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Tuesday, January 24, 1967

Paul McCartney and Brian Epstein discuss The Beatles’ third film with Joe Orton

Last updated on December 22, 2023

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, named “Shades of a Personality.” However, the project was eventually scrapped.

In January 1967, English playwright Joe Orton was contacted by Walter Shenson to revisit “Shades of a Personality.” On this day, January 24, he met with Paul McCartney and The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein at Brian’s home.

Joe Orton recorded this visit in his diary and described how “A French photographer arrived with two beautiful youths and a girl. He’d taken a set of new photographs of The Beatles. They wanted one to use on the record sleeve. Excellent photograph. And the four Beatles look different with their moustaches.” The French photographer was likely Jean-Marie Périer, who had taken shots of The Beatles late January; one of his shots was used for the cover of the “Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane” cover in February 1967.

Orton spent January and February working on a script called “Up Against It“. However, his script was ultimately rejected, and he was informed of this on April 4.

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. […]

Wednesday 24 January I got to Brian Epstein’s office at 4:45. […] After about five minutes or so a youngish man with a hair-style which was way out in 1958, short, college-boy, came up and said, ‘I’m Peter Brown, Brian Epstein’s personal assistant. I’m afraid there’s been a most awful mix-up. And all the boys’ appointments have been put on an hour and a half.’ I was a bit chilly in my manner after that. ‘Do you want me to come back at six?’ I said. ‘Well, no. Couldn’t we make another appointment.?’ ‘What guarantee is there that you won’t break that?’ I said. ‘I think you’d better find yourself a different writer.’ This said with indifferent success, though the effect was startling. He asked me to wait a minute and went away to return with Brian Epstein himself. Somehow I’d expected something like Michael Codron. I’d imagined Epstein to be florid, Jewish, dark-haired and over-bearing. Instead I was face to face with a mousey-haired, slight young man. Washed-out in a way. He had a suburban accent. I went into his office. ‘Could you meet Paul and me for dinner tonight?’ he said. ‘We do want to have the pleasure of talking to you.’ ‘I’ve a theatre engagement tonight,’ I replied, by now sulky and unhelpful. ‘Could I send the car to fetch you after the show?’ I didn’t much relish the idea but agreed and, after a lot of polite flim-flammery, left almost tripping over the carpet and crashing into the secretary who gave a squeal of surprise as I hurtled past her. This I never mention when re-telling the story. I always end on a note of hurt dignity.

When I got back home, […] Kenneth suggested that I rang Brian Epstein and agreed to meet him and Paul McCartney for dinner after all. So I did. And said I’d meet them at eight at Epstein’s house in Belgravia. Chapel Street. […]

Arrived in Belgravia at ten minutes to eight having caught a 19 bus which dropped me at Hyde Park Corner. I found Chapel Street easily. I didn’t want to get there too early so I walked around for a while and came back through a nearby mews. When I got back to the house it was nearly eight o’clock. I rang the bell and an old man opened the door. He seemed surprised to see me. ‘Is this Brian Epstein’s house.?’ I said. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said, and led the way into the hall. I suddenly realised that the man was the butler. I’ve never seen one before. He took my coat and I went to the lavatory. When I came out he’d gone. There was nobody about. I wandered around a large dining room which was laid for dinner. And then I got to feel strange. The house appeared to be empty. So I went upstairs to the first floor. I heard music, only I couldn’t decide where it came from. So I went up a further flight of stairs. I found myself in a bedroom. I came down again and found the butler. He took me into a room and said in a loud voice, ‘Mr Orton’. Everybody looked up and stood to their feet. I was introduced to one or two people. And Paul McCartney. He was just as the photographs. Only he’d grown a moustache. His hair was shorter too. He was playing the latest Beatles recording, ‘Penny Lane’. I liked it very much. Then he played the other side – Strawberry something. I didn’t like this as much. We talked intermittently. Before we went out to dinner we’d agreed to throw out the idea of setting the film in the thirties. We went down to dinner. The crusted old retainer – looking too much like a butler to be good casting – busied himself in the corner. ‘The only thing I get from the theatre,’ Paul M. said, ‘is a sore arse.’ He said Loot was the only play he hadn’t wanted to leave before the end. ‘I’d’ve liked a bit more,’ he said. We talked of the theatre. I said that compared with the pop scene the theatre was square. ‘The theatre started going downhill when Queen Victoria knighted Henry Irving’,’ I said. ‘Too fucking respectable.’ We talked of drugs, of mushrooms which give hallucinations – like LSD. ‘The drug not the money,’ I said. We talked of tattoos. And, after one or two veiled references, marijuana. I said I’d smoked it in Morocco. The atmosphere relaxed a little. Dinner ended and we went upstairs again. We watched a programme on TV. It had phrases in it like ‘the in-crowd’, and ‘swinging London’. There was a little scratching at the door. I thought it was the old retainer, but someone got up to open the door and about five very young and pretty boys trooped in. I rather hoped this was the evening’s entertainments. It wasn’t, though. It was a pop group called The Easybeats. I’d seen them on TV. I liked them very much then. In a way they were better (or prettier) offstage than on. After a while Paul McCartney said ‘Let’s go upstairs’. So he and I and Peter Brown went upstairs to a room also fitted with a TV… A French photographer arrived with two beautiful youths and a girl. He’d taken a set of new photographs of The Beatles. They wanted one to use on the record sleeve. Excellent photograph. And the four Beatles look different with their moustaches. Like anarchists in the early years of the century. After a while we went downstairs. The Easybeats still there. The girl went away. I talked to the leading Easybeat. Feeling slightly like an Edwardian masher with a Gaiety Girl. And then I came over tired and decided to go home. I had a last word with Paul M. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’d like to do the film. There’s only one thing we’ve got to fix up.’ ‘You mean the bread.’ ‘Yes.’ We smiled and parted. I got a cab home. It was pissing down. […]

Sunday 29 January Today I’ve been writing Up Against It. I had an inspiration. I’d already written the beginning of the script up to where McTurk is thrown out of the town. And then I remembered that in the cupboard somewhere was the manuscript of a novel I’d written in 1961 called The Vision of Gombold Proval. It had always been my intention some day to rewrite it. I decided to get it down and see if there was anything I could use. I found, to my surprise, that it was excellent. It had great faults as a novel, but as the basis for a film it was more than adequate. So I’m rewriting the whole thing. Miraculously, towards the middle of the novel four young men appear. Might have been designed with the Beatles in mind. In any case I shall enjoy writing the film. […]

Tuesday 31 JanuaryRather a nasty day out (so Kenneth tells me, I haven’t put my nose beyond the door), windy and dusty. I’ve spent the whole day writing Up Against It. I’ve got as far as the scene where McTurk (Ringo’ if they buy the script) arrives home from the revolutionary meeting to find Connie giving a party. Peggy rang to say that Walter S. had been in touch. After a bit of preliminary skirmishing, she’d said, ‘Well, we’d normally ask between fifteen and twenty thousand for a script by Joe.’ Walter S. had gasped ‘My God!’ and asked to be excused whilst he talked with Brian Epstein. Peggy says she doesn’t think that we will get that much, but it is fun asking. I want it put in the contract that I can buy my script back wholesale if they don’t want it. I don’t like the idea of them being able to bugger about with the idea if I’m not on it.

Peggy agrees that we could say perhaps 5,000 for the first draft. If they don’t like it we have the right to buy it back wholesale. Lock stock and barrel. It means, I suppose, in effect, that I’m writing a first draft for nothing, but I do want it back if they’re not interested. To sell to Oscar or someone else.

Sunday 5 February – […] On Thursday night I got home to find that Peggy had rung. Kenneth said I was to phone her. When I did she said that W. Shenson said he and Epstein would go as high as ten thousand. ‘I said I thought you’d accept that, darling,’ Peggy said. ‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘That’s what I wanted after all.’ She said that there was a difficulty about owning the copyright. So I shall just have to do a first draft and hope they like it enough to continue. […] Today I worked hard on Up Against It. I’ve got up to the parody on the Sydney Street siege […]

Monday 6 February – […] I did a little work on Up Against It. I’ve now got McTurk into prison. Realise
that, of course, the whole script is about schizophrenia. […]

Thursday 9 February – […] Today I did nothing but write Up Against It. Peggy rang to ask if W. Shenson
had got in touch with me. When she realised that he hadn’t she said she’d write him a letter to ginger him up.

Friday 10 February – […] She’d had a telephone call from Shenson in answer to a curt note she’d written to him asking about the Beatles III contract. I’m expecting a call from him tomorrow morning. […] Came home. Began writing more of Up Against It. I’ve found it difficult to get them off the wretched yacht. But I’ve managed it now. I’m having them blown (like Odysseus) off course when they escape from the yacht in the lifeboat. Then, of course, I can go into the war scenes from Gombold. After that I’m almost home and dry.

Saturday 11 FebruaryAfter a morning spent reading what I’d already written of Up Against It, I went this afternoon to see W. Shenson. His flat — in Chesham Close, off Lyall Street — is in Chesham House. Until 1917 it was the Imperial Russian Embassy. It remained empty for years after the Revolution. The Bolsheviks moved their embassy to another part (and a richer part) of London. ‘This place wasn t good enough for them,’ Shenson said, waving his hand benignly around what could only be described as a small palace. Outside his kitchen window was a view of rooftops and a mews, ‘where they kept the horses, I guess,’ W.S. said. Below was a paved courtyard now full of cars but presumably in the past it was a garden. Enormous rooms. A sad house, but better a block of flats than pulled down.

Shenson lit a cigar when I was settled. ‘You haven’t seen my moustache?’ I said. He peered rather puzzled at my face. ‘You haven’t got one,’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ve shaved it off But I had one yesterday.’ ‘You didn’t have one when I last saw you.’ ‘No, but I grew one for a fortnight and then I shaved it off. He shook his head and offerred me an After Eight wafer-thin mint.

He was most concerned to impress upon me that ‘the boys’ shouldn’t be made to do anything in the film that would reflect badly upon them. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the kids will all imitate whatever the boys do.’ I hadn’t the heart to tell him that the boys, in my script, have been caught in flagrante, become involved in dubious political activity, dressed as women, committed murder, been put in prison and committed adultery. And the script isn’t finished yet. I thought it best to say nothing of my plans for the Beatles until he had had a chance of reading the script. We parted at five o’clock amicably. With the contract, according to him, as good as signed. And, on my part, the film almost written. […]

Tuesday 14 February – […] I wrote more of Up Against It. […]

Saturday 18 February – […] Started typing up my final version (of the first draft) of Up Against It. Kenneth suggested that I call it Prick Up Your Ears’. But this is much too good a title to waste on a film. […]

Saturday 25 FebruaryOscar Lewenstein rang up about 7.15 as I was getting ready to go to the Criterion. He’d read Up Against It and liked it very much. He thought it had a poetic quality. This is because I used all the romantic cliches – moonlight, roses, unrequited love and the Cinderella figure of the poor girl who loves him and finally is rewarded by his love in the last reel. O.L. said he liked least the scenes in the Albert Hall (with the shooting down of the woman prime minister, Lillian Corbett). This clearly because, the parody on the Kennedy assassination, he doesn’t think that Epstein, the Beaties, or W. Shenson will opt for.

Monday 6 March – […] Went to Peggy’s office. We decided to send Shenson Up Against It. No point in hanging on to it. Tried to get in touch with him with no success. I said I’d try later on in the morning. Came home. Went to Shenson’s office at 2.30 and delivered the script. He was very surprised to get it so soon. He’s off to California in the morning. Epstein is in New York but will be back next week. Shenson said he’d ring me tomorrow morning about ten-ish. He’s going to read the script tonight. Peggy said she feels it will be too much for him. […]

Tuesday 7 March – […] Shenson rang this’ morning. He’d read only half the script (to the prison sequence) and confessed to finding it ‘fascinating’. I gather, though, that he’s jittery. He also thinks that either it should be made much clearer that the four boys are merely aspects of one person or, as I suggested, that there are four boys. He’s worried by the fact that, as the script goes at the present time, it would be impossible for there to be only one boy. He’s obsessed by the fact that ‘as you know, Joe, we’re all of us different people. And we have to learn to live with those aspects. I understood that the original idea was to show how a man came to live with himself.’ Which I think is pretentious shit. I can’t write that or, what is more important, alter my script to fit in with that idea. Ed much rather have it about four boys anyway. Shenson is going to speak to Epstein from Los Angeles tonight. He has suggested Antonioni to direct. Rubbish! […]

Wednesday 29 March – […] Easter celebrations over. Feel in a better mood. Rang Peggy about the Beatles’
film script. She promised to write a letter to Shenson. The real trouble, she feels, is Epstein. An amateur and a fool. He isn’t equipped to judge the quality of a script. Probably he will never say ‘yes’, equally hasn’t the courage to say ‘no’. A thoroughly weak, flaccid type. Oscar is keen to do the script of Up Against It. He probably would do it better anyway. Extraordinary the way someone like Epstein has absolutely no idea how valuable a property the Beatles are. Having commissioned a script he can waste time until it is taken from him. He’ll then be back
at square one with the original script (which was dull and of no interest), or faced with the job of commissioning another script from another author.

Tuesday 4 April – […] Rang Peggy to ask about Up Against It. She says that Shenson’s secretary rang to tell her that the script would be sent back. No explanation of why. No criticism of the script. And, apparently, Brian Epstein has no comment to make either. Fuck them. […]

Joe Orton – The Orton Diaries, 1986

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