Alf Bicknell was 34 when the Beatles employed him as their driver and general gofer, and he was with them from 1964 to 1966 - their peak years. He drove them all over Beatle-crazy Britain; he was there when they met Dylan; he was there when they were roughed up in Manila. Now he is 65, a huge, broad-chested man with a long grey beard and a soft Surrey accent who tends to refer to himself in the third person as 'Alf' and occasionally as 'that fella Alf' as if he is shy of the word 'I', and he grows visibly shakey when he talks about it all.
Bicknell carried on chauffeuring long after the Beatles split. But in 1980 he had an accident with a chainsaw which left his right arm virtually powerless and made him reliant on benefits. Then a few years ago, someone pointed out to him that maybe his past was a saleable commodity on the fan circuit. Bicknell went a little way down the line with this idea. He worked up a routine with his stories, got a business card printed with his face on: 'Alf Bicknell, The Beatles Chauffeur and Road Manager 1964-65-66'. He has an executive briefcase with his collection of photographs neatly labelled and a character reference signed by George Harrison: 'Alf Bicknell lived moment to moment with the Beatles through those years . . . Anyone who was beaten up by Imelda Marcos's bully squad is a friend of mine.'
'This is the way Alf presents himself to an audience,' Bicknell says, handing over a shot of himself in red bow tie and evening dress. This all goes over well in America. In Los Angeles, he talked to 4000 people in a hotel conference room. Last summer, the Beatles Club of Rhode Island erected a phone link so that he could address their Beatle Barbecue live down the line.
Over here, Mark Riley and Mark Radcliffe from Radio 1 have just made a 60- minute documentary about him. When Bicknell talks at holiday camps, he is invariably surrounded by middle-aged women, saying 'Alf, you don't remember us, do you?' Letters and Beatle-related poems come in from everywhere: he shows me 'Birthday Memories of John'. 'These are not kids,' he says, 'these are middle- aged people.' He and his wife Jean are inundated with offers of holidays from 'Beatle people' worldwide.
But it irritated him slightly when he got a call from a convention organiser in Berkeley who said: 'Alf, we haven't seen you for four years. I suppose you've become so rich and famous now, you can't be bothered to come and talk to us Beatle fans.'
'The world don't know how skint we are,' says Bicknell. Of course, he could play a slightly different game and line his nest. Recently the News of the World offered him pounds 3,000 for exclusive rights to his story. ' pounds 3000? That's a fortune to me now. That would have solved a few immediate problems for us.' But they wanted drugs and sex and Bicknell wouldn't give it to them. He wouldn't have done so when he was in the Beatles' service and now he feels he's in the service of their memory, and he doesn't see a difference. 'It's all about loyalty,' he says. 'Loyalty and integrity.'
On the television, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Alf dash through Madrid airport together.
Ironically enough, the man who drove the Beatles before Bicknell was sacked for selling a story to the papers. The first time Bicknell picked the band up, he had no idea what he was in for.
'I had to go to Emperor's Gate, where the boys were doing a photo session. Sat there for a few minutes. All of a sudden - whoof] - they all dive into the car and we're off. Every time I stopped at a traffic light, I felt conscious of all the eyes peering in.' As he checked the rear view mirror, he could see a gradually thickening crowd in pursuit. 'Between sets of traffic lights, I'm getting faster and faster and I pull up a bit quick outside this block of flats at one point and bang] - George, who's sitting on the occasional seat, hits his head on the partition. Let's just say he was upset. A few choice words were said. I thought, well, that's it: the shortest job that ever happened to Alf.'
But he survived and entered the eight- strong inner circle: the band, the roadie Mal Evans, the tour manager Neil Aspinall, the manager Brian Epstein and Alf. By Bicknell's own account, the job called for a detailed knowledge of Britain's dual carriageway system, but also the ability to guide a car carefully through fog with John Lennon leaning over the backseat mimicking a fighter pilot. 'It was continuous humour, taking the piss. It was tear you to pieces, all of the time. A continual barrage.' He was a polite, reserved, married man in a blue chauffeur's suit, with a peaked cap, a tie and a starched white shirt. ('Always used to get acknowledged for my white shirts.') But a few days into the job, Lennon snatched his cap from behind and threw it out of the window, saying 'You don't need that, Alf,' and a year later, Bicknell had let his hair drop to his collar and was wearing shades.
The car he drove ('the lim' as he calls it) was an Austin Princess, registration SST 626, which he reckons was only the second car in London to get blacked-out windows (the first, he says, belonged to Peter Sellers). After a few days, the blacking cracked and Lennon blamed Bicknell and Bicknell blamed Beatles fans, but it was just a design problem. Later they would use Lennon's Rolls Royce Phantom V which had a television inside and an external speaker for broadcasting joke noises - planes taking off and trains screeching past. Lennon set it off late at night once, when Bicknell was trying to sneak them out of the dairy on the corner of George Street, where they had stolen some bottles of milk. On private occasions - when Paul McCartney wanted to go shopping for a grandfather clock on the Portobello Road - Bicknell would find something inconspicuous.
He says he used to worry about uncontrollable Beatlemaniacs tumbling under the wheels, but in fact the only person he ever hurt was a policeman. 'Going to shows, we always had a police escort to run us in the last part. I remember at the Finsbury Park Empire, fans had surrounded the stage door, so we had to approach the theatre head on, run straight to the front door, take the boys straight in through the main entrance, so they could run down through the auditorium and get backstage that way. I drove in as fast it would allow, mounted the curb with police holding back the crowd. And suddenly - bomp, bomp - I'd run over a policeman's foot. And Lennon shouted out, 'Alf, back up, he's still moving' .'
He drove them to Blackpool one night with guitars strapped to the boot. Somewhere along the road, a lorry flashed them to pull over. 'I got out on the hard shoulder and the lorry driver said, 'I don't want to worry you, but you've just lost a banjo back there.' I was terrified. You never wanted anything to go wrong. I said to Neil, 'Go and tell them.' And he said, 'No, you tell them.' I opened the door and leaned in and said, 'We've just lost a banjo,' trying to make light of it. John's little face comes out. 'I'll tell you what, Alf: if you can find it, you can have a bonus.' I knew he was taking the piss, but I said, 'What's that, John?' He said, 'You can have your bloody job back.' '
It ended for Bicknell in San Francisco in 1966 when the Beatles decided to stop touring. 'After the Candlestick Park show, the boys looked at each other and said, 'That's it' - so they'd obviously been talking about it.' Back in London, the Beatles started driving themselves ('Ringo was a natural, a superb driver. But John - I had to close my eyes with John') and Bicknell was surplus to requirements.
He says it took him a long time to settle down after all this. He mended his marriage which he says was suffering from his neglect. (It's their 38th anniversary this year.) He was offered a job in America with the New Christy Minstrels, touring 50 weeks a year. 'But somehow, after the Beatles . . .' So he went back to the agency and ended up working for Lord McAlpine, and later for a Norwegian financier who sent him to the south of France to pick up a Lambourghini. Glamorous work. But there are no videos from this period.
'The Beatles Story according to Alf Bicknell' can be heard this Sunday on Radio 1 at 7.00pm.
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