Gerry Harrison has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. A twenty-something-year-old free spirit, he found himself in London suburb of Notting Hill as the spring of 1967 slowly turned into the Summer of Love. Van Morrison was his neighbour, and, if he was ever woke early enough to attend Sunday service, Led Zepplin was the resident choir in the local chapel.
But when the young actor turned director got the call in early September to come and work with the Beatles, he wasn’t as excited as you might expect. Gerry is a jazz man you see, and at that time at least, the Beatles were a bit too bubble-gum for his grown up musical sensibilities.
But a job is a job, and on September 11, 1967, he made his way to the RAF West Malling airfield in Kent, where he boarded the bus for the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. After that, nothing was ever the same again.
“I wasn’t too sure what was going on to begin with. I turned up on Monday morning to find out that the film had already been shooting for a week. McCartney was the leader at that point – he filled the vacuum when Brian Epstein died – and the concept of the film was his. He had a wheel diagram that he was working from. He didn’t write a script, I had to get him to write a script. I basically had to find a script,” remembers Gerry.
“There was this motley crew of strange people collected there; midgets and jugglers and accordionists and acrobats together. It was a wonderful crowd and I remember my very first job was to check them all onto the bus.
“It [the film] was a totally disorganised affair. I think the thinking was that they would bring all of these creative people together and something would emerge. McCartney had done ‘A Hard Days Night’ and ‘Help’, and I think after those they didn’t want to be told what to do anymore. They didn’t want to be told to stand on their mark and deliver their lines. They wanted something different from that. They rejected the organisation of that and they wanted something freer.”
There was this motley crew of strange people collected there; midgets and jugglers and accordionists and acrobats together. I remember my very first job was to check them all onto the bus.
Gerry worked as second assistant director on ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. His job was to plan and organise for the next day’s activities – something that proved virtually impossible on the film.
“I remember Paul McCartney came up to me at one point, I think it was my second day there, and he asked was Shepperton Studio okay for Friday. They wanted to shoot a scene on a large staircase for ‘Your Mother Should Know’. I checked and Shepperton Studio had never heard of them,” says Gerry.
“I think they [the Beatles] assumed making a film would be the same as Abbey Road – where they would just ring George Martin and he would be able to sort everything out for them. So we ended up building a giant staircase in a large aircraft hanger instead. It was disorganised and it showed.
“It was a very interesting time for them [the Beatles]. There was gap in their lives at that time because Brian Epstein had just died. I think I spoke to each of them at one time or another about whether they missed him and they were generally quite… I would say relaxed but I was a bit shocked, they were a bit callus. But then I realised, they had just been up with the Maharishi when they got the news that Brian had died. And I expect that, in his funny way, the Maharishi must have counselled them. I remember talking to Ringo and Ringo said, ‘he’s [Brian] still with us, he’s still here’.
“Although he wasn’t such a hands-on manager, because the Beatles were in the studio a lot of Epstein was more involved with the tours at that stage, I do think that he was a supporter of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ idea. Paul did show him the wheel diagram – I know that much for sure. But they probably didn’t say to him, even though Brian had done LSD at that times, that the film was all about an LSD trip. Which it was.
“At that time as well there was a sense of the band reorganising itself and that, I think, started the splits. Because, John was distracted [during the making of the film]. He was enthusiastic about some parts of the filming, like when he played the waiter who was shovelling the spaghetti. But I know that John had met Yoko by then, so I think he was a bit torn because he was still living with Cynthia. He was very distant.
“There was a sense as well that Paul was trying to assert his leadership [after Epstein’s death], and I think the others sort of resented that. You hear so much about all the backbiting that went on. I worked later on ‘Imagine’ with John Lennon in his house and there were a couple of songs on ‘Imagine’ that were not at all nice about Paul McCartney.
“George was really into T.M. at that time, it was all about Transcendental Meditation. He used to sit in him mini going ‘ohmmmmmm’ and chanting different mantras. He was in another world altogether.
“Then Ringo was just Ringo, I would say this about Ringo; he was said to be the joker of the Beatles. That’s the impression that a lot of people have of him, it’s the impression that I had of him. That he was a bit thick. But that wasn’t the case at all. He was very perceptive and a bit older than the rest. I think Ringo was just an okay guy. Ringo would sit and talk about it. I think he was more perceptive and more philosophical than many people think.”
The filming of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was an ill-fated adventure – with more going wrong than went right. Yet amidst all the disorganisation, infighting and excesses, it was a time of great excitement for Gerry.
“I enjoyed the filming, I enjoyed it very much indeed. There were surprises all the time. I remember I was in the pool of the hotel and someone dived in, I didn’t see who is was. He surfaced just in front of my face. It was Paul McCartney. It was funny, his hair was like this [messy] because he had just come out of the water. I did a double take because you are always used to seeing his hair like this [tidy]. It was then that it struck me, this man is just like me. He is a human being. He is not a God. He is a lad in his early 20s like I was. It was things like that which I found really surprising,” continues Gerry.
“A friend of mine, Roy Benson, was given the job of editing the film. I used to meet him in the pub after work and sometimes Paul would come in with him. It took forever to edit and that is because it was such a disaster. It was uneditable. In my view the best song on the film was ‘Fool on a Hill’ which Paul did himself in France with a French camera man – as the editing was going on in London. That probably held things up as well.”
The film aired on Boxing Day 1967 to a British television audience which was largely neither willing not able to understand the concept behind the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. It was an immediate failure, the first major failure that the Beatles had been involved with.
“It’s funny, there is a certain revisionary view of it. There always is, I suppose. And people are now starting to look at it in a different way. I know that Martin Scorsese has good things to say about it. In my opinion, his worst film is far far better than it. As a director, I wouldn’t have put my name to it. It was never in my CV. Technically it was really immature and amateurish,” says Gerry.
“There was a lot of randomness in the film and I think that people were supposed to look at this and generate their own meaning from it. There was a lot of questioning in the ‘60s, about things like the meaning of life. People were trying to challenge the status quo all the time. I think it was part of that.
“As an experience for me, it was great to be involved, and there were a lot of great tracks on the film. That why it should still live on – not for any think that was in the film. It was all about the music. It certainly changed my opinion of the music of the Beatles.”
Years after being present at the beginning of the end of the Beatles, Gerry’s ability to be in the right place at the right time would bring him back in contact with both Paul McCartney and John Lennon. In all, he worked on three separate Wings project with Paul, and – most famously – lived with John and Yoko while he helped in the filming of ‘Imagine’.
“It just so happens that I ended up working with Paul on three other occasions. I remember doing ‘Mull of Kintyre’ up in Scotland. The interesting think about that is that the director was too stoned to get out of his car so I directed in a fashion. It was Paul’s baby but I stepped in. There was a big row on that shoot because one of the musicians in Wings thought he had actually written the song and Paul was taking all of the royalties. That was the last time I ever worked with Paul,” remembers Gerry.
“Then, in another of these random things, someone recommended me for a job and the next thing I find myself down in Tittenhurst Park, which is where John and Yoko were living when we filmed ‘Imagine’ in 1971. It was a great experience to be staying there in the house with them and to get to know them.
“The musicians used to turn up at about 10pm at night and the recording would go through to 4am in the morning. So, the session musicians were in a hotel down the road, but those of us on the filming would just doss down in the house. I remember sleeping one night in John’s gypsy caravan which was outside, and that was cold. In the afternoons then, we would shoot more footage. Mostly bits with John and Yoko but sometimes Julian would come over. It was a home movie really.
“I remember that the director never got on with Yoko. He wanted to direct it his way and Yoko was always interfering – so he was fired. So, as it happened, the next day we were filming ‘Imagine’ in the White Room. I was more or less directing it at this point and Yoko started to suggest things. So, I noticed that all the shutters were open at that point.
“I had a brain wave… why not give her something to do. So, while John was singing I asked her to go around and open all the shutters one by one – just to give her something to do. And now, that has become such an iconic image. If I had one cent for every time that those scenes have been shown I’d be a millionaire.”