Legendary British TV & film director Matthew Robinson, now running Khmer Mekong Films in Phnom Penh, gives a first-hand account of his meeting and interview with the Beatles, one the most influential bands of all time, on the evening of Thursday, 26 November 1963.
Question: What was the similarity between one Cambridge University student aged 19 standing outside the Regal Cinema and four mop-haired Liverpudlians aged 20 to 23 about to perform two sell-out concerts inside?
Answer: All five were cocky, very cocky.
Question: What was the difference between them?
Answer: The student was a nobody while the four Liverpudlians were famous and about to shoot into the stratosphere.
I’d arrived at Cambridge University six weeks earlier to study Economics, but soon found myself spending too much time as a reporter for the renowned student newspaper Varsity.
Success in this endeavour was a 90 percent guarantee of an exciting career with national newspapers – or even in the wonderful world of television – after graduation.
So, imagine my feelings when, mid-afternoon on a rainy Thursday, the Varsity editor ordered me to hasten to the Regal Cinema and sit through the first Beatles concert of the evening; then, in the interval before the second, go backstage to – gulp! – interview them.
Yes, interview ‘The Beatles’. Their PR man had set aside three minutes for Varsity with no other reporters present. I had three minutes (“not a second longer”) to talk to John, Paul, George and Ringo. What a chance to make a name for myself as an intrepid writer.
Musical history: In late 1962, The Beatles had enjoyed instant success with their first single Love Me Do, today a classic. In early 1963 their second single had rocketed in the charts, forming the title track of their first album – released March 1963. Please Please Me had sat higher in the charts for longer than any other album.
Their second album With The Beatles, released four days before the Cambridge gig, was already storming the charts in Britain and America. These guys were now Stars; Superstars; Shooting Superstars.
But I wasn’t going to allow stardust in my eyes. Oh no! This cocky young reporter would use his three minutes to put this cocky ‘Fab Four’ through the mangle. I quickly boned up on Beatles ‘Facts & Figures’ and prepared to skewer the lads right left & centre.
Before my Grand Inquisition, a PR man led me to the back row of the Regal’s huge auditorium. Though not a particular fan of Beatles music (preferring the three really big ‘B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), at student parties I’d often merrily sung along with I Saw Her Standing There and Twist & Shout while ‘jiving’ with Sandy Shaw lookalikes in mini-skirts.
Through the eardrum bursting screams of two thousand teenagers, I managed to make out some old favourites from the first album and all the numbers from the second: During songs like It Won’t Be Long, All My Loving and You Really Got A Hold On Me, Paul McCartney plucked bass guitar to the left, John Lennon strummed rhythm guitar to the right, both straining to eat the shared microphone.
Lead guitarist George Harrison stood modestly at the side, hardly moving as he picked out melodies. Ringo Starr’s grinning rictus scarcely changed from one song to the next, arms up and down like a clockwork doll, banging the drum skins.
As the finale Money ended, hysteria loosening plaster in the ceiling, the Beatles ran off-stage. The PR man hustled me away leaving no time to check if seats were drenched with overwrought fans’ urine reported at previous Beatles concerts.
Local journalists queued outside the dressing room door. There were grumbles as I was led to the front. “He’s only a student!” said PR. “He’s only got three minutes. You’ve all got five!” The grumbles subsided, but only a bit.
PR knocked. “Enter at your peril!” shouted a Liverpudlian voice that could have been John, Paul, George or Ringo.
PR pulled a face and gingerly opened the door. I edged in behind, pulling out my compact notebook and pencil stub.
The Beatles sat perched like parrots on a line of cane chairs, clutching cigarettes and wine glasses, glistening with perspiration.
“Who’s this fine figure of a young man?” said John Lennon pretending to screw up his eyes as he peered at me while drawing heavily on his fag.
“Varsity, University newspaper,” said PR. “He’s only got three minutes.”
“Ringo! Stopwatch!” said Paul McCartney.
“Haven’t got one,” said Ringo Starr. “But I’ll count the seconds.”
“One hundred and eighty,” said George Harrison. Ringo started counting down aloud.
“He’s clever!” said John pointing at George. “He does MATHS!”
“Aren’t YOU supposed to be clever?” said Paul pointing at me. “Being a student!”
“He’s NOT a student,’ said John. “He’s an UNDERGRADUATE. Under-Grad-U-Ate! Students call themselves that at Cambridge Uni-Ver-Si-Ty. Right, Mister Undergraduate?”
“We’re in Cambridge?” asked Paul. “I thought it was Oxford.”
“Ordinary universities have students,” said George. “Posh places like Oxford and Cambridge have UNDERGRADUATES.”
The interview wasn’t heading in the direction I’d planned.
“Student or undergraduate,” I stuttered. “Whatever you like.”
“Hey! Beatles!” said Paul. “A vote on what to call him?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah” all four said, then sang “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” shaking their heads together as in She Loves You.
“Come on, Boys!” said PR. “He’s only got a short time.”
“Ringo!” said John lighting a fresh cigarette with the first. “How many seconds?”
“I stopped counting,” said Ringo. “I’ll start again. 121, 120 … “
“Two minutes,” said George refilling his glass.
“George is pure genius!” said Paul, banging his forehead. “I’d never have worked that out.”
“You didn’t write that in your little notebook with your little pencil, Mister Undergraduate” said John, blowing a perfect smoke ring towards me.
“Boys!” said PR. “Let him ask his questions. He’s got an article to write.”
Like old men on a village seat, the four Beatles mumbled together, then straightened themselves up in their cane seats, hands on knees, and all stared at me unflinchingly.
“Go on then, Mister Undergraduate,” said Paul. “Ask your questions!”
“Be quick,” said John. “Ringo?”
“61, 60, 59 …” said Ringo.
“Less than a minute,” said George.
Paul banged his forehead again.
“Just one question then,” said John.
“Make it a good one,” said Paul, “Or … “
“… we won’t answer it,” said John.
They all stared at me, Ringo still counting.
“What I’d like to ask is …” I said.
“Yes?” said John leaning forward.
“ … in both albums, you recorded eight originals and six covers. When will you make an all-original album?”
John whistled and looked at Paul. Paul whistled and looked at George. George whistled and looked at Ringo.
“31, 30, 29 …” said Ringo.
“Hard one, Mister Undergraduate,” said John. “Paul? What’s the answer?”
“When George writes more songs,” said Paul.
“Yes!” I blurted out. “George only wrote one song for the With The Beatles and none for the Please Please Me. Am I right?”
“George?” said John. “Is Mister Undergraduate right?”
George turned to Ringo. “Ringo?” he said.
“… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” said Ringo.
“That’s your three minutes,” said John.
“Get what you need?” asked Paul.
“I’m sure he did,“ said George.
“Goodbye,” said Ringo.
I looked at PR appealingly.
“I’m afraid that’s it!” he said with finality.
The Beatles had turned away, mumbling to themselves, lighting cigarettes, refilling glasses. I rose but stopped in the doorway.
“Thanks, Beatles!” I said. “Do you spell it B-E-A-T, or B-E-E-T like insects?”
“Oooh! He IS clever,” said Paul.
“That’s his Cambridge education,” said George.
“Well over time,” said Ringo.
“Next!” shouted John.
A Cambridge Daily News reporter slid in as I was ushered out.
“Good luck!” I muttered as the door shut on him.
The Varsity editor didn’t much care for the interview article I wrote. He spiked it and told me to write a short news item instead. Which I did, a good deal less cocky than when I’d arrived at the Regal Cinema that rainy Thursday evening in November 1963.