As The Beatles’ groundbreaking 1965 film Help! emerges on Blu-Ray, MOJO unearths its classic 2009 interview with the Fabs’ flamboyant co-star, Victor Spinetti. Spinetti played Help!’s mad scientist (“I could – dare I say it? – rule the world!”) with the same eye-bulging conviction that he brought to his turn as neurotic TV director in the Beatles’ debut feature, A Hard Day’s Night, and was witness to the profound changes in and around the Beatles in their most fast-moving period, not only as an actor who happened to be in their films but as a collaborator who worked with John Lennon on the theatrical version of the Beatle’s book In His Own Write.
Sadly, Spinetti is not around to relive his day in the white heat of Beatlemania, since he died in 2012, but not before delighting MOJO on several occasions with his not-always-housetrained reminiscences. Here he is, unburdening to MOJO’s Danny Eccleston in 2009.
42 years on, what does Help! mean to you?
Help!’s been very good to me. Recently, I was invited [to Las Vegas] as a guest of honour to go and see the musical Love, and then after that I was asked to attend a Beatles convention for three days, at which I gave a talk on what it was like to be in those films. I was paid and there was first class travel, and then the same thing happened to me in Chicago – I did three talks there. It’s taken me three times on the QE2.
So, what are those fan conventions like – a bit barmy?
Oh, they’re sweet; the Beatles ones are sweet. They’re the nicest people. There are people in their early teens, to people who are 80 or 90. They’re so polite. You see, the thing is, those songs were like a reservoir of poetry and melody that flooded all over the world. And so the people who plug into that, don’t plug into any of that rap hate stuff. There’s no hatred in the music, and there’s joy in it.
“A policeman said: “Is there a Victor Spinetti on this plane?” And John said: “They’re deporting you, you f***ing wop.”
What was it like being back with them again?
When we got on the plane at London to go to The Bahamas, you couldn’t hear the engines because the screams were so loud. We didn’t know it was taking off. On the way to the Bahamas, we landed in New York to refuel – we weren’t allowed to get off. This policeman came on the plane and said: “Is there a Victor Spinetti on this plane?” And John said: “They’re deporting you, you f***ing wop, you’ve been thrown off!” (laughs) The policeman said: “Will you come to the door of the plane, please, your fan club are at the airport…” And it was true! I walked to the door of the plane and I received jelly babies and teddy bears, and The Beatles were absolutely astonished. The Beatles and Brian Epstein became card-carrying members of the Victor Spinetti Fanclub Of America.
What was different this time?
Well, the accommodation was different. In the Bahamas, we were all split up. The stars and all the top rank people, and their families, went to the posh places, and the actors went to various dumps. It didn’t last long because I complained bitterly and we were moved
Surely, Equity would have something to say about that?
I remember poor old Roy Kinnear [who played Spinetti’s assistant] saying “Don’t make waves, don’t make waves”, and I said, “Oh f*** off, we’re filming tomorrow; they’re lying around by the pool.”
The first scene shot was you, Roy, Eleanor Bron and Ringo on a yacht…
…And it was nearly the end of The Beatles! It’s when Ringo had to jump into the water and I, as the mad scientist, was meant to try and cut his finger off to get his ring. He dives into the water and comes out all shivering because of course it was cold and there were shark nets – very dangerous. So they dried him off, and then they said “action” and Ringo dived off again. The third time he was being dried off – no private dressing room, just a hair drier – and he said: “Oh, Victor, I don’t want to do this again.” I said, “Why”, and he replied, “I can’t bloody swim.”
How did you rate The Beatles as actors?
Well, they never thought of themselves as actors.
Acting was too interpretive; they were creative. I mean, to sit around all day on a set to go and do ten lines is tedious for most actors, but we’re being paid and we sit there. But when you’re creative, rather than interpretive… I don’t think they would have liked it too much. They might have done it occasionally. I mean, Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night was marvellous, when he was just walking along. And I remember the opening night of Help!, at the end of the Ticket To Ride sequence, the audience just burst into applause. I remember saying to them: “It’s because you have the [ring] of truth – you don’t look like liars.”
Was honesty the key to how they came across on screen?
I think so. Certainly in A Hard Day’s Night, they were just themselves, with four or five cameras running at once, observing them. With Help!, it was much more structured – much more of a proper movie. But they still didn’t look like liars. They might have looked self-conscious. John said to me once: “Whenever the director shouts ‘Action!’ all the actors change but you stay the same. Does that mean you’re as terrible as we are?”
Did it surprise you that Ringo was the one who went onto have a film career?
No, not at all – look at that face. I remember one interviewer asked him why he didn’t smile more and he said: ‘I don’t have a smiling face.’ He’s in there, looking out. That’s why he didn’t appear to be self-conscious. Like Lawrence Olivier said: “I never want to know who’s out front. Because if I know who’s out front, I’m up there watching me instead of doing it.”
Are you fond of Professor Foot, your mad scientist character? You seemed to have a lot of fun with him?
I did, indeed. Although Dick [Lester] said to me: ‘You don’t appear to be doing anything with this one,’ and I said: ‘I did my lot in A Hard Day’s Night, I’m calming down a bit.’ (Laughs) But it was a good combination of Roy and I because we’d worked together on stage before, so we were used to each other and that came across.
Had The Beatles been changed by another year of the crazy fame?
They hadn’t changed; the people around them had. In the middle of this great whirlwind of Beatlemania, there was this still, small centre where they sat. In the middle of it, you felt like you were sitting in the kitchen, do you know what I mean? The others were in the sitting room, or the drawing room, or the front room, but if you sat with them in the kitchen, they were just the same. The constant putdowns between each other kept everyone sane.
They were as down-to-earth and approachable as they were in the previous film. But, like I said, the people around them were causing tension. I remember driving along in a car – they were all given loan cars on The Bahamas – with their hair flying in the wind and George singing, “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high!” They were the same. What changed them eventually was the split when, you know, there’s somebody else there who doesn’t say hello or smile at you. She’s smiling a lot now, I notice…
(Pauses) You know who I mean.
You mean Yoko?
Don’t mention her name! (Laughs)
Was she not very friendly to you?
Well, she didn’t speak! Alright, you come into a room, OK, and then someone says ‘This is my new girlfriend’ and they just look at you and they don’t say ‘hello’ or ‘John’s told me so much about you.’ Nothing. And she made John defend her all the time.
“People think of John as this egomaniac; well, he was arrogant, but he did not have ego.”
Could you tell me about your experience of writing with John?
The Old Vic were going to do a production on stage of John Lennon’s In His Own Write [this would eventually open on June 18th 1968], and this young girl playwright [Adrienne Kennedy] came to see me and asked if I’d be in it. And she’d taken the pages of John’s books and rearranged them into another book, with stage directions that read things like, ‘Christmas tree turns into a horse and gallops off.’ I asked them if they had John’s permission and they said they hadn’t, so I rang him up and asked him what he thought. “They must be f***ing mad,” he said. I told him I’d thought of a way how to do it, and he said: “Well, I’ll give you the rights, then you can do it.” I said, “Wait a minute, we’ll do it together.” And we did.
So we got together and started to write it. I was in a flat at the time on Manchester Street [London] and John and I worked on the script one morning, quite late, near the end of ’67. John said, “Let’s go somewhere warm.” I thought he meant another room – we ended up in Africa (laughs). We got hold of a car and ended up in Marrakech, North Africa. And that’s where we went to continue writing.
What was he like as a collaborator?
The genius of the man was that he had no ego. People think of John as this egomaniac; well, he was arrogant, but he did not have ego. I asked him once: “Will there by a drawer full of songs discovered when you’re gone?” He said: “No, I just ring up Paul and say I think it’s about time we wrote another hit, and we’d get together and write one.” Picasso said, “I do not seek, I find,” and John was the same: he found things, and out of that a song came. He didn’t have a preconceived idea about things – which is ego. Ego means you can’t make a mistake, and that’s what kills most people or makes them brittle, like china.
John was able to find a thought when he got there, or something would strike him and he’d put it down. There was no question of pre-planning, like with some composers. Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, whom I worked with, I asked them what came first, the music or the lyrics? And they said… the cheque! (Laughs)
Did you not see John as troubled?
Well, Help! was the song. Those lyrics, “I need somebody, not just anybody…” He really was desperate. He said: “I married a f***ing privet hedge”, not about Cynthia, he meant the house. It’s all in the song I Am The Walrus – that’s a man sitting in the middle of life thinking, Is this it? Sitting on a cornflake? Getting breakfast? It’s all in there. That’s what that song’s about. Dissatisfaction. Is this it? Where do I go now?
You had a brief role in Magical Mystery Tour, too. By then, you must have noticed even more changes. They’d packed in the touring, and…
(Interrupts) They were in the studio. I remember John saying to me, “Come up to the studio, we’re recording”, and I said “John, I don’t want to bother you.” He said: “That’s alright Vic, only the f***ing bores turn up.”
You said that you’d talked to them briefly before they went off to Rishikesh; did they ever talk to you about the experience afterwards?
No, never. They did introduce me to the Maharishi, though, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. They said to me, “You’ve got to meet him, Vic,” so I went along. All these New York ladies were there to see him. He was on the stage giggling away as they threw flowers in front of him. This one woman said to him, “Tell me, your Highness, how does one teach children the principles of transcendental meditation?” And he fell about laughing and said: “My dear lady, they invented it!”
And what did you think of Magical Mystery Tour?
Now, this is the thing that annoyed me. It had dreadful press, but if you look at it, Magical Mystery Tour predates Monty Python. It must have been something that gave Monty Python the idea of doing what they did. Look at it again. The guy shovelling spaghetti into someone’s mouth with John Lennon as the waiter? That ridiculous sequence coming down the stairs singing Your Mother Should Know? All that stuff was pure surrealism.
“The next day in the press it was all: Beatles Insult Governor. But, I mean, these people were appalling.”
Of course, it was all attacked because we like to knock them down. I was asked “What do they talk about, these pop people?” I said, “Well, on the set yesterday, we discussed the Freudian interpretation of dreams, as opposed to the Jungian interpretation.” If they’d been to Oxford or Cambridge and had decided to do their rooms Chinese for a year, and dress in Chinese clothes, and eat only Chinese food, then that’s OK. But if The Beatles did that, who the f*** are they? It’s a class thing, and it’s still prevalent today. I can’t bear it.
Were you at the famous dinner party with the Governor of The Bahamas? Did you hear John’s outburst?
I remember everything. That morning, we were filming in what we thought was a disused army barracks. John said to me, “Hey, Vic, come and have a look at this,” and he opened this wooden shutter in this corrugated iron-roofed building. The smell in there was awful, and they’d thrown all the ill and old people in there. We were shocked because we thought it was a deserted building.
That night, at a dinner given by the Minister Of Finance in his marvellous house, with plates of caviar and gold service, John said: “Hey, excuse me, we were up at what we thought was an old army hut and it turned out to be full of old people and children with disabilities – how do you reconcile that with this?”
Well, the next day in the press it was all: Beatles Insult Governor. But, I mean, these people were appalling. They’d say stuff like, “Which one’s Ringo? Oh, it must be you – you’re the one with the nose,” and, “Is that hair real?” It was awful. We started playing up to it, saying things like, “Oh, what are these? Knives and forks, you say?” Then the governor’s wife would say, “Look, they don’t even know about knives and forks!” but we were putting them on. But that’s the remark that John made and I’ll never forget it.
I’m meeting Paul next week. Any message you’d like me to give him?
Well I used to take messages to John from Paul when they weren’t speaking. But please give him my love and tell him that I’m still alive! I wrote to him after the business of the divorce and I got a sweet letter back. Of course, I don’t say, ‘Here I am!’ but certainly say that I said hello.
“Vic says hi…”
Tell him I’m still in love with them more than I ever was.
Victor, so much for talking to us.
A pleasure. Now I’ve got to go to speak to a guy who’s writing a book about [legendary London theatre impresario] Binky Beaumont. Cheerio!