THE BEATLES’ CHRISTMAS SHOWS
From high up on the front of the Finsbury Park Astoria, four giant Beatle faces grin down on the screaming girls massed below. December 24, 1963, and the streets are jammed for the first night of The Beatles Christmas Show. John, Paul, George and Ringo have been inside for the last couple of hours, spirited into the theatre early to avoid the chaos that their arrival would cause this close to showtime.
In the dressing room of the opening act, the Barron Knights take a look out of the window and are taken aback. The streets around the theatre are rammed as far as the eye can see, a bold ‘All Tickets Sold’ sign above the entrance testifying to the band’s popularity, all 100,000 seats having been snapped up within days of going on sale.
In his bid to consolidate the position of the acts of his NEMS management stable at the heart of the nation’s show business establishment, Brian Epstein had been looking beyond the pop charts, setting his sights on film, television, and on that traditional cornerstone of British family entertainment, the pantomime. On the same night that Epstein had Gerry and the Pacemakers opening at the Hanley Gaumont in his co-production of Babes In The Wood, The Beatles were debuting what they hoped would be a rather more alternative slice of seasonal fare. “Something different,” they had suggested when pushed by ‘Eppy’ to outline their ideas, “with sketches and things”.
“We didn’t like the idea of doing a pantomime,” George explained the following year, “so we did our own show, more or less like a pop show but we kept appearing every few minutes, dressed up… for a laugh.”
Always eager to deliver value for money, and wanting to offer fans something more than a pop concert draped in tinsel, Epstein had brought in a seasoned veteran of the ‘Christmas show’ to add fine detail to the band’s broad brushstrokes. “I’m changing the concept of the pantomime,” director Peter Yolland had bravely announced, as he set about cobbling together as many scream-proof visual gags as he could muster in the incredibly short rehearsal time offered to him.
“The Beatles were never much for rehearsing,” says PR man Tony Barrow. “That never really mattered as far as songs were concerned, but the fact that they were so bad at doing the sketches was an added extra for the show – it was organised chaos but it was very funny chaos.”
The Beatles dashed on and off stage between support acts – the Barron Knights, The Fourmost, Tommy Quickly, Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas, Cilla Black – woodenly performing their short ‘humorous’ skits with winning Scouse charm. A Victorian melodrama, a quick ‘doctor’ sketch, whatever they did, rehearsed or not, the Fabs would be greeted with uncontrollable hysteria. “Let’s face it,” said Paul McCartney, “they would have laughed if we just sat there reading the Liverpool telephone directory.”
Their novelty turns might have proved popular, but nothing could compare to the reaction that greeted their closing rock’n’roll set. Rolf Harris was in position to experience this nightly wall of noise close-up – as the show’s compere, he filled the 15-minute slot prior to The Beatles, busking while the band’s equipment was being set-up behind the curtain. “After my spot I’d say ‘Last night nobody heard a word these boys sang and it’s such a waste because they are fantastic. Have a listen to the wonderful music of The Beatles’,” recalls Rolf. “But a scream went up and it lasted for the whole of their act – they might just as well have been miming, you couldn’t hear a single note.”
Ducking to avoid the jelly beans flying at them from out of the blinding glare of the spotlight, The Beatles kicked off with Roll Over Beethoven, and exactly 25-minutes later, with the last chords of ‘Twist And Shout’ still echoing around the auditorium, they were already gone, “otherwise they’d never have got out,” recalls Rolf.
“The big trick was to get them out of theatre before the national anthem had finished,” explains Barrow. “The audience dutifully stayed, chanting ‘we want The Beatles’, by which time they were in their car and away.”
After their opening night success, the Liverpool members of the cast – everyone but Rolf and the Barron Knights – were flown home to their families in a private Viking aircraft, chartered for £400 by Epstein. Returning for the first show of Boxing Day, the ‘organised chaos’ could then start over again – until the curtain fell on the 30th and last performance on January 11, 1964, the same day that I Want To Hold Your Hand entered the American charts.
With their first US Number 1 only a matter of days away, The Beatles had good reason to wonder whether such revue-style shows were in the best interest of a serious rock’n’roll band. “Because it was new to them they didn’t make a fuss,” says Barron Knight, Pete Langford. “But as the run went on I think they realised that it wasn’t really working. They wanted to be songwriters and pop stars, they didn’t want to be actors.”
Brian Epstein succeeded in booking the band into a 38-show run at the Hammersmith Odeon for Another Beatles Christmas Show in December, ’64, but on August 2, 1965, when he announced the NEMS artists who would be in pantomime that year – Cilla Black (Little Red Riding Hood), Gerry and the Pacemakers (Cinderella) and Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas (Mother Goose) – there was no mention of The Beatles.
Two weeks later, facing a press conference in Toronto, the Fabs were asked whether they would be performing in a third Christmas Show.
“Ask Mr Christmas Epstein,” sniped Lennon.
“Mr Epstein,” chipped George, “may have a Mr Epstein Christmas show.”
For The Beatles the era of all-round family entertainment had come to an end. Rock’n’roll was moving in other directions – and the acts that stayed in panto that year were the acts that rock left behind.
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007