Gary James' Interview With Beatles Co-star
Victor Spinetti is a highly regarded actor of the stage and screen. If you're a Beatles fan, you'll remember Mr. Spinetti from his role as the director in A Hard Day's Night and as a mad scientist in Help!. He also appeared in Magical Mystery Tour and John Lennon's solo acting debut in How I Won The War.
Mr. Spinetti has written the story of his life in a book titled Victor Spinetti Up Front, His Strictly Confidential Autobiography . (Robson Books). Our conversation centered mainly around the topic of The Beatles.
Q - Mr. Spinetti, since you were in the theatres in England in the 1950s and 1960s, did you hear about the explosion of Rock 'n' Roll bands all around you? Did you hear about Skiffle?
A - Sure, Skiffle was big. As you know, The Beatles' first band was Skiffle. Or John Lennon's was.
Q - Did you see up close, the long-hair of the British musicians?
A - Yes. I remember years ago, being in the '60s, on The Jack Parr Show. He said to me, "What about all these long-haired people in Britain. Are they all faggots?" I said "No. In the cavaliers and the round heads during the Revolution with the King and Oliver Cromwell; In Oliver Cromwell all the men had their hair cut short so they wouldn't be attractive to women. So", I said "all you people in crew cuts obviously don't want women to fancy you." (laughs) It's true.
Q - I believe Jack Parr introduced The Beatles to America before Ed Sullivan did.
A - I know it. I was on Jack Parr a lot.
Q - Did you ever go to The Cavern Club in Liverpool?
A - I went to The Cavern, but that was only after the event. I wasn't frequenting Liverpool because I was working with a lady in theatre called Joan Littlewood. She had a theatre in London's East end. In 1959, I was invited to join her company. We played London, Paris, New York, Moscow. I called it the Max Factor Tour. (laughs) So, I didn't play Liverpool until after the event. I remember when I first want to Liverpool, I got to the hotel there and I rang George up and said "George, where do you think I am? I'm in Liverpool!" (laughs)
Q - In the early 1960s, Rock 'n' Roll groups were seemingly everywhere in England. Did anyone in your circle of friends notice it and say "What's going on here?"
A - Yeah. Absolutely everywhere. Some of them were people that I knew of course at the time. The singers, certainly Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Bill Fury were all singing Rock 'n' Roll back then. I knew them all. And now my brother of course was Eric Clapton's drummer for six years. My youngest brother Henry. I come from this mining village in Wales and I did all these things up in London, but when I was in the films with The Beatles, my family sat up and took notice. That's when I bought my brother a drum kit 'cause he wanted to be a drummer. He was gonna be a jockey 'cause he's quite short. And then he decided after this he wanted to be a drummer, so there you are.
Q - Is he still in the business?
A - Sure. He's played with them all. I was in New York for the Concert For Bangladesh. George said to me "Your brother is the best drummer in the country." That's my kid brother Henry. He's played with George and he's played with Paul. Then he played with Eric Clapton for six years. Then he went at one point with Tina Turner. I said to him "what was the difference?" He said "Well, Eric counts us in; one, two, three. Tina would go; One!" (laughs)
Q - Why do you think there was this "British Invasion"? Why England? Why Rock 'n Roll? Why the 1960s?
A - Bill Haley and His Comets came to this country in the '50s and people went mad. Dancing in the aisle and the film was even banned. I think that started a hell of a lot of the Rock 'n' Roll here in the '50s. Of course there was Elvis. So, a lot of people impersonated Elvis. There was an explanation here, but it started coming from America. Little Richard, my God, I remember going to New York in 1960 and going to the club where Little Richard was playing. In fact, I was the first person to do The Twist on the English stage. (laughs)
Q - You were?
A - Yes. I came back from New York and I was in this musical and I did The Twist 'cause of Little Richard.
Q - There was this club, The Peppermint Lounge...
A - That's the one. I was there honey child. I was there.
Q - That was quite the place for celebrities.
A - Yeah. It certainly was.
Q - On page 147 of your book, you talk about Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
A - Yes.
Q -You write; "Eppy gave them the look. Mops of shining hair, narrow lapelled jackets with high-top buttons and soft leather boots with Cuban heals." Actually, that's not true.
A - Well, I know what you mean. Stu Sutcliffe.
Q - There you go.
A - But the thing is, that look was in Germany. I had a jacket made, that I wore, like that. That was from Germany. The only thing about Epstein is he made damn sure they all wore it.
Q - I didn't fully understand the contributions of Stu Sutcliffe to The Beatles until I interviewed his sister, Pauline. This guy has never been given the credit he deserves. He came up with the hairstyle, the collarless jackets and the name.
A - Came up with the name?
Q - He got it from a scene in the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One.
A - I didn't know that. When I asked John where it came from, he said they were thinking of the Beat group and the Mersey Beat and this beat and that beat. John said "What about Beatles?" I thought that was a good lateral thinking. They were thinking of the name and John would say they had to beat this and that beat and John said "How about Beatles?". That's what he told me. John didn't say Stu said to him, "How about Beatles?" The Wild One movie was banned in this country.
Q - If John Lennon had said "Stu Sutcliffe came up with the name for the band" and given the credit to someone else, what would that have made him look like?
A - Actually, it's a damn good thing to do. I always say "That's where I got this from...that's where I got that from", because you see, I'm a person who gives away. I don't keep anything. I give it away. If you've got the talent, give it. If you've got the joy, give it. If you want happiness, give it. These are the important things in life you have to give away. You can't keep 'em. People lay around saying "Nobody loves me." That's because you don't love, right? We talked a lot, John and I, about things like this. When they went to India to find enlightenment, I said "Why are you going to India? To find enlightenment? There's no place to go, we're already here."
Q - You write about John on page 187. "His constant desire to discover something new that he could become addicted to or someone he could become a disciple of, meant that occasionally he could be taken for a ride." I've never read that description of John before, but you view it as a character flaw, don't you?
A - No. John had no ego. By that I mean, I said "Do you have a drawer full of songs that will be discovered long after you're gone?" He said "No. I just ring up Paul and say Hey Paul, I think it's time we should get together and write us another hit." And we get together and write one. Now that's our ego. That means I do not seek, I find." Picasso said the same thing. He was very creative. He would find things. He didn't have a pile of songs. Therefore, he was ego-less in that sense.
Q - At any stop along the way to the top, The Beatles could have thrown in the towel. They always said it was John who kept them together. He was the leader.
A - Well, I always thought Paul was. He kept things going. That's why they were such a good team. They did take him (John) for a ride. He was into new things, but then, as he said to me, he married a privet hedge.
Q - What's that?
A - Aaah. He had this house in Weybridge and there was a big hedge all the way around it, like that green hedge thing that they have in Britain. He said "I married a privet hedge. That's what "I Am The Walrus" is all about. Sitting on a cornflake. Waiting for the band to come. Stupid bloody Tuesday, corporation t-shirt... In other words, in back of that you hear Cynthia saying "Leave the back gate open because the garbage men come on Tuesday, so they've got to come in and take the garbage. Takin' the kid to school." Sitting on a cornflake. Sitting in an English garden. Waiting for the sun. Is this it? And so therefore he was always looking for some sort of outlet. It wasn't that Cynthia was a privet hedge. It was the way he lived. But, I said to him "John, everybody has a privet hedge. You may not see yours at the moment. It's in the distance, but one day it will turn up."
Q - John liked to put people on. For example, his 1971 Art Show with Yoko in Syracuse, New York was what you would call a send-up.
A - It's quite easy to see through the privet hedge and do something like that. But then on the other hand, a philosopher that I talked about to him that influenced me was Plotonus, 4 B.C. who said "Cut a hole in the fence and put your head through it." He loved that.
Q - Did you ever meet Brian Epstein?
A - Of course I did.
Q - What kind of guy was he? How did you find him to be?
A - Well, I found him to be charming, a gentleman. All of the things you'd expect an Englishman to be, very well dressed, very solicitous, same as his mother. We didn't meet socially because when that was happening...we never went out. We never had dinner. But I met him on occasion. I always found him very affable and very pleasant.
Q - In your mind, to you, did Brian Epstein look like a manager
A - Oh, yeah. He looked like he was running a business. Sure, he was a businessman.
Q - I only ask because some people I've interviewed have told me Brian was very shy. He stood in the background and you would never know that he was the manager of the most important group in the world.
A - Well, you know, you're quite right. You wouldn't know it. If you put him and Elvis' manager together, you couldn't. Brian did stand in the background. He was not forceful, shouting "I'm the manager of these people. Take notice of me!" He didn't do that. You're absolutely right. Whoever told you that is right. I knew he was the manager 'cause I knew he was. (laughs)
Q - How did you get this role as a Director in A Hard Day's Night? Was it through the screenwriter Alun Owen?
A - Alun Owen came to the play. George came to the play. John came to the play. Walter Shenson came to the play.
Q - They all turned out!
A - Yeah, but on different nights. I was known to them. At that time I'd made a big breakthrough in the theatre in London. So, I was known around the place. But I wasn't prepared for the fantastic and wonderful reception I got from them, which was to be totally accepted. We just sat a talked to each other as if we'd known each other our whole lives.
Q - Were British TV directors like the character you portrayed in A Hard Day's Night.
A - Yeah.
Q - Worried and tense?
A - Yes. Pill-popping, nervous. Well, most people who produce television and direct television shows are like that. It's a ghastly medium to work in. For example, the people who produced the Danny Kaye shows committed suicide. The pressure is unbelievable. I do very little (television). I'm a new, old voice.
Q - Was the money pretty good for your appearances in A Hard Day's Night and Help!?
A - Yeah. It was OK.
Q - How long did it take to film your part in A Hard Day's Night?
A - About ten days.
Q - And Help!?
A - About three months. I was out on the road with them.
Q - What did The Beatles talk about between takes? Did they complain about fame and how they couldn't get out much?
A - Aaah. That's why they stuck together. They used to share hotel rooms for God's sake. They'd have four beds in one big room. Where they were, was still the small center. Around them raged the hurricane or the tornado, but in the still, small center they were still the lads, talking away about all sorts of things. We talked about all sorts of things. They were fantastic company. We didn't just sit down and stare into space. Mind you, they did that when they were stoned. In fact, John used to say "Don't give Vic any of that joint. It's a waste. He's permanently stoned on fucking life." (laughs) Oh God, I love him so much and still do.
Q - I always believe The Beatles were the most fascinating guys on earth.
A - They are. Look, I didn't button-hole them. I didn't pressure them. I didn't make efforts to know them. We just sat and talked. I would phone them occasionally about things, but I never asked them for anything for God's sake. The people around me kept saying "Get their autograph!" I'd say "I'm working with them. Fuck-off!" I remember they had George's birthday in the Bahamas and some girls founded my fan club in America...that lot. I still hear from them! Everybody I've known, I still know.
Q - I think the nicest thing The Beatles did was to show up at this restaurant where you had taken your sister and her fiancÚ.
A - And danced with her for her engagement. I wouldn't dream of asking them.
Q - Each Beatle danced with your sister!
A - What's amazing is, I didn't ask them. They couldn't go anywhere, but they came. They thought it was such a lovely thing I was doing because my sister and her boyfriend, now her husband, got engaged. I said "My engagement present is a weekend in London, going to nightclubs, going to theatres, staying in a hotel. In other words, the sort of things you want when you settle down and have kids." They loved that.
Q - How did your sister react to The Beatles being there?
A - My sister was unbelievable with them. She was natural. She was smiling. She was talking. When they left, she became hysterical.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - When did we make A Hard Day's Night?
Q - March of '64.
A - Round about then.
Q - The Beatles didn't like Help!, did they?
A - Well, it was because it was different. Suddenly it became a big movie with a big budget. The problem is, then the cousins, the sisters and the aunts all have to visit. The directors, producers wives all wanted to come on this jaunt because The Beatles were going to be there. There was kind of a hierarchy that didn't exist before. We were all in it together. Dick (Lester) was a brilliant man, but unfortunately after A Hard Day's Night he had such pressure on him to make another success, that he became rather like the television director in A Hard Day's Night.
Q - He became you!
A - Yes, that's right. When we all went to the opening night of the film Help! in London, they asked me to go with them. They were there with their wives. "Come with us." I was in the car with them. When we got to the Pavilion Cinema, the crowds screaming at the cinemas, John said "Push Paul out first. He's the prettiest." We all got out and the cameras flashed. You look at the photographs of them all standing there and behind with my head turned away, was me. It was their evening. I didn't want to push myself in the background. Maybe that's why we got on well. Only I know it's me. I could've stood behind them grinning "Here I am with them!" Of course it was my night too 'cause I was in the film, but at the same time, they were all standing there together. I thought "Turn away from the camera." I think they probably appreciated that.
Q - Could The Beatles have approached Richard Lester with script changes?
A - No. John wanted to wear a jacked that he designed for himself in the film. Dick said "no." John said "Get fucked!" (laughs) But they made another film together, How I Won The War.
Q - You sat in on a Beatles' recording session. Do you recall what they were recording?
A - "And I Love Her", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". John said "Come up to the studio." I said "I don't want to bother you." Listen how clever this is, he said "Vic, only the fucking bores turn up." It's a good line. If you really love somebody, you don't want to bother them when their working. It's the people who come and nudge your elbows during brain surgery that you want to avoid. (laughs)
Q - Where was the recording done of those two songs?
A - This was at Abbey Road.
Q - You write that The Beatles together had "too much power." What kind of power are you talking about?
A - What power?
Q - That's what I say.
A - Oh, biggy, biggy, biggy power! World dominating power. Power that would make George Bush, Tony Blair and The Pope quake in their shoes and have sleepless nights because people became Beatle fans and then they became Israeli, then they became Palestinian, they became Beatle fans and then they became Jewish. They became Beatles fans then they became Christian. In other words, they put second what should be second and not first. People say speak as a human being. That's the problem...we haven't become human yet. When I was with The Beatles in Germany, there were tens of thousands of Austrians outside the hotel, waving and screaming. The Beatles put combs to their lips and did fake Hitler speeches and then these kids laughed back. They laughed politics and religion and all the other crap that's in the world out of it. They had power... and God it was fabulous! It was the first time when the young could speak directly to the young without any intermediary. There was no in-betweens and they had to be destroyed. You notice how the press turned on them once they became so powerful that the kids became Beatles fans before they became patriots. It was more important to be a Beatle fan than an American, but not to your government or mine. Suddenly the press started saying "these long-haired drug people." It's not happened since. It happened then. There was a feeling that there was some kind of hope in the world, but look at the mess we're in now 'cause we're such idiots.
Q - When John Lennon appeared on The Tom Snyder Show in 1975, he said he couldn't tell people to do anything because they wouldn't listen. That's why I question what power you refer to.
A - Look, what kind of group had the world, the young of the world, loving them? There were some for and some against Elvis. There were some for and some against The Beach Boys, but everybody loved The Beatles. All The Beatles lyrics are about love and understanding. I said to John once, "What's your best lyric?" He said "That's easy Vic, "All You Need Is Love". He didn't say "Imagine".