He chartered a real train for the scenes in which the Beatles travel to London by rail. The train travelled back and forth from Paddington for several days, with the Beatles being dropped off outside of London at the end of the day, to escape the attention of their ever-present fans

Lester on location at Marylebone Station. As A Hard Day’s Night was conceived as a fictionalised documentary, Lester was keen that it should be shot in a documentary style. With cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, he employed handheld cameras which gave a sense of immediacy to the scenes in which they were used

Lester on location at Marylebone Station. As A Hard Day’s Night was conceived as a fictionalised documentary, Lester was keen that it should be shot in a documentary style. With cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, he employed handheld cameras which gave a sense of immediacy to the scenes in which they were used

Richard Lester with the Beatles. The camaraderie between director and stars is apparent from this picture. They shared a similar sense of humour and mutual respect

Richard Lester with the Beatles. The camaraderie between director and stars is apparent from this picture. They shared a similar sense of humour and mutual respect

Richard Lester and John Lennon on set

Richard Lester and John Lennon on set

Schoolgirls costume design by Julie Harris, 1964. Julie Harris designed the costumes for A Hard Day’s Night, working in conjunction with the Beatles’ tailor Dougie Millings. This design by Harris is for the two schoolgirls (Prue Barry and Pattie Boyd) John and Paul encounter and serenade while travelling by train to London. Harris would also design the costumes for Help!

Schoolgirls costume design by Julie Harris, 1964. Julie Harris designed the costumes for A Hard Day’s Night, working in conjunction with the Beatles’ tailor Dougie Millings. This design by Harris is for the two schoolgirls (Prue Barry and Pattie Boyd) John and Paul encounter and serenade while travelling by train to London. Harris would also design the costumes for Help!
Credit: Julie Harris

Help!

The phenomenal success of A Hard Day’s Night led to a sequel, Help!, being swiftly put into production. In between the two, Lester made The Knack …and How to Get It (1965). Taken as a trilogy, the films comprise a snapshot of the 1960s zeitgeist and confirm Lester’s place as one of the most influential directors of the decade.

In contrast to the black-and-white, faux documentary quality of A Hard Day’s Night, Help! is a colourful fantasy that takes a comic-book-style approach. It was not too realistic a look at the Beatles’ lifestyle, as the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, was concerned about portrayals of the band’s less than clean-cut lifestyle. Instead, the film features the band as innocent bystanders who get caught up in an outlandish plot regarding a mystical sacrificial ring.

The film’s locations included the Austrian Alps, the Bahamas and Salisbury Plain. The scenes in Nassau were taken first, and, within a few days, the unit was moved to the significantly colder Austrian location. The Beatles had not skied before and Lester encouraged them to lark around in the snow, capturing their antics on multiple cameras

The film’s locations included the Austrian Alps, the Bahamas and Salisbury Plain. The scenes in Nassau were taken first, and, within a few days, the unit was moved to the significantly colder Austrian location. The Beatles had not skied before and Lester encouraged them to lark around in the snow, capturing their antics on multiple cameras

Although not as critically well-received as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! contains many impressive musical sequences. These continued to push forward the way music was represented on film with imaginative camerawork, clever and sensitive editing and a considered and effective use of colour. Lester’s pioneering work in this area led to him being dubbed the founding father of the pop music video by MTV in 1984.

This photograph shows Lester and actor Leo McKern during the shooting of the Indian restaurant scene. In this scene, Clang (Leo McKern) and High Priestess Ahme (Eleanor Bron) attempt to retrieve their sacrificial ring from Ringo

This photograph shows Lester and actor Leo McKern during the shooting of the Indian restaurant scene. In this scene, Clang (Leo McKern) and High Priestess Ahme (Eleanor Bron) attempt to retrieve their sacrificial ring from Ringo

Production design for Foot’s laboratory by Raymond Simm. Art director Raymond Simm’s sets are modernist, inventive and fun. At the start of the film, the band walk down the street and enter what appear to be separate, modest, terrace houses next door to each other. When the camera cuts inside, we see the band are living in a large, communal, ultra pop-modern bachelor pad with different styles and colour schemes for each Beatle. This futuristic laboratory belongs to Foot (Victor Spinetti), a scientist who is desperate to get hold of the mystical ring stuck on Ringo’s finger

Production design for Foot’s laboratory by Raymond Simm. Art director Raymond Simm’s sets are modernist, inventive and fun. At the start of the film, the band walk down the street and enter what appear to be separate, modest, terrace houses next door to each other. When the camera cuts inside, we see the band are living in a large, communal, ultra pop-modern bachelor pad with different styles and colour schemes for each Beatle. This futuristic laboratory belongs to Foot (Victor Spinetti), a scientist who is desperate to get hold of the mystical ring stuck on Ringo’s finger

How I Won the War

Lester reunited with Lennon two years after Help! for How I Won the War, featuring the star in his first non-musical film role. The film is a biting satire not just on war, but also the concept of the war movie, and was widely misunderstood by critics at the time of its release. The press campaign book for the film (on display in the exhibition) plays up its serious intent. However, the film’s marketing also sought to exploit Lennon’s involvement. The singer was quoted as saying: “I did this film because I believe in it […] There has never been a war film which showed war as it really is.”

Looking beyond The Beatles, the film’s publicist writes:

Lennon, like the others, knows the Beatles cannot last for ever… and as Paul McCartney says, ‘Who wants to be a thirty-year-old Beatle?’ So they are all looking for something to take the place of the only thing they have ever known…and none is searching more diligently, even desperately, than John.

How I Won the War (1967) contact sheet

How I Won the War (1967) contact sheet

The exhibition A Hard Day’s Night: Richard Lester and ‘The Beatles’ is on display in the Mezzanine gallery at BFI Southbank from 3 July – 21 September.

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