Saturday, May 15, 2010

Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour is an hour-long television film starring The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr) that initially aired on BBC1 on 26 December 1967. Upon its initial showing, the film was poorly received by critics and audiences.

Initial Idea

In The Beatles Anthology, John Lennon states that "if stage shows were to be out, we wanted something to replace them. Television was the obvious answer." Most of the band members have quoted that the initial idea was Paul McCartney’s, although he stated, “I’m not sure whose idea Magical Mystery Tour was. It could have been mine, but I’m not sure whether I want to take the blame for it! We were all in on it — but a lot of the material at that time could have been my idea.” Prior to the movie, McCartney had been creating home movies, and this was a source of inspiration for Magical Mystery Tour.


Despite the fact that Magical Mystery Tour was ultimately the shortest of all Beatles films, nearly ten hours of footage was shot over a two week period. The core of the film was shot beginning on 11 September and finishing on 25 September. The following eleven weeks were mostly spent on editing the film from ten hours to 52 minutes. Scenes that were filmed but not included in the final cut include:

* A sequence where ice cream, fruit, and lollipops were sold to The Beatles and other coach passengers,
* John, Paul, George, and Ringo each looking through a telescope, and
* Happy Nat The Rubber Man (Nat Jackley) chasing women around the Atlantic Hotel's outdoor swimming pool, a sequence that John himself directed.

Much of the film was shot in and around RAF West Malling, an airfield in Kent that had recently been decommissioned. Many of the interior scenes, such as the final ballroom sequence for "Your Mother Should Know," were shot in the disused aircraft hangars. The exteriors, such as the "I Am the Walrus" sequence, and the marathon race, were filmed on the runways and taxi aprons. RAF Air Training Corps cadets can be seen marching in some scenes, and during "I Am the Walrus" an RAF Avro Shackleton is seen orbiting the group.

The mystery tour itself was shot throughout the West Country of England, including Devon and Cornwall, although most of the footage was not used in the finished film. The final striptease sequence was shot at Paul Raymond's Raymond Revuebar in London, and the sequence for "The Fool on the Hill" was shot around Nice, France. The visual sequence for the instrumental "Flying" uses aerial footage which was shot on tinted film that had originally been intended for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Magical Mystery Tour movie was made, but the hoped-for "magical" adventures never happened. During the filming, an ever greater number of cars followed the hand-lettered bus, hoping to see what its passengers were up to, until a running traffic jam developed. The spectacle ended after Lennon angrily tore the lettering off the sides of the bus.


The script of Magical Mystery Tour was very informal. The Beatles gathered together a group of people for the cast and camera crew, and told them to "Be on the coach on Monday morning." The film was made up along the way. Ringo Starr recalled "Paul had a great piece of paper-just a blank piece of white paper with a circle on it. The plan was: 'We start here-and we’ve got to do something here...' We filled it in as we went along."-Ringo Starr. Lennon recalled in a later interview, "We knew most of the scenes we wanted to include, but we bent our ideas to fit the people concerned, once we got to know our cast. If somebody wanted to do something we hadn’t planned, they went ahead. If it worked, we kept it in." At one point, Lennon had a dream in which he was a waiter piling spaghetti on a woman’s plate, so the sequence was filmed and included in the movie. Some of the older actors, such as Nat Jackley, were not familiar with the absence of a script, and were disappointed with the lack of one.


The film was unscripted and shooting proceeded on the basis of a mostly handwritten collection of ideas, sketches, and situations, which Paul McCartney called the "Scrupt." The situation is that of a group of people on a British charabanc bus (in a Bedford VAL Panorama) tour, focusing mostly on Mr. Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) and his recently widowed Auntie Jessie (Jessie Robins). Other group members on the bus include the tour director Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle), the tour hostess Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), conductor Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), and the other Beatles.

During the course of the tour, "strange things begin to happen" at the whim of "four or five magicians," four of whom are played by The Beatles themselves and the fifth by long-time road manager Mal Evans.

During the journey, Ringo and his Auntie Jessie argue considerably. During the tour, Aunt Jessie begins to have daydreams of falling in love with Buster Bloodvessel, who displays eccentric and disturbing behaviour. The tour involves several strange activities, such as an impromptu race in which each tour group member employs a different mode of transportation (some run, a few jump into cars, a group of people have a long bike they pedal, while Ringo ends up beating them all with the bus). The entire tour group also crawls into a tiny tent in a field, inside which is a projection theatre. There is a strange scene where the group walks through what appears to be a British Army recruitment office. The film culminates with the men of the tour group watching a strip show.

The film is punctuated by musical interludes, which include The Beatles performing "I Am the Walrus" wearing animal masks, George Harrison singing "Blue Jay Way" while waiting on Blue Jay Way Road, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes's "Death Cab For Cutie," sung by Vivian Stanshall himself.


The British public's reaction to the film was scathing. The film initially aired in the United Kingdom as a made-for-television film on BBC1. It was broadcast in black and white, although the film was shot in colour. The Beatles and the others they worked with on the film felt this was one of the main reasons it received bad reviews. George Martin, the band's producer said, “When it came out originally on British television, it was a colour film shown in black and white, because they didn’t have colour on BBC1 in those days. It looked awful and was a disaster." The film was shown in colour on BBC2 a few days later.

Hunter Davies, the band's biographer, said: "It was the first time in memory that an artist felt obliged to make a public apology for his work." Paul McCartney later spoke to the press, saying: "We don't say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time." McCartney also said, “I mean, you couldn’t call the Queen’s speech a gas, either, could you?” However, with the passage of time, McCartney changed his view of the production, saying: "Looking back on it, I thought it was all right. I think we were quite pleased with it."

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe notes the similarity between this film and the exploits of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters.


The poor critical reaction to the telecast soured American television networks from acquiring the film, while its one-hour running length made it commercially unviable for theatrical release. It was not seen in commercial theatres in the US until 1974, when New Line Cinema acquired the rights for limited theatrical and non-theatrical distribution; it was not broadcast on American television until the 1980s in syndication. However, it was shown in 1968 at the Fillmore East in New York City as part of a fundraiser for the Liberation News Service. The critical reception in 1967 had been so poor that no one had properly archived a negative, and these later re-release versions had to be copied from poor-quality prints. By the end of the 1980s, MPI, through rights holder Apple Corps, had released the movie on video, and a DVD release followed many years later.


The songs in order of their use in the movie:

1. "Magical Mystery Tour"
2. "The Fool on the Hill"
3. "She Loves You" (played during the marathon with a carnival-style organ)
4. "Flying"
5. "All My Loving" (orchestrated, as background music)
6. "I Am the Walrus"
7. "Jessie’s Dream" (previously unreleased instrumental piece)
8. "Blue Jay Way"
9. "Death Cab For Cutie" (written by Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes and performed by their band, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band)
10. "Your Mother Should Know"
11. "Magical Mystery Tour" (once more)
12. "Hello, Goodbye" (finale played over end credits)

Release history on VHS and DVD

Year Company Format(s) Comments
1978 Media-Home Entertainment VHS/Betamax
1988 Video Collection/Apple VHS and Laserdisc With a digitally re-mixed and re-mastered soundtrack by Producer George Martin
1992 MPI/Apple Laserdisc
1997 MPI/Apple DVD First DVD release of Magical Mystery Tour
2003 Avenue One DVD Poor quality, though sold in major retailers such as Best Buy

Year Company Format(s) Comments
1980s Empire Films VHS
1988 MPI/Apple VHS and Laserdisc With a digitally re-mixed and re-mastered soundtrack by Producer George Martin
1997 MPI/Apple DVD First DVD release of Magical Mystery Tour


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