*Woodery pokery = John Gielgud’s term for playwright Charles Wood’s verbal gymnastics.
HELP! had an unusual genesis. The Beatles had contracted to make three films, and the roaring success of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT made it inevitable that United Artists would take them up on the option. Director Richard Lester has described how the film was defined by what it couldn’t be – it couldn’t revisit the Beatles working lives, because that had been done, and it couldn’t tackle their off-duty lives because those were x-rated. As it is, it’s surprising that we get to see the boys smoke (tobacco) and order (but not drink) “two lagers and lime and two lagers and lime.”
And also Lester felt the band were not ready to play anything other than themselves (D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers were mooted, but would have to wait until Lester was ready himself). There was not only the question of acting skill, there was the fact that these four men were famous AS THEMSELVES, and any Beatles movie was going to have them playing their hits, so how convincing would any impersonation of fictional characters be?
So the solution was unavoidable – the Beatles, playing cartoon versions of themselves, deposited in a fantasy plot in which they can be buffeted about. French writer Marc Behm sold the team on a storyline where Ringo, established in the first film as the most vulnerable Beatle, can’t take the pressure of fame and hires a stranger to kill him. He regrets it the next day, but teere’s no way to call the hitman off. This was agreed as the storyline, and then Jean-Paul Belmondo starred in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOI EN CHINE with exactly the same story. Lester didn’t know until I told him that the plot stems from Jules Verne, and that Behm was thus offering them stolen goods.
Nevertheless, Behm got the job of coming up with a fresh plot, and the one he created, in which Ringo is pursued by an Indian death cult who want his ring, in perfectly serviceable. Since Behm couldn’t write scouse, Charles Wood, who had just adapted THE KNACK with Lester, got the job of taking the story to screenplay form.
“It was just an assignment,” Wood is quoted as saying in Andrew Yule’s patchy Lester bio, The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles, “I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”
I beg to differ: a very good job, and a very odd job too. One could wish it had a bit more resolution – even with almost nothing to resolve, it needs some comeuppance for baddies Leo McKern and Victor Spinetti, I feel. The “character arc” bit, in which Ringo is required to show courage, is slightly underdone – it reads fine in the published script, but doesn’t quite catch fire onscreen. Maybe because the Beatles made the film under the influence of wacky baccy, and so their performances aren’t quite as enthusiastic as before. Lester resorted to saying their lines ahead of them and getting them to copy his phrasing, just to get them through a take. Lennon claimed the best bits were all on the cutting room floor, with him and his mates falling about in hysterics.
Ringo is kind of a great bad actor, or non-actor, or un-actor, entertaining in his failure to seem like he’s mentally present in a scene, but one of my fave exchanges in the script is utterly nailed by him. The team are speculating about how the unwanted ring can be detached from Ringo’s pinkie.
“The fire brigade got my head out of some railings once.”
“Did you want them to?”
“No. I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school. You can see a lot of the world from railings.”
The last sentence is delivered with just the perfect sort of faraway wisdom, with Richard Starkey OBE staring into the middle distance. I think Ringo succeeds so well here because he has the attractive quality of a child, unaware of saying something funny.
The script is full of abstract non-jokes – either Lester and Wood trusted the young audience to get them – to laugh at a non-joke you have to be smart enough to process the material and instantly realize that there’s nothing hidden there that you’re not getting – or they didn’t care, knowing that the audience would turn up for the Beatles alone and be happy as long as they got to look at them and hear them play, so why not just entertain yourself and the smartest person in the room? At any rate, it’s a wonderfully nonsensical thing, more Reeves & Mortimer than Monty Python, exulting in language. The weakest bits are the straight puns (“It’s the brain drain. His brain’s draining.) which aren’t in the original script anyway, or not in the form they wound up in. I prefer the odd constructions like “Jeweller, you’ve failed, jeweller.”
Anyway, Lester’s visuals are dazzling, but the words deserve appreciation too.
My latest film is a video essay for the Criterion Blu-Ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Pre-order it here: A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray + DVD)