When the British public sat down to watch the latest Beatles film on Boxing Day in 1967, they might have expected similar fare to A Hard Day's Night and Help!, released a few years earlier, or maybe even something a bit more festive.
It was sandwiched between Petula Clark and Norman Wisdom in the BBC schedule, so they certainly expected a good clean storyline.
It's not what they got, as this Arena documentary, Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, reminded us. What they got was dream-like surrealism, experimental camerawork, nudity, trippy interludes and a bus full of comic or carnivalesque characters. Much of the public complaint afterwards was born out of anger that it appeared to be plot-less.
Britain's Boxing Day outrage was the starting point for this documentary, which had a lot to live up to – it had been trailed with the promise of never-before-seen out-takes from Magical Mystery Tour. This footage turned out not to be the highlight because there were so many other superb and surprising moments. The "talking heads" were as close to source as you could get: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (in a 1993 interview) variously reflecting on the film's inspiration and impact. McCartney spoke of his growing interest in avant-garde film at that time: I don't mean to sound "pretentious", he said unconvincingly, before referring to Luis Buñuel. While Magical Mystery Tour can hardly be compared to Un Chien Andalou, it did appear, in spirit, to pave the way for the absurd surrealism of Monty Python and beyond.
Ringo, though, turned out to be the real star of this show. He was not only the rambunctious heart of the 1967 film, bickering with his "aunt Jessie" on the bus and representing the love-hate relationship between old and new generations in these exchanges, but he had a wittily offhand take on events today. There was very little in the way of a plan or script when they hired the bus, he said, and some of the cast was randomly plucked out of a catalogue of "out-of-work artists".
Martin Scorsese talked about the film's influence, while Paul Merton and Barry Miles gave us snatches of social history. A further layering of fascinating voices came with reflections from the ordinary folk surrounding this bizarre event: the cameraman was tracked down, so were two women, now middle-aged, who joined the tour at the last minute. One boarded the bus on Friday and lost her job on Monday after failing to turn up to work. A fantastically defiant letter sent to The Daily Telegraph amid mass outrage, was from an elderly couple who couldn't get enough of the film: "I laughed until I cried several times," it read.
The documentary scratched beneath the surface of the public outrage and came to interesting conclusions: the film crystallised the collision course that the old and new orders had been heading towards in this decade. Deviation from the norm was still frowned upon, yet people – the Beatles and their busload – were deviating. One woman who watched the film with her father remembered: "My dad said they should get a haircut." She told him, "Jesus had long hair", which must have shut him up. The film may well have marked the starting point of an era now in full bloom, in which youth culture is the new religion.
Afterwards, appropriately, came the first BBC airing of Magical Mystery Tour since 1979. The Beatles made the film the way a group of pals might make a home movie, with no storyboard, only a spirit of adventure. The result is as artistically audacious as it is silly, though today, its historical value eclipses its creative merits, serving as a time capsule of Sixties counter-culture. Then, it paved the way for the surrealism that McCartney referred to in British cinema. Alternative worlds spliced into one another in what seemed like a trek through the subconscious. As the Telegraph-reading couple wrote, it was over all too quickly.
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