Help! had no shortage of good actors, although the Beatles would not count themselves among them…
High Priest Clang was played by Leo McKern, a character actor with a distinctive round face and bulbous nose who already had a long theatrical and film career going back to the 1940s (including an appearance in Lester’s Running Jumping & Standing Still Film). Help! launched him to a higher level, and he went on to give notable performances in A Man For All Seasons, Ryan’s Daughter, and The Blue Lagoon. He is probably most remembered by British viewers (and the American PBS audience) as the barrister Horace Rumpole in the BBC TV series Rumpole Of The Bailey, which ran off and on from 1975 through 1992.
High Priestess Ahme was played by Eleanor Bron in her film debut. The young actress with a strikingly unconventional look was already well-known for being the first female performer in a Cambridge University Footlights revue (the previously all-male theatrical club was also the launching pad for David Frost, Peter Cook, future Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle, and later, Douglas Adams, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and on and on…) She made a name for herself in the emerging world of modern British satire. With fellow Footlight John Fortune, she created a male/female comedy duo act for Peter Cook’s Establishment nightclub (similar to the sort of thing Mike Nichols and Elaine May were doing in the US around the same time). She also was a performer on David Frost’s Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (1964-65). After Help!, she continued performing in film, television, stage, and radio, and authored several books.
A lot of sources say her name inspired the title of the 1966 Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” but this may not be so. A real Eleanor Rigby has a grave in the St. Peter’s Parish Church cemetery in Liverpool, which the teenage McCartney often used as a shortcut on his ramblings around town.
Bhuta, Clang’s long-suffering sidekick, was played by John Bluthal, who had worked with Richard Lester for many years (he was the car thief in A Hard Day’s Night), and would go on to do so for many years more. Modern audiences might recognize him as the blind street musician who owns the chimpanzee (“min-key”) in Return of the Pink Panther, or Professor Pacoli in the opening sequence of The Fifth Element.
Dr. Foot’s assistant, Algernon, was played by Roy Kinnear. (“He’s an idiot,” says Foot of Algernon. “A degree in woodworking. I ask you.”) Like Bluthal, the rotund Kinnear was a member of Lester’s “stock company,” appearing in most of his films. And like Bron, he was a veteran of Britain’s satire boom of the early Sixties, appearing in David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was in 1962-63. (Frost seemingly came up with a different satirical comedy show for every TV season.) Kinnear’s performance is quite possibly the comedic highlight of Help!. The Behm/Wood screenplay has no shortage of lines that aren’t particularly funny to read, but become funny in performance. Kinnear is a genius in this area. Some examples:
“I’m better with animals than plugs and transistors, Daddy being the local master of the hounds. That’s where I get it from, my love of animals. They trust me. [Long pause, then wistfully] I should have been in vivisection.”
“[To Ringo] You’re a drummer, eh? I’m no mean hand at the ol’ sticks-man stuff myself, you know,” [Then randomly slaps the back of an office chair for several seconds with his hands.]
Everyone loves, or should love, Roy Kinnear. Most people know him as Veruca Salt’s father in 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. He never did much work in the US, but his British filmography is pretty impressive.
The mad scientist, Dr. Foot, was played by Victor Spinetti. Spinetti, described by Wikipedia as a “raconteur,” was a Welsh-born actor who did most of his work writing, directing, and acting on the theater stage (while still managing to appear in over 30 films). He appeared in a major role in A Hard Day’s Night (as the neurotic TV director), and the Beatles loved him so much they insisted he be in their second film. After Help!, he continued his association with the band, appearing on their fan-club Christmas recordings, adapting Lennon’s book of nonsense stories and verse, In His Own Write, into a stage play, and making an appearance in Magical Mystery Tour. Paul McCartney described him as “the man who makes clouds disappear,” and George Harrison told him “you’ve got to be in all our films…if you’re not in them, my mum won’t come and see them — because she fancies you.” (Mrs. Harrison was shit out of luck — like Graham Chapman, Spinetti was openly and flamboyantly gay in an era when it could still be career suicide to do so.)
Another flamboyant British theatrical eccentric, Patrick Cargill, played Superintendent Gluck of Scotland Yard. Cargill was a fixture of British stage and television for decades, although his two popular TV shows, Father, Dear Father and The Many Wives of Patrick didn’t get much play Stateside. One of Cargill’s great moments in the film, in addition to his obsession with the word “famous,” is his insistence that he is a great mimic (“James Cagney” he proudly cites among his repertoire), followed by his attempt to do an Liverpudlian impression of Ringo over the phone. “Hullo, this is the famous Ringo speaking, gear-fab, what can I do for you as it were, gear-fab?” (“Not a bit like Cagney,” George remarks acidly.)
The Beatles began the Help! project in John Lennon’s home music room, him and Paul crafting to order the songs that would be heard in the film. They had been playing a winter residency at the historic Hammersmith Odeon theater in London from December 1964 through January 1965. In the chilly afternoons before the performances, Paul would drive out to Lennon’s country home in Weybridge and hammer out the soundtrack for the movie they knew they would be filming in a month or so. (Cynthia Lennon related in her memoir that if deadlines were particularly tight, Lennon and McCartney would collaborate over the phone.)
“We made a game of it. John and I wrote [each of] the songs within two or three hours — our ‘time allotted.’ It hardly ever took much longer than that.” (Paul McCartney.) If a song didn’t at least start to come together in the time allotted, they figured it wasn’t worth the effort and moved on.
Armed with several Lennon-McCartney compositions written expressly for the film, and two George Harrison songs to boot, the band arrived at EMI Studios on Abbey Road on February 15, 1965. They recorded the basic tracks for “Ticket To Ride,” “Another Girl,” and “I Need You.” Those three songs were completed the following day, along with a song that was not destined to end up the the film, “Yes It Is.”
On February 17, “The Night Before” was recorded, along with another non-film song “You Like Me Too Much,” both heavily featuring the Hohner Pianet electric piano, which they saw one of their opening acts use at the Odeon shows. (Like a lot of the band’s new musical “toys,” the Pianet was briefly obsessed over, then virtually abandoned. Harrison’s just-purchased volume-control guitar pedal, all over the previous day’s “I Need You” and “Yes It Is,” met a similar fate after the Help! sessions.)
February 18 was an epic recording day, with “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” completed, along with the non-film song “Tell Me What You See” and an unreleased Lennon-McCartney song with Ringo on lead vocals, “If You’ve Got Trouble” (which was so awful, the Beatles gave up on it almost immediately, managing only a single take — though they did do a few overdubs and gave it a rough mix, just in case.)
February 19 saw the recording of “You’re Going To Lose That Girl.” The final tweaking, overdubbing, and mixing of the soundtrack songs occurred on February 20, along with an attempt at another song destined for the reject pile, “That Means A Lot.”
Of the eleven numbers now in the can, The Beatles, Lester, and George Martin picked the six that had the most cinematic possibilities, left five (or three, really) on the shelf for future release, and packed their bathing trunks…
On February 22, the Beatles boarded a plane to the Bahamas to begin filming their second movie. Where was the seventh soundtrack song — the title song — “Help!”? Not even conceived yet. The film was still officially “untitled”…
February 23, 1965 — Cameras began rolling on what was at that point called Beatles 2 at the Nassau Beach Hotel in the Bahamas. The scene in question is where the Beatles emerge fully-clothed from a swimming pool, having followed an underwater tunnel from Clang’s temple.
“We rented sports cars which we used to drive around the island; I think they were Triumphs and MGs. And as the police were all in the movie, we never had a problem with speeding. One day, we found a disused quarry and started driving madly around in it; skidding, doing doughnuts, going up the sides…we made Dick Lester come and set up the camera and film us. It was never used in the film…” (George Harrison.)
“All the best stuff [from Help!] is on the cutting room floor.” (John Lennon.)
“The problem was that we went to the Bahamas to film the hot scenes, and it was freezing. We had to run around in thin shirts and trousers, and it was absolutely bloody cold.” (Ringo Starr.)
Victor Spinetti remembered doing three takes of Ringo jumping off a boat into the choppy, bone-chilling ocean (with large nets up out of camera range to keep the numerous sharks at bay), and the exhausted drummer begging through chattering teeth not to have to do a fourth. “Why not?” Lester asked. “Because I can’t bloody swim,” said Ringo. No one had even thought to ask him, and Ringo, with typical British reticence, didn’t want to cause a fuss. “It was almost the end of the Beatles,” Spinetti said.
Using the Bahamas as a tax shelter had the unfortunate side effect of forcing the group to attend a formal dinner at the Government House in Nassau, which led to a heated confrontation between John Lennon and the Colonial Minister of Finance.
“We’d spent the day filming at what was supposed to be a deserted army barracks. When we got there, we found it was a psychiatric institution
where old people and children were crowded together in the most terrible conditions. All the Beatles were sickened by it. [At the dinner, Lennon] really tore into this guy in front of Walter, Brian, me…” (Richard Lester.)
Another notable occurrence on the Bahamas location shoot was when the group was approached between takes by a Hindu swami, kicking off a lifelong obsession with Indian music and spirituality for George Harrison. The impact of this interest, on the Beatles and on western culture at large, which followed the trends the Beatles started, cannot be overstated.
“I suppose that was the start of it all for me…we were on our bikes on the road, waiting to do a shoot, when up walked a swami in orange robes. [It turned out to be] Swami Vishnu Devananda, the foremost hatha yoga expert…the guy had a little place on Paradise Island, and somebody must have whispered in his inner ear to give us his book, The Illustrated Book of Yoga. It was on my birthday [Feb. 25].” (George Harrison.)
“This little Indian guy comes legging over to us and gives us a book each, signed to us, on yoga. We didn’t look at it, we just stuck it along with the other things people would give us…I’ve forgotten what his name was because they all have that ‘Baram Baram Badoolabam,’ and all that jazz…then, about two years later, George had gotten into hatha yoga…all from that crazy movie.” (John Lennon.)
The Beatles traveled back to Europe, and were filming on the snowy Alpine slopes of Obertauern, Austria by March 13. They filmed in Austria for a week (through March 20), capturing their amateurish attempts at skiing, and the iconic “Ticket To Ride” musical sequence. “It was the first and last time on skis for me. Nowadays when people make movies, everybody’s got to be insured and you’re not supposed to do this-that-and-the-other in case you get injured…and yet they took us up a mountain, gave us our boots (that nobody even laced up), gave us our skis, said ‘Turn over, take one. Action!’ and gave us a push.” (George Harrison.)
Four stand-in doubles were also used during the snow sequences, not to keep to Beatles out of harm’s way, but to get all the necessary shots on schedule. A further explanation of the Beatles’ somewhat lazy and disengaged performances in the film might be appropriate here…
“A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film. It was great. That helped make it a lot of fun. If you look at pictures of us [on the set] you can see a lot of red-eyed shots. Dick Lester knew that very little would get done after lunch. In the afternoon, we very seldom got past the first line of the script [for that scene]. We had such hysterics that no one could do anything.” (Ringo Starr.)
“We showed up a bit stoned, smiled a lot, and hoped we’d get through it. We giggled a lot. [There was one shot] where all we had to do was turn around and look amazed, or something. But every time we’d turn round to the camera there were tears streaming down our faces. It’s OK to get the giggles anywhere but films, because the technicians get pissed off with you.” (Paul McCartney.)
“[We were] breaking up and falling about all over the place, lying on the floor, incapable of saying a word.” (John Lennon.)
“I think we pushed Dick Lester to the limits of his patience.” (George Harrison.)
“John did once offer me a joint. And I obligingly tried to take a little puff…then thought, “This is so expensive, I mustn’t waste it!” And gave it back to him. So that’s your definition of naive, I think.” (Eleanor Bron.)
Even in their early days, the Beatles were no strangers to substance use and abuse, having been dedicated pill-poppers since their pre-fame nightclub days in Hamburg, Germany. They guzzled scotch-and-Cokes like spring water between drags on the cigarettes they chain-smoked incessantly through every waking hour. But their historic meeting in a New York hotel room with the King of Hip, Bob Dylan, on their US tour in August 1964 left them as total potheads.
At some point Beatles 2 became Eight Arms To Hold You, a reference to both the four members of the Beatles and the multi-armed goddess Kali. Lennon and McCartney racked their brains for weeks to come up with a title song by that name, but it was a losing battle.
The band returned to Britain and completed work on Help! at Twickenham Film Studios and various British locations from March 24 through May 11, including all of the interiors (the songs “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” were featured in these sequences).
“I’ll make a bold statement here and say that Help! is, to me, the birth of what I consider to be modern color cinematography. The basic principles that are at play in that film — particularly in the “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” sequence — are still being used by the people today who are considered to be the top cameramen in the world. It’s all there. Especially the hard, overexposed back light and the reflective fill light, which [cinematographer] David Watkin is a master of.” (Steven Soderbergh.)
Hard-working lads that they were, the Beatles continued to make occasional visits to the recording studio, as well as a handful of radio, concert and television appearances in the evenings while shooting the film during the day. An evening session at Abbey Road on March 30 had them putting new overdubs onto “You’re Going To Lose That Girl,” and making another attempt at the problematic “That Means A Lot.”
George Harrison tumbled further down the rabbit hole of Indian spirituality on the set at Twickenham.
In a scene set in an Indian restaurant, filmed on April 5 and 6, the house band performed a cover version of “A Hard Day’s Night” on traditional Indian instruments. Between takes, George gravitated to the sitar.
“I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft — it stocked little carvings and incense. It was a real crummy-quality [sitar], but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit.” (George Harrison.)
In October 1965, while recording the follow-up to the Help! album, Rubber Soul, Harrison added a few licks from his “crummy” sitar to “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Had Flown).” By the end of 1966, he had made a solo trip to India and became a pupil of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. His later Beatles songs “Love You To,” “Within You, Without You,” and “The Inner Light,” consisted entirely of Indian instrumentation. Like Lennon, he found his life in the Beatles to be increasingly shallow and meaningless. Unlike the ever-skeptical, ever-searching Lennon, he quickly found a solution. The philosophy of the East seemed to point the way. Harrison was responsible for the Beatles’ association with the transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967-68, and their well-known group trip to India. His public devotion to Indian spirituality was instrumental in the sincere (if faddish) interest by the late Sixties counter-culture in all things “karmic.”
While the Beatles were busy being film actors, and Harrison was beginning his spiritual journey, “Ticket To Ride” was released as a single on April 9. Publicized as on the label as being “from the film Eight Arms To Hold You,” it was backed by “Yes It Is” as the B-side.
At the exact same time George was finding a path to inner peace, John Lennon had something close to a nervous breakdown. He describes this as his “fat Elvis” period, where he felt lost and directionless. The Beatles’ success was no longer fulfilling, he felt trapped in his fame, in his marriage, in his bourgeois country mansion, and in the persona of “Beatle John.” His weight ballooned (in Help! he exhibited the “full face of a Japanese woodcut,” according to one biographer) and the smoldering, violent anger that was always just below the surface of the man who became, ironically, a great peace & love advocate came pouring out with greater frequency.
“The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension. I was eating and drinking like a pig…you can see in the movie he — I — is very fat, and he’s completely lost himself. And I was singing about when I was so much younger…looking back at how easy it was, but then things got more difficult. Anyway, I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help. It’s real.” (John Lennon.)
Not only was it “real,” it was fast and it was catchy. It was the perfect title song for the whole project…