A Hard Day’s Night: How The Beatles had Cliff Richard on the run

Fifty years ago, the Beatles’ anarchic debut film, A Hard Day’s Night, wiped away the stuffy conventions of British teen cinema

In January 1963, British cinemagoers were enticed by posters claiming that, “It’s what happens when FOUR BOYS in a borrowed bus... (with built-in bunks and bath)... meet FOUR GIRLS with a single mission...MEN!!”. For a mere 1/9d,  the audience could see Summer Holiday – and vicariously experience the pleasures of sun and sea, while watching Cliff Richard sporting polyester shirts in many and various hues. The film became the second most popular film at the British box office of 1963; yet a mere 18 months later, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night almost instantly relegated Cliff and co to the ranks of the middle-aged.

Back in 1957, Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, a company that specialised in low-budget films, produced The Tommy Steele Story, Britain’s first teenage rock’n’roll musical. Just weeks after its release in June 1957, it had recouped its £15,000 production costs, going on to make a total profit of £100,000. The result was a spate of black-and-white rock’n’roll musicals, with 28-year-old “teenage” extras swaying amongst the potted plants to the happening sounds of Terry Dene.

By the early 1960s, such low-budget gems as the Billy Fury film Play It Cool were still the norm, although the genuinely ambitious The Young Ones was an alternative. That the latter was intended as much as a major British musical as it was a vehicle for Cliff Richard is made clear from the outset: Douglas Slocombe’s Eastmancolor cinematography and Sidney J Furie’s ambitious use of crane shots raise the film well above the typical pop narrative of its day.

Cliff’s next film, Summer Holiday, followed a gang of London Transport mechanics who had decided to turn a bus into a caravan and drive it across Europe, a narrative that offered frequent opportunities for song and dance. These included the truly bizarre moment, set in the former Yugoslavia, when a “peasant girl” is reduced to hysterics by four polyester-shirted youths singing “Dancing Shoes” while performing what may well be the world’s worst twist routine for no apparent reason.

Naturally, as with all fine British pop films of this era, The Young Ones and Summer Holiday have middle-aged authority figures to increase the appeal to a family audience, although this is not always a disadvantage: two of the only times that Sid James was seen to dance on screen were in 1959’s Tommy the Toreador and the 1965 Joe Brown vehicle Three Hats for Lisa.

But the harbinger of the end of this strange realm – one where Heinz Burt is visibly struggling to cope with his meagre dialogue in Live it Up  and where Marty Wilde and cronies sing about how Commonwealth immigrants have taken over the local Labour Exchange (What a Crazy World is a truly odd picture) – was a 1962 B-film shot on a budget of £50,000 and directed by a young American named Richard Lester. In Its Trad, Dad!, velvet-voiced authority is mocked and derided – from Deryck Guyler’s deadpan narrator to Pete Murray, Alan Freeman and David Jacobs gamely playing themselves as vain middle-aged DJs.

Three years later, Lester was chosen by Walter Shenson of United Artists to direct the Beatles’ cinematic debut, A Hard Day’s Night. Shenson did not want to follow the then standard formula and make “a Hollywood-style pop musical about four unknown boys from Liverpool who smuggle homemade tapes of their own compositions into a disc jockey’s studio” – and instead the film focused on a comic version of the group’s own fame: being trapped in limousines and hotel rooms by their fans and subjected to vacuous questions by jaded show business journalists.

The critical and commercial impact of A Hard Day’s Night did not immediately cause the demise of the traditional British pop film. Dateline Diamonds (1965), for example, combines the standard B-movie chases in black police Wolseleys with guest appearances from Kenny Everett and music from The Small Faces and Kiki Dee. The Cuckoo Patrol (1967) featured the terrifying tag line, “Based on a story outline by Freddie and the Dreamers”, while Frank Ifield starred in Up Jumped a Swagman (1965). More surreal sights were provided by Billy Fury in I’ve Gotta Horse (1966), in which the rock’n’roller serenaded various cuddly animals – and the expression on Spencer Davis’s face throughout the entire running time of The Ghost Goes Gear (1966) is truly memorable. Forget L’Année dernière à Marienbad – any film featuring Nicholas Parsons, Stevie Winwood and a bequiffed folk-singing ghost is truly challenging the boundaries of cinema.

But when the Beatles’ first film was released on 10th July 1964, it truly marked a seminal moment in the depiction of popular music on screen. Many details of A Hard Day’s Night display an England that now looks impossibly quaint – the milk vending machines on railway platforms, the steam engines, the wonderfully grim pub in which Ringo seeks refuge – but the rapid pace of the editing, the hand-held cameras, and Alun Owen’s script still create a mood that is fresh and optimistic.

And if you want a further measure of its impact, just compare it to the other major British pop film that had been released a week before. Lester shot the Beatles’ vehicle in black and white over a matter of weeks, while Wonderful Life teams Cliff & the Shadows with Canary Island locations, Techniscope colour and elaborate Hollywood-style choreography. But for all of the latter’s  enhanced budget – and the genuinely swinging scene of  our hero singing “On the Beach” to Susan Hampshire – the reliance on a narrative designed to appeal to a “family audience” and the ultimate deference of the young protagonists to middle-aged authority made the film look about as fashionable as an Austin A60 Cambridge.

The Beatles’ appearance on the 1963 Royal Variety Show was the nearest they would ever come to this conservative show business world – and A Hard Day’s Night was a 90-minute demonstration that the group had no need of “paternal guidance”. 

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?