Joe Orton is asked to write a film script for The Beatles

January 1967


In 1967, The Beatles were still under contractual obligation to make a third film for United Artists, following the success of their previous films, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and “Help!” (1965).

Throughout 1966, producer Walter Shenson considered various scripts, but none was deemed suitable. In July 1966, it was announced that The Beatles had retained a script by British playwright Owen Halder. The script, named “Shades of a Personality“, called for a man (to be played by John Lennon) suffering from a three-way split personality, with the remaining Beatles playing each of these personalities. However, the project was eventually scrapped.

In January 1967, English playwright Joe Orton was contacted by Walter Shenson to revisit “Shades of a Personality.” Orton was well-known in the London theatre scene and had received a £1,000 investment from Paul McCartney for his play “Loot.” Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, believed that Orton would be a great fit for writing a film for the band.

Orton spent January and February working on a script called “Up Against It“. He documented his progress and interactions with The Beatles’ team in his diary. On January 24, 1967, he met with Paul McCartney and Brian Epstein to discuss the project. However, his script was ultimately rejected, and he was informed of this on April 4.

Basically the Beatles are getting fed up with the Dick Lester type of direction. They want dialogue to speak. Also they are tired of actors like Leo McKern stealing scenes. Difficult this, as I don’t think any of the Beatles can act in any accepted sense. As Marilyn Monroe couldn’t act. Hope to discuss the problem in detail tomorrow.

Joe Orton – The Orton Diaries, 1986

Saturday 14 JanuaryManuscript came by post of the Beatles script. I have to start reading it in a minute.

Sunday 15 JanuaryAlso read the Beatles’ script. Like the idea. Basically it is that there aren’t four young men. Just four aspects of one man. Sounds dreary, but as I thought about it I realised what wonderful opportunities it would give. The end in the present script is the girl advancing on the four to accept a proposal of marriage from one of them. (Which, the script coyly says, we shall never know.) Already have the idea that the end should be a church with four bridegrooms and one bride. The Homecomings in fact, but alibied in such a way that no one could object. Lots of opportunities for sexual ambiguities – a woman’s bedroom at night, her husband outside, and four men inside. I also would like to incorporate a lot of material from the first novel Kenneth and I ever wrote called The Silver Bucket. In it a young girl is expelled from her native village for some unnamed offence. Already see how it could be one boy expelled from some great industrial metropolis accompanied by a ceremony of mammoth proportions. Could be funny. As long as I wasn’t expected to write a naturalistic script. Rang Walter Shenson, who made the first two Beatles’ films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Arranged to meet him tomorrow.

Basically the Beatles are getting fed up with the Dick Lester type of direction. They want dialogue to speak. Also they are tired of actors like Leo McKern stealing scenes. Difficult this, as I don’t think any of the Beatles can act in any accepted sense. As Marilyn Monroe couldn’t act. Hope to discuss the problem in detail tomorrow.

Monday 16 January - Walter Shenson (Films) Inc was the plaque on the door of an eighteenth-century house just off Hyde Park. […] We talked for a while about the script. I gave away a few of my ideas. Enough to whet his appetite. Then we went to lunch. Over lunch he said that one of the ideas for a new Beatles’ film was The Three Musketeers. ‘Oh, no!’ I said. ‘That’s been done to death.’ ‘Brigitte Bardot wanted to play Lady de Winter,’ he said. ‘She’s been done to death as well,’ I said. ‘Oh, heh, heh, heh, boy!’ he said. ‘You certainly are quick.’ He said that the Beatles had turned that idea down. He told me that the scene where George’ had been interviewed by Kenneth Haigh” on trendy clothes in A Hard Day s Night had been written the night before shooting. And that another scene where George was shaving and John was in the bath beside him was also a spur-of-the-moment idea. […] On the whole a dull lunch. I’m interested in doing the film. He’s going to contact Karel Reisz about directing. Also contact the Beatles to fix a meeting. […]

I began the first page or two of the film which I’m calling Up Against It. Mrs Drumgoole and Father Brodie have come to life as interesting characters. Which should delight the Beatles. I’m not bothering to write a character for them. I shall just do all my box of tricks – Sloane and Hal on them. After all if I repeat myself in this film it doesn’t matter. Nobody who sees the film will have seen Sloane or Loot.

Tuesday 17 January[…] Walter Shenson rang. He said he’d been having a talk with Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager. He was delighted that I’d like to do the film. So, W. Shenson said, ‘you’ll be hearing either from Brian or Paul McCartney in the near future. So don’t be surprised if a Beatle rings you up.’ ‘What an experience,’ I said. ‘I shall feel as nervous as I would if St Michael or God were on the line’. ‘Oh, there’s not any need to be worried, Joe,’ Shenson said. ‘I can say, from my heart, that the boys are very respectful of talent. I mean, most respectful of anyone they feel has talent. I can really say that, Joe.’ […]

Friday 20 January[…] When I got back, the phone was just ringing. It was a man called Peter Brown. He’s Brian Epstein’s personal assistant. He wanted to know if I could meet the Beatles at 5.30. I said ‘Yes’. […] Before I left the rehearsal I had a message from Peter Brown. Could I make the meeting on Monday? The Beatles won’t be able to make it today. […]

Monday 23 January[…] Brian Epstein’s adviser rang while I was eating a meal of mashed potatoes, tinned salmon and beetroot. He asked if I could meet ‘the boys’ on Wednesday. Said I’d ring him back tomorrow to confirm. […]

Joe Orton – The Orton Diaries, 1986

Last updated on December 22, 2023

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