Thursday 22 March 2018

When I was younger: 'Help' 50 years on

Declan Collinge was an ardent Beatles fan in his teens. He describes the making of their film, 'Help' in 1965 and shares his memories of that time

Ringo Starr and John Lennon
Ringo Starr and John Lennon
Detail of The Help Album Cover

In February 1965 the Beatles began filming their second film, Help. Directed by Richard Lester who had directed their first film, A Hard Day's Night, a year before, Help had a bigger budget and would feature more exotic locations such as the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas. It would also be given a fuller musical score and would include such classical pieces as Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture. The film would premiere at the London Pavilion Theatre on July 29, with Princess Margaret and her husband, the Earl of Snowdon, in attendance.

Help featured all four Beatles as well as such established actors as Eleanor Bron, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti. Unlike A Hard Day's Night, the Fab Four had less input in the film, prompting John Lennon to comment in 1970 that they felt like "extras in their own movie". They compensated, however, for the monotony of shooting by regularly smoking joints, and Ringo was later to describe the film as being shot in "a haze of marijuana", with repeated fits of giggling making many takes necessary.

Critical response to the film was generally positive, although some critics were disappointed with the end product and thought the production was weaker than A Hard Day's Night. The comedy in the film appeared a mixture of The Goons and the Marx Brothers. It would foreshadow Monty Python as well as later providing the template for The Monkees TV series and even Spice World in 1998.

The plot involved an eastern cult who seek a sacrificial ring, unwittingly worn by Ringo. Most of the action from London to Salisbury Plain and on to the Alps and the Bahamas involves the group being pursued by this cult and their comic attempts to evade them. There are many surreal moments in the film: The Beatles's road manager, Mal Evans, appears in a cameo as a channel swimmer, when he emerges from an ice pool and asks for directions, while credits include a dedication to "Elias Howe who in 1846 invented the sewing machine".

Seven of the songs in the film formed the A-side of the album, Help, with seven extra songs on the B-side, five of which had been composed around the time the film was made. The cover featured the Beatles making semaphore signs with their arms, although these did not strictly spell 'Help' as this precise arrangement did not look well when photographed. The B-side of the album contained the popular ballad Yesterday, composed and sung by Paul McCartney, which would be performed over seven million times in the 20th Century alone. Mercifully, he gave this song its immortal title, having first considered the title Scrambled Eggs of which the original first lines read "Scrambled eggs/O my baby how I love your legs". McCartney claimed that he composed the song in a dream, then jotted down the music after he had awoken, in the manner of Coleridge's Kubla Khan.

John Lennon's song Help was originally much slower in tempo but he was prevailed upon to speed it up for the film due to 'commercial pressure.' He would claim later that the original song was actually a cry for help when he was going through a form of depression which he labelled his "fat Elvis period".

In August 1965, just after the album was released, I was working in a summer job delivering prams, still in their corrugated cardboard wrapping, to shops around Dublin's inner city for Clonmel Industries of Capel Street. A gauche 15 year old, I had to run the gauntlet of inner-city girls in their heavy black eyeshadow and lacquered hair, who were highly amused at me wheeling my prams: "Who is she, young fella?" "Ah, she has ye well thrained!" "A will yez look a' de poor fellah he's scarleh!"

Nevertheless, I braved the abuse to be rewarded with my two-pounds-ten pay packet which allowed me to cross the road and buy the album Help in the US Record Store in Capel St. My friends and I would play it over and over again and I would later learn to play the very Dylanesque You've Got To Hide Your Love Away on a battered steel-string guitar. I was happy that George Harrison had two songs on the album, I Need You and You Like Me Too Much. Better still, my friends and I could sing along to the songs on the album when we watched the film itself a week or two later in the Savoy Cinema.

During a sequence in the film in an Indian restaurant, it is rumoured that George Harrison first encountered the sitar, which he would later learn to play under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar. It would feature on the track Norwegian Wood in the Beatles's subsequent album Rubber Soul.

Fifty years on, the album which has been digitally remastered, still sounds as fresh as ever. As I listen, I recall the excitement of that summer as I worked in Lambs jam factory or Clonmel Industries, taking the 84 bus to Greystones at weekends to fish from the pier or listen on the jukebox, in the harbour cafe to Marianne Faithfull, the distant moon of my adolescent dreams, the Hollies, and my favourite group the Beatles "when I was younger, so much younger than today".

Dr Declan Collinge is a bilingual poet and former teacher/lecturer

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