Interview for MOJO • October 1999

Fantastic voyage

Press interview • Interview of The Beatles

Published by:
MOJO
Interview by:
Clark Collis
Timeline More from year 1999

Album This interview has been made to promote the Yellow Submarine Songtrack Official album.

Interview

Al Brodax: I was in the animation business, working for King Features, a division of the Hearst organisation. The day after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show I called Brian Epstein and made a terrible deal with him for the rights to animate The Beatles. The budget was $32,000 for the whole half hour, which was ridiculous, and most of it went to Brian. But I thought it was an opening for something new.

Paul McCartney: We all thought the cartoon series was a joke and refused to do the voices for it. But financially it was a good deal and the kids seemed to like it. We weren’t really keen on the people from King. They were nice enough but artistically we weren’t that impressed.

Lance Percival: I did the voices for Paul and Ringo on the cartoon series. The Beatles arranged to come for a showing in Soho. Paul was sitting next me to saying, “Is that supposed to be me?” I said, Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to be you. It’s just supposed to be a funny voice that suits you.

Brodax: The series ran for three years. During that time Brian made a deal with United Artists to make three pictures. He did A Hard Day’s Night and Help! But the third picture came up and the boys didn’t want to do it. They wanted to go to India. So I contacted UA and I suggested that I could do an animation and they could go to India and everybody would be happy. Brian consented and the deal got a little better for us. Lots of treatments were submitted by important people like Joe Heller, who wrote Catch 22. Brian was impossible. He dismissed Heller’s treatment because the cover was purple and Brian didn’t like purple. It got up to about a dozen treatments. I wrote one. Erich Segal wrote one. He’s a wonderful guy. He’s also full of himself.

Erich Segal: I was an assistant professor of classics at Yale. I was asked by the late Richard Rodgers to collaborate with him on a musical. On the day Richard Rodgers made the announcement, Al Brodax flew to London and read the New York Times on the way. He saw the article about me and when he got to London and I found chaos he said, We’ve got to get this guy, he just might be the ticket.

Brodax: The Beatles thought I was too old. They wanted someone younger and I called a man who said his kid brother might fit the bill because he’s got long hair and wears crazy suits. That was Lee Minoff. Lee could not write dialogue but he did come up with names that I thought were intriguing like The Monstrous Blues and The Snapping Turtle Turks and Old Fred. The Beatles liked Lee but they hated the treatment. So we cobbled something else together, using that treatment as the basis and just called it Yellow Submarine.

Lee Minoff: Nowhere Man was based on the director of my play [Come Live With Me], Jonathan Miller, who really helped to ruin it when it finally got to Broadway. I was unhappy with him, and felt he was a great intellectualiser who could do everything – a writer, a doctor, a director, blah, blah, blah. But I felt he was ultimately full of shit. [Jeremy, the Nowhere Man, was voiced in the film by Dick Emery.]

Segal: I was told that Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard were among 40 writers. What had set this all off was the fact that John Lennon had looked at the Lee Minoff draft, said “This is the bloody Flintstones,” and walked out.

Brodax: That’s baloney. Erich was in from the beginning. Erich claims he didn’t know who The Beatles were. That’s baloney too. He was a real Beatles fan.

Segal: Not true. Al said, “Do you know that Sgt Pepper has already sold two million copies?” I said, That must be good for Mrs Pepper. He laughed. But I was serious.

Brodax: When we finally got an approval I decided that Erich and I would be the team. By this time Brian didn’t give a damn. He just signed off. We had a few story meetings for the feature at which The Beatles appeared. John was brilliant but very opinionated. The Beatle I most liked was George. He was a gentleman and a wonderful musician. Ringo was Ringo. Paul was sort of a PR man. Very bright but full of himself

George Harrison: The thing I liked most about the movie was that we didn’t really have a thing to do with it.

Paul: Al Brodax talked to us about the possibility of doing a feature and we met at my house in London. Erich Segal came along as well. I talked to them about Yellow Submarine which they wanted to build the film around. I told them that I had very definite thoughts about this. There is a land of actual submarines – all different coloured and in fact it’s a commune. All four of us hoped for something a little bit groovier. Sort of more classic Pinocchio or Snow White. Right away, they made it clear they weren’t keen to do just a straight Disney thing.

Brodax: We consciously went away from the Disney style. We had a big sign up at the studio: Disney – The Opposite.

Paul: They said, “We think you’re further out now.” So from being rather childish, which that cartoon series most definitely was, they wanted to go completely psychedelic!

Jack Stokes: The original script was full of psychedelia, sort of flower-powery, and we were a bit pissed off with it. We thought, If we’re going to do it we’re going to do it properly.

John Coates: George Dunning and myself had set up TV Cartoons [TVC] in 1957. We designed the cartoon series and made about half the episodes.

Brodax: George Dunning was the director. He had a very small animation house in Soho which was not doing well at all. This was a bonanza for them. George, however, was not too well and the real heroes, in terms of direction, were Jack Stokes and Bob Balser. But the look of the movie was really Heinz Edelmann’s thing.

Heinz Edelmann: I was a graphic designer working in Germany known for my poster work. And Charlie Jenkins, the art director in charge of special effects, happened to be familiar with my work and called me. He was the one who got me into all this mess. I wasn’t nervous at first because I assumed I was going to learn from the professionals. But, when I came to realise that nobody had any experience in feature films, I started getting worried.

Coates: The fact that they fixed a premiere 11 months ahead of starting without a script and without a storyboard was fairly crazy.

Brodax: Erich and I were patching the story together in this hotel in London. But the claim will be made by Balser and Stokes that there was never any story.

Stokes: There was a kind of rough-arse script that we tore apart and ripped up. We had to get some kind of storyline, which was a swine to do considering we had about 15 ruddy songs, none of them having any connection with each other.

Edelmann: As production time drew close to the final presentation, I was given the brief to illustrate Davy Jones in Davy Jones’s Locker together with some mermaids. This was on a Friday afternoon when everybody else went away for the weekend which was, at that time, religiously observed in London. Now I was not very happy with doing a Davy Jones. Also, I’ve never done a drawing of a mermaid in my life, and I hope to go to my grave without ever doing one. But there was nobody to resign to on a Friday night. So I decided I’d go home Monday morning. But in the meantime I felt duty bound to come up with something. I felt I should forget all the existing scripts and approach the film from a logical angle. What would be interesting was not the submarine but the way it got from point A to point B, and also what’s going to happen when they arrive. And for this this I’ll draw surrealistic villains. In ’68 this was, more or less, the end of the Cold War. Even in the Bond movies they gave up the KGB as the enemy and turned to self-employed villains. So the Meanies, to me, represented a symbolic version of the Cold War. Originally they were the Red Meanies.

Brodax: There’s no truth in that. The truth is that Minoff said the Monstrous Blues and it came out of that.

Segal: I came up with the Blue Meanies. I’m probably not the first to make that claim. In the original script they were called Mean Blues. In football you’d say that Lee Minoff’s script made the one-yard line. But I made the touchdown.

Edelmann: They were never in any original script. Mr Brodax is an extremely creative inventor of anecdotes. For instance, he keeps telling people that the flying glove came out of a woollen glove of Jack Stokes…

Brodax: The flying glove was totally a creation of Jack Stokes, who liked to drink a bit. One night he lost a glove. It showed up the next day – somebody from The Dog And Duck, our favourite pub, knew it must have been his.

Stokes: Codswallop. I’ve never worn gloves in my life. The glove came from Heinz.

Ringo Starr: The Flying Glove is great. But the bit I really love is the Sea Of Holes. When we first saw it I thought it was the most adventurous scene in the whole movie.

Paul: I like the main Blue Meanie, he’s got a great voice. In fact, I’ve been doing him at home. His character comes in handy for many situations.

George: I like the Blue Meanies a lot – as opposed to in real life where Blue Meanies are pretty grim – in Yellow Submarine I think they’re really cute. I like their outfits, I like their big boots. And I like the vacuum-cleaning bloke. And the Apple bonkers, because they never say anything. They just go along bonking people. That’s quite a good idea really. The more bonking the better.

Brodax: What I did create was a kind of competition between Balser and Stokes. They’d not know what the hell was happening but they’d outdo each other, which was to the benefit of the film.

Bob Balser: That’s a crock of shit, if you excuse my language.

Stokes: There were about 150 young ladies working on the film. So there were a lot of lads and a lot of girls getting a bit haywire towards the end. John Coates reckoned there were 13 illegitimate children and five marriages. It was pretty heavy on the red wine I can tell you that. But there wasn’t any drugs. Well, we had a little problem with the students, but not with our main bunch. I think if I’d taken LSD I would have been in trouble.

Edelmann: I’m a conservative, working-class person who’d stick to booze all his life. I just knew about the psychedelic experience by hearsay.

Alan Ball: You’d say, Coming down the pub, Heinz? And he’d say, “But we still have got work to do!”

Edelmann: That is true. But this production was totally erratic. Revisions were still made right up to the end. As the production went, the story line would not stand up to close scrutiny. So to create some interest, I did try to consciously overload the audience. I always tried to slip in 20 per cent more of what one normally in viewing a movie would pick up. Even a walk formula was necessary to maintain character. George, John and Paul moved at 32 feet per second, where Ringo moved at only 24. George walked like a cowboy. John like a showman. Ringo like a schoolboy Charlie Chaplin. Paul like a confident young executive.

Paul: My character in the movie? (Dripping sarcasm) Terrific… You know, really lacking in character. It’s like being the straight guy in the group. There’s George looking marvellous up on a hill. Ringo’s is always a good character. My cartoon character’s a bit bland. But then the animators didn’t know me, the Pepper side of me. So you become the young executive singing ballads. You get typecast. It’s just like being in a soap. They’ve made their minds up on who you are and you just have to live with it. But never mind, it’s only a cartoon.

George: When you see my character, it’s kind of me, isn’t it? That’s how l was, that’s how I am. In my heart, I still am on a mountain in India somewhere – and that suits me.

Brodax: There was a commitment for The Beatles to do four songs for the film. Apparently, they would say this is a lousy song, let’s give it to Brodax.

George Martin: Their reaction was, “OK, we’ve got to supply them with these bloody songs but we’re not going to fall over backwards. We’ll let them have them whenever we feel like it, and we’ll give them whatever we think is right.”

Paul: We had to do some songs that were exclusive to the film. I don’t think we were too keen because we were quite busy recording other things and we probably wanted a bit of time off.

Brodax: We were short one song. United Artists were screaming, sending telegrams saying they wanted the songs. George Harrison said, “What’s your problem?” I told him and he said, “I’ll be back.” He went down to that large hall down in Abbey Road and wrote a song. I said, There’s one problem, we don’t have a title He looked at the top of the page of this music sheet and it said. Northern Songs. He said, “It’s Only A Northern Song.”

Paul: George had It’s Only A Northern Song, the name of the song company that housed our music, and which was a bit tongue-in-cheek. So we went along and did the backing track and I decided it would be a really good idea to play the trumpet on it. That manic sped-up trumpet is me. Listening to it now it is just total madness. But at the time it seemed like a good idea. Basically, I can’t play the trumpet I can play The Saints in C and that’s it. The film producers were wandering around the studio and they had to sort of go along with this – I saw some very sad faces while I’m playing this trumpet.

Dr Bob Hieronimus: Although it’s not uncommon for filmmakers to include cameo appearances of themselves or their friends, Yellow Submarine takes it to new heights. Photographic images of real people working around the film were used most prolifically in the Eleanor Rigby sequences. The man seen bending over to play with the Jack Russell dog is one of two brothers who operated The Dog And Duck. The fellow in the red phone booth is the other brother. Bob Balser is seen on the comer of a rooftop looking as if he’s about to jump off, which is how he probably felt at the time.

Geoffrey Hughes: In the Eleanor Rigby sequence I play the whole of the Everton football team. There’s 11 of me in animation. I don’t remember who played Liverpool.

Hieronimus: The woman walking out of a house carrying a bowl, which brings to mind the lyric of Eleanor Rigby keeping her face in a jar, is the background artist Alison De Vere. She became known as Eleanor Rigby from then on.

Alison De Vere: I didn’t take very kindly to it because Eleanor Rigby was not a glamorous figure. My son used to tell his school friends that his mother was Eleanor Rigby.

Paul: When I was a kid there was this old lady in Gambier Terrace where John and Stu had a flat. I must have run into her, maybe asking where their flat was or something. I always used to feel sorry for her, an old spinster lady living on her own. Something made me want to help people like that. In my mind she became the prototype for Eleanor Rigby. Round where I lived then there were all these pensioners and, whilst I’m not trying to make myself out to be the ultimate goody-goody, I used to do a bit of shopping for them. So there was always this image in me of these spinster ladies and this lonely existence. Of course,, it developed in the writing and she became someone who cleans up in a church – all of that is just fictional. But the prototype was these lonely people I used to see as a kid.

Ringo: It’s All Too Much, George’s track, that’s the one that really sets the mood of the movie. I think that’s where the music and the movie really gel. Good on you, George.


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