John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert — the Musical Celebrating The Beatles That The Beatles Had No Love For
In 1974 a smash-hit musical about The Beatles began in Liverpool. It broke box-office records, but some of The Beatles were none too pleased with it.
The Everyman Theatre was based in Liverpool’s Hope Street. Originally known as the Hope Hall, it was formerly a dissenters’ chapel, then an arts cinema before, in 1964, it became a theatre and performance space. Unlike the city’s other big theatre, the Playhouse, where actors got the first train back to London, the Everyman’s performers stayed in the city and hung out at the venue. It was very consciously a community space. It was also a place where, as Joe Riley in the Liverpool Echo put it, “You were as likely to encounter a rat as an acquaintance on the first night.”
Despite the theatre’s shabby appearance, writers and performers of the city embraced it. “We really believed we could change things with our work and make things better,” artistic director Alan Dossor told Radio 4’s The Reunion in 2004. Dossor took on his position in 1970, coming with a reputation for committing to radical causes. “We were trying to get a young, articulate, working class audience,” he said.
At the Edinburgh Fringe, he saw a triple bill of one-act plays by Willy Russell, a former ladies hairdresser, then training to become a teacher after going back to night school at 21 to add to his one O Level. Russell turned one of the plays, Sam O’Shanter, into a semi-musical for the Everyman’s touring company Vanload.
Dossor then asked Russell to adapt a play by Alan Plater called The Tigers Are Coming OK about Hull City FC to make it relevant to Liverpool. Russell turned it into a play called When the Reds about the history of Liverpool FC. He then went off to become a schoolteacher.
In January of 1974, Dossor commissioned the 26-year-old Russell, who had seen The Beatles play at the Cavern Club as a schoolboy, to write a play about them.
“It was a very different time to today,” Russell said to John Bennett in 2006 in Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews. “Liverpool had completely and utterly turned its back on The Beatles — they were a group that had split up, end of story. There was no idea at the time that they would ever become this massive cultural feature of Liverpool life; this is 1974, the Beatles had been this huge phenomenon. The Beatle thing happened and they were then dead and gone, all one knew was that there were a few people kind of propping up bars and still being boring about ‘When I was this for the Beatles,’ or ‘When I was that for the Beatles’ — no one wanted to hear those stories because they weren’t really about the Beatles, they were about drawing attention to whoever was speaking, so it was in that atmosphere that I was approached to write my piece.”
John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert told the story of The Beatles from their formation to a fictional reunion through the eyes of the narrator Bert McGhee a box stacker who claimed to have been one of the group in the days of The Quarrymen until he confused an A minor chord with a G seventh.
The main cast was: Bernard Hill as John, Trevor Eve as Paul, Phillip Joseph as George, Antony Sher as Ringo and George Costigan as Bert.
The production had licenced The Beatles’ music, and Terry Canning and Robert Ash would reinterpret it. But thoughts then turned to how best to perform the songs on stage. The cast were actors, not chosen for musical or singing abilities. Russell rejected the notion of having four male musicians play the songs, as he felt they would clash with the four actors. Russell had been a fixture on the folk music scene, and one evening in Sandy Bell’s pub in Edinburgh, he had got to know a young folk singer from Dunfermline called Barbara Dickson.
“He had this inspired idea that I should sing the music in it,” Dickson told the Surrey Mirror in 2019, “and that was what took me to the theatre in Liverpool. Nobody knew me because I was a jobbing folk singer. But then I ended up in London singing in Shaftesbury Avenue, and everyone went, ‘who is this person?’ There’s no top and bottom in folk music, so suddenly I found myself in a different world.”
The show opened on 21 May 1974. It had been commissioned, written and staged within four months. John Lennon sent a taped message of good wishes addressed to ‘Bert’. Hughie Ross of the Liverpool Echo reviewed the opening night, writing: “Documentary, comedy-drama at its brightest and with an earthy script that is bold, brash and sometimes bawdy. Judging by the enthusiastic reception at the close, it would seem that Beatlemania may be revived again, at least in the vicinity of Hope Street, for some time.”
It became Everyman’s biggest box-office success with 15,000 tickets sold in eight weeks, although it wouldn’t be known as the theatre or the playwright’s best work.
Theatre producer Michael Codron and Robert Stigwood, best known as the Bee Gees’ manager, brought the show to London, where it opened at the Lyric Theatre in the West End on 15 August 1974.
The Daily Mirror’s Arthur Thirkell reviewed its London debut. “It is a very funny show. Exhilarating at times. It is no publicity job for The Beatles. Their warts, indiscretions and mistakes are there for all to see — so are their exploiters. The dialogue hits pretty hard; there’s nothing phoney about it.”
In The Times, Irving Wardle noted, “Normally…it takes 20 years or more for a decade to settle into a period. But already the sixties are taking on the lure of a pleasure garden from which we have been locked out; and, although others have chronicled the Beatles at epic length, this is the first version that does real justice to the story.”
While the show was in London, George Harrison took the opportunity to see it. But he wasn’t impressed. He told Creem magazine in 1987:
“I saw it up until the intermission and then — I saw it with my friend Derek Taylor, who’s a writer who used to work for Warner Bros. and Apple — I said to him we either have to leave now or I’m gonna jump on that stage and throttle those people. It was awful stuff. All these idiots acting out people — it’s like I say in The Devil’s Radio, [from George’s 1987 album Cloud Nine] talking about what they don’t know. It’s like a rumour. It’s like those Beatles cartoons, and it was so inaccurate it was nauseating, having been one.”
George would withdraw permission for the show to use Here Comes the Sun. Good Day Sunshine would replace it.
The BBC showed an extract from the production, which infuriated Paul McCartney. Perhaps surprising as an article in the Liverpool Echo on 15 August 1974 noted that McCartney had read the script and approved it. Philip Norman explains in his 2016 biography of McCartney, “Russell’s play had depicted the break-up accurately but a segment shown on television that Christmas was edited in such a way that Paul appeared solely responsible and blameworthy. He was highly incensed, and Russell’s assurance that the play had been misrepresented could not completely placate him.”
Ardent Beatles fans also found something to be annoyed by with the show. Roy Sinnott of Liverpool 12 saw the show at the Royal Court in November 1975, writing to the Liverpool Echo in disgust that the musical displayed a street sign which read ‘Penny Lane, L17’. “Surely any Beatle enthusiast or indeed any knowledgable Liverpudlian knows that Penny Lane is Liverpool 18.”
In December 1974, it won Best New Musical in a poll of 19 London theatre critics conducted by Plays and Players magazine. In January 1975, it landed the Evening Standard award for best musical of 1974. “I thought of getting up and asking them what they were on about,” Russell said to the Echo in 1983, “After all, the music and lyrics were by Lennon and McCartney.”
In later years the cast would become well known for their prominent work on British television and film. Bernard Hill, a Mancunian, would become famous for his portrayal of Scouser Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff (1980–1982). “You always try to like the people you play,” he told the Echo in 1985, “that’s how I got to like Lennon. I also found similarities in our characters, and I studied his life. We both have a certain awareness and aggression. Both of us are very cynical about the people who run the world — and about their intentions and motives and abilities.”
Trevor Eve played the part of Eddie Shoestring in the BBC’s private detective series Shoestring (1979–1980). “We used to get mobbed every night at the stage door, just as if we were the real Beatles,” he recalled in the Daily Mirror in 1979. “It was unreal. I don’t think I looked like him, but at least I learnt to play the guitar left-handed like Paul.”
Phillip Joseph would have notable roles in BBC mini-series through the 80s. Antony Sher would be knighted for services to theatre in 2000 while George Costigan had great success with the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987).
Those in supporting roles also went on to television. In fact, the show directly led to Elizabeth Estensen’s big break in The Liver Birds (1969–1979, 1996). Polly James had left the popular BBC series, so Nerys Hughes’ character needed a new flatmate. Hughes went to see the play with her husband, “We both suddenly thought, wouldn’t she be fantastic in the series?” Hughes called the show’s producer, Sydney Lotterby, who subsequently cast Estensen in the show.
In April 1975, Peter Brown, the president of the Robert Stigwood Organisation, announced they had signed on to make a film of the production. Robert Stigwood would produce with John Hough director of The Legend of Hell House (1973) and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) mooted to direct. Stigwood later decided to drop it in favour of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). In his biography of McCartney, Philip Norman contends that Paul used his influence with Associated Television, (who had bought 37.5 per cent of Northern Songs) to stop the film from going ahead.
As the play moved to the Royal Court and set out on a national tour, the cast changed. A real-life Bert now played the role of Bert. Arthur Kelly had been in George Harrison’s band The Rebels in 1957 and was invited to come along to Hamburg.
But that’s another story.