The blackleg Beatles?

By Richard Farmer

Given that the Beatles remain massively popular, the production history of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) has been extensively covered.  It is pleasing, then, to come across an aspect of the production that appears to have been largely overlooked. Beatles - HDN chairs As the Beatles sought to become film stars, they and their management team were forced to interact with unions that they had not previously had to deal with.  The fact that the Beatles had to join Equity, the actor’s union, is well known.  As the story has it, it was only on the first morning of filming, as John, Paul, George and Ringo sat in a train carriage waiting to pull out of platform 5 at London’s Paddington station, that someone remembered that none of the band had union membership.  This could have been problematic: at best, it would have been embarrassing for the Beatles to have this failure flagged in the press; at worst, the film could have been declared ‘black’ and Equity members instructed to withdraw their co-operation.  The necessary forms were quickly located and each of the Fab Four’s applications for membership proposed by Norman Rossington and seconded by Wilfred Bramble (‘Steptoe Sr. Saves Beatles’ ran the headline in one London paper).

‘If we hadn’t got the forms off we wouldn’t have been able to carry on with the film,’ said an ‘extremely agitated’ Brian Somerville, the Beatles’ press officer.

(Evening Standard, 2 March 1964)

Although keen to protect the interests of its members and increase its influence within the film, theatre and television industries, Equity, in this period, was expansionist in terms of its ambitions but not its size.  New members were not necessarily welcomed, due to concerns that if there were too many actors there would not be enough work to go round.  The fact that the Beatles were therefore able to gain membership – and so quickly – speaks volumes.

Equity believed that acting jobs should be given only to those who had already demonstrated their dedication to the profession (i.e. those who were existing union members) or who had been to a recognised school of drama, singing or dancing.  However, the rules could be relaxed in some circumstances to allow producers to cast non-professional actors or those of limited acting experience.  This appears to have occurred with the Beatles, who were, it should be remembered, experienced live performers:  without them, the film would not have been made, so special dispensation was made.  It is unclear whether those who dealt with the application were concerned about the way in which the union might be perceived if it stymied the Beatles’ attempts to make it to the big screen, but one would imagine that Equity was conscious of its public image.

Keeler affair

However, we should not assume that all public figures who sought Equity membership in order to capitalise on their fame were successful in their applications.  In June 1963, in the wake of the Profumo scandal, Christine Keeler applied to join Equity in the hope that she might be able to play herself in The Christine Keeler Story, a filmed version of her life.  Keeler’s application was rejected.  Equity quickly, if not entirely convincingly, informed its members that its refusal to provide Keeler with a union card was ‘not a moral judgement’:

the private life of an individual person is no concern of Equity unless it affects us professionally.  The Executive Committee felt that it was being asked to condone or indeed to facilitate the making of a film, the result of which would be the commercial exploitation of a public scandal.  They believed that this would bring grave discredit both upon Equity and the film industry.

(Equity Letter, August 1963)

The film was eventually made as a UK-Danish co-production, and shot in Denmark, as The Keeler Affair, with Yvonne Buckingham in the title role.  In December 1963, the BBFC refused to certify the film.

The producers of A Hard Day’s Night also had to deal with the Film Artistes’ Association (FAA), the organisation that represented extras working in the British film industry.  At the end A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles perform a concert that is to be broadcast on television, and this sequence was shot at the Scala Theatre, in London.  Inside the theatre, hundreds of youngsters screamed at the band as they performed for the cameras.  Outside, however, stood 100 disgruntled FAA members and the Association’s secretary, Sean Brannigan:

Our union members are being deliberately excluded.  And this is victimisation.  If the situation does not change we shall do all we can to bring production to a halt.  We are asking other unions involved in the filming to support us.

(Evening Standard, 31 March 1964)

And support them they did.  According to a report in the Daily Mirror (1 April 1964), ‘The strike was on.  Actors, carpenters and electricians stopped work’.  Even the Beatles’ stand-ins stood down.

The FAA’s action was prompted, Brannigan claimed, by the fact that ‘only 350 non-union boys and girls, all under 15, were called, while our members were kept out.’  The FAA understood that the sequence would be shot with 1,200 teenagers; because it knew that it could not provide this number itself, the Association agreed that non-members might be employed.  However, when it came to filming, only non-union extras were taken on.

Walter Shenson, who produced A Hard Day’s Night, insisted that there was nothing sinister about this: ‘The reason we have not employed the union members is that they are all 15 or over.  For a typical Beatles audience we need children of 12 to 14.’  Only when Shenson agreed to take on 100 FAA extras, and feed and pay the non-union teens in line with union rates (£3. 15s each) could filming restart.

Whether or not the teens employed by Shenson were actually performing is another question.  As Phil Collins – yes, that Phil Collins – put it, ‘believe me, we didn’t have to do much acting, all we needed was to hear that incredible music’.  Most of the kids, it seems fair to say, would have given their services for free.

Bonus material!
Comedy man 2 FAA activities in this period are satirised in The Comedy Man, a 1963 film starring Kenneth More.  In this sequence, More’s character, an actor, runs afoul of the extras’ union shop steward: ‘We don’t want any bleeding actors knocking about.  You’re in the wrong union, mate … Actors can’t come in here and take our bread and butter’.

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