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Magical, mysterious Fab Four

LAST Friday was a big day for iconic anniversaries. The James Bond film franchise, which began with the comparatively modest, even downbeat Dr No, turned 50. (BBC2, Sat)

Friday was also 50 years ago to the day that The Beatles' released their first single, Love Me Do, which peaked at number 17 in the British charts -- although it wouldn't be released in the USA, where it zoomed to number one, for another two years.

Saturday's excellent Arena documentary recalled a more infamous, though no less culturally significant, event: the first showing on BBC2 of the band's hour-long, DIY film Magical Mystery Tour, which dropped like a bombshell into viewers' living rooms on St Stephen's Day, 1967, shattering illusions left, right and centre.

Wedged between The Petula Clark Show and a Norman Wisdom film, Magical Mystery Tour, which The Beatles' pretty much made up as they went along, was a genuine oddity.

People tuning in expecting another zany caper in the style of A Hard Day's Night or Help! were instead treated to a series of virtually plotless, psychedelically surreal scenes, loosely linked by a coach trip from Liverpool to Blackpool, featuring the band, a handful of friends (including the great Victor Spinetti) and, as Ringo Starr put it in a new interview, a bunch of "out of work actors".

Contrary to the clueless idiots who persist in believing John Lennon alone was the most adventurous creative driving force behind The Beatles, the idea belonged to Paul McCartney, who'd developed a strong interest in avant-garde film-making.

Well, "idea" is probably too strong a word.

Ringo recalled McCartney showing him an A4 page with a circle drawn on it, then marking in the different things they were going to do along the journey.

"I'd like to say there was this incredible master plan," said Ringo. "There wasn't."

There were a few songs, of course, including the famous I Am The Walrus sequence, but they were scattered sparely across what was, said George Harrison in an interview from 1993, "an elaborate home movie".

Though a handful of people wrote to the BBC to say how much they'd enjoyed Magical Mystery Tour (one young boy thought it "the best Christmas programme ever"), the public reaction largely ranged from bafflement to outrage.

In a clever touch, the documentary was punctuated by the voices of people who'd watched it on the night.

"The entire nation had been let down by The Beatles," said Terry Gilliam, tongue firmly in cheek.

The one probably most let down, though, was Macca, who -- absurd as it now seems -- had to appear on The Frost Report the following night to defend the film.

"We thought the young people who knew what was going on would get it," he said here.

But as someone pointed out, even after the Summer of Love, Britain in 1967 was still a very straight country where children's swings were locked up on Sundays.

Directly after Arena, the film itself, digitally restored to all its lushly coloured glory (it was transmitted in black-and-white in '67) and featuring some previously unseen footage, was shown in full for the first time in 33 years. Even today, you can see why it left so many people flummoxed.

It's a mess, albeit one with some inspired and inventive moments of lunacy, but also a remarkable snapshot of how astonishingly far The Beatles had travelled creatively in the five years since Love Me Do.

"It palpably reflects their state of mind more than anything else they were doing at the time," said Martin Scorsese.

It's also a reminder that Ringo, who spends much of the film bickering with his fat "aunt Jessica" (one of those out of work actors), was always a naturally gifted comedy performer.

Arena: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited 5/5