The Weekend's Viewing: Arena: George Harrison – Living in the Material World, Sat & Sun, BBC2


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Martin Scorsese bookended his funny, moving and revealing film about George Harrison with the same image – an amateurish shot of tulips in the garden at his home, Friar Park, behind which Harrison himself eventually appeared, half-puckish, half-earnest.

And there was another symmetry as well, two of the people closest to Harrison recalling a time soon after his death. At the beginning of the film, it was his son, Dhani, remembering a dream in which he'd met his father again on the stairs of the house: "I asked, 'Where have you been?' And he answered, 'Here the whole time'." At the end, it was his wife, Olivia, with a remark that Scorsese effectively offered up as an epigraph to the whole life. In between, you got pretty much everything, from Liverpool in the Blitz to the last painful days in Switzerland. At three hours and 40 minutes, transmitted over two nights, Arena: George Harrison – Living in the Material World wasn't for anyone with a merely passing interest in its subject. But it proved so rich and seductive in its material, that it's hard to believe anyone would have given up watching once they'd started.

The shorter first half covered the better-known story, of Hamburg, which really got the musical pot boiling, and of Beatlemania, which clamped the lid on the pressure cooker. According to Ringo, Harrison was the peacemaker of the group, the one who could get Lennon and McCartney to square their differences, but in Scorsese's framing this was also a time when Harrison's own ambitions were growing. In an archive interview, he talked of his first forays into songwriting: "I thought, 'If John and Paul can write anyone can'." But in that jostle of creative egos it proved harder for him to get songs on to the albums than he liked. Scorsese ended part one with a brutal cut, halfway through "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", to Harrison saying "it was crap", a reference not to the song but the difficulty he had in getting his bandmates to take it seriously.

Part two began with the dissolution of the Beatles, and a telling moment of passive aggression in the studio, as Harrison bickered with McCartney over an arrangement. He wasn't nobody's saintly hippy at that moment, and he seems to have been close to a holy fool at others. After meeting some Hells Angels, he invited them to come in to the Apple offices any time they liked, and when they called him in on the offer, circulated a sweetly naive memo to the staff: "They may look as though they are going to do you in but are very straight and do good things, so don't fear them or uptight them." But everything in the second half reinforced the portrait of a man whose search for spiritual depth was not a passing fad. "There was no salesmanship involved and it made you spiritual being around him," said Phil Spector, looking eerily like Victoria Wood on a very bad day. Frankly, there are more reliable witnesses to virtue than Spector, but fortunately Scorsese had them too.

The film was co-produced by his widow, Olivia, but it wasn't a whitewash. Harrison's anger and frustration were addressed, and his infidelity. "Sometimes people ask, 'What's the secret of a long marriage?'" Olivia said smiling, and then, with a meaning look, "You don't get divorced". There was an astonishing amount of other good stuff too: Terry Gilliam on Handmade Films, Tom Petty on ukuleles and The Traveling Wilburys, Eric Clapton on Patti and playing guitars. But the real potency of the film lay less in fan minutiae and anecdote than in its gradually accumulating evidence of a man seriously trying to perfect his life, and in doing so stirring a genuine love in the people around him. Olivia's last comment was an account of the exact moment of his death, and her perception of that something ethereal occurred then. "He lit up the room," she said. One way or another, Scorsese's sympathetic tribute left you feeling it was true.