In the summer of 1975, I was working for the impresario Robert Stigwood at his London headquarters in Mayfair.
Set inside an impressive 19th century P. C. Hardwick designed house, almost next door to Claridges Hotel, it was my first job in the music business and a real eye-opener.
Although I never really did more than answer phones, run messages and make coffee for Stiggy (as he was affectionately known but never within his hearing), I did get to meet many big names that passed through the famous double black doors of 67 Brook Street - the headquarters of the Robert Stigwood Organisation. Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and Pattie Boyd, Ginger Baker, Pete Townshend, Paul Nicholas, Ronnie Wood, Barbara Dickson, Marmalade, Ned Sherrin, Ken Russell, the Monty Python guys and even Uri Geller!
But although it was a fantastic experience (to say the least!) I was always looking out for something different. I asked Gini Smythe, Stigwood’s PA, that if anything did come up that I might be suitable for, would she and Robert bear me in mind? I’d like a chance.
Well something did come up. A Stigwood movie.
Robert had been presenting a musical in the West End called John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. It was written by Liverpudlian Willy Russell and told the story of The Beatles as seen through the eyes of their mate Bert.
But what made it so different was that the actors didn’t sing the famous songs themselves, that was done by an unknown folk singer from Fife with an incredible voice called Barbara Dickson.
J,P,G,R…and B had started life at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and had a stunning cast. Bernard Hill played John Lennon, Trevor Eve was Paul McCartney, Philip Joseph was George and Anthony Sher played Ringo Starr (imagine trying to get that lot together today!) In addition Robin Hooper played a shy and nervous Brian Epstein and George Costigan was the cheeky (and very funny) Bert.
Under the auspices of RSO in-house producers Bob Swash and Lee Menzies, John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert quickly became the show to see in London. It had a highly successful run winning the Evening Standard “Musical of the Year” award and established Willy Russell as a major dramatic force.
With the West End run at the Lyric Theatre approaching its end, Stigwood decided to make a movie of the show and got John Hough in to direct. The Beatles’ ex-right-hand man, Peter Brown, was the obvious choice for Executive Producer and Robert asked me if I would like to learn the ropes of the film business by being Peter’s PA.
It was a great opportunity so, unsurprisingly, I said yes.
Peter Brown was a hugely impressive man. Always immaculately dressed in a Savile Row suit, he spoke in a very deep posh voice and had perfect manners.
He phoned me up at my Islington flat. “Miles, I understand you’re to be my new PA,” he resonated. “Why not come over to the office tomorrow and we’ll sort out a few ground rules.”
The ‘office’ turned out to be Cilla Black’s luxury apartment in Portland Place right opposite the BBC’s Broadcasting House. She had leased it out to Peter for the duration of the film shoot.
I turned up the next day and pressed the buzzer. Peter opened the door and welcomed me in. He was dialling a number on the phone but waved me in whilst apologising. “Won’t be a minute, just calling John in New York.” Someone picked up at the other end and a big smile spread over Peter’s neatly bearded face. “Hello Yoko, Peter here…”
I soon discovered that my new boss had been involved in the Beatles’ daily activities almost since they had started. He had been a witness at two Beatle marriages (Paul and Linda, John and Yoko) and Lennon had even immortalised him in a Beatles song The Ballad Of John and Yoko. (“Peter Brown called to say, ‘You can make it OK, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain’”).
The first thing Peter asked me was if I could drive. I had to tell him that I couldn’t. He was surprised and more than a little irritated. He said it was unfortunate as he was expecting me to drive him to the film studios every morning.
He had been given a bright yellow VW Beetle with ‘swinging London’ style denim-upholstered seats (had that been a deliberate choice of motor by Stigwood? A Beetle for a Beatle aide?) and he expected me to drive it.
In the end he arranged for me to have immediate driving lessons. Maybe I could learn fast and get a cancellation test? In the meantime he would drive himself.
In the event I didn’t pass my test for another seven years. Things didn’t quite go to plan.
We both arrived the following Monday at Elstree studios where the film was in pre-production.
Various members of the cast were having wardrobe tests made and it wasn’t unusual to be walking between sound stages and pass Trevor Eve as ‘McCartney’ and Bernard Hill as ‘Lennon’ dressed in their silky Sgt Pepper uniforms. It was quite uncanny. They looked so like the real thing that you almost believed you had stumbled in on the Peter Blake shoot of the Sgt Pepper album sleeve.
My duties were pretty basic for someone starting on the bottom rung of the film business ladder. Following two hours of driving lessons every morning, I would arrive at the studio and make copies of film scripts and schedules and generally arrange meetings etc. I also had to file and index hundreds of photographs of The Beatles, a job I loved doing.
It was sort of like being on a Beatles film like A Hard Day’s Night or Help! but without any of The Beatles being involved.
And then, as often happens in the movie business, it all came to a crashing halt.
Just as quickly as it begun, Peter asked me to join him in his office where he told me that Robert Stigwood had decided not to go ahead with the movie. He didn’t elaborate. I never found out why and still don’t know to this day.
But it’s sad when a team of people put together for a project have to be broken up. Although we’d only been in pre-production for a few weeks, friendships had been made and now it seemed that we were all going off in different directions.
Desks were cleared, phone-numbers exchanged, car-park space names repainted. The more experienced people quickly tried to get on-board other movie projects and my free driving lessons were cancelled.
For me it was a personal disappointment. My first foray into the movies had been exciting and although the film never got made, the whole experience gave me a valuable insight into how a film is put together.
Seventeen years later I revisited the same studios when I went to the recording of an episode I had written for the TV sitcom Birds of a Feather. Between the afternoon run-through and the actual recording I went for a walk. I didn’t get very far. Most of the studio had been turned into a supermarket.
Years later it was where they made Big Brother.
However there was one small gem in the story of the Beatles film that never got made and this time it did involve a Beatle.
On my last day at the studios, Chris Palmer, from the Robert Stigwood Organisation arrived for a final lunch with Peter and myself. Afterwards he asked me to show him around the studio. Despite having only been working at Elstree a few weeks I had somehow managed to find my feet and thought I knew where everything was, more or less. How wrong I was!
We went off for a wander. There was some loud music coming from one of the sound stages and Chris asked what was being filmed in there. I replied that it was a new Terry-Thomas comedy called Spanish Fly. Chris was as big a T-T fan as I was and the two of us decided to sneak in and see if we could catch a glimpse of the “absolute shower” genius at work.
As we walked through the flats of scenery we saw some bright lights at the far end. We moved towards them. The music was loud and we imagined it must be a disco scene that was being filmed. But as our eyes adjusted to the brightly coloured lights we suddenly realised that it wasn’t Terry-Thomas at all.
It was Paul McCartney. And he was belting out Band on the Run.
Thinking that McCartney would throw both of us out if he knew we were there, Chris and I stepped quickly backwards where we disappeared into the shadows.
We then leant against the wall and enjoyed the most incredible free show taking place thirty yards in front of us. Up there on the stage was Paul, wife Linda, Denny Laine and the rest of his band Wings. We found out later they were rehearsing for their up and coming Wings Over the World tour.
One McCartney number after another was sung to their grateful audience of two unknown gatecrashers hiding in the shadows. Jet, Let Me Roll It, Maybe I’m Amazed, Lady Madonna, The Long and Winding Road, Listen to What the Man Said, My Love, Blackbird.
It was almost as if the band was doing a personal gig in our front room. And sometimes they would stop halfway through a song and start again.
Chris and I watched praying that our cover wouldn’t be blown. Suddenly McCartney was alone on the stage, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar playing Yesterday. Chris looked at me with a “this is it” type of look. We both knew that we were witnessing a once in a lifetime moment.
Unfortunately that feeling didn’t last long. McCartney had just started singing the second verse when we heard this voice behind us, “Oi! What you two doing here?” We shot around, cursing the intrusion, and saw that it was Jimmy McCulloch, the twenty-two year old Wings guitarist.
For a minute I thought we’d had it but then a huge smile crossed his face as he recognised Chris. They had known each other years ago when Jimmy had played in Thunderclap Newman.
Jimmy McCulloch not only didn’t give the game away so we were able to watch the remainder of the rehearsal but during a break invited us backstage where he introduced us to all the band. McCartney wasn’t bothered at all that we had sneaked in and even asked us our opinions on how the songs sounded.
He then asked me what we were doing at Elstree? I told him about the aborted John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert project.
He smiled and then went back on stage and played Live and Let Die...