Chichester Film Festival: Palmer revives Beatles World War Two idea

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A chance conversation more than 40 years later has revived and refashioned a project which puts Beatles covers against archive World War Two footage.

Tony Palmer has completely reworked the misfiring, forgotten original to produce a new version which is being released on DVD. A long-standing supporter of the Chichester International Film Festival, Tony will be bringing the film to this year’s 25th anniversary festival at the Chichester Cinema at New Park (August 20, 1.30pm).

“The great thing about Chichester is that you are guaranteed intelligent, sympathetic audiences, and that’s exactly what you want,” Tony says. “You can feel cut off from audiences. What you want is that one-to-one contact you can get at somewhere like Chichester, and that makes it quite irresistible, quite aside from the Chichester film festival being an extraordinary achievement.

“For me, this new film is a very odd story which began in 1974 when I was approached by a couple of producers who said they had this idea for a film which had covers of Beatles songs done by great people with new orchestral arrangements used as the soundtrack for footage from World War Two. But they didn’t want to do it if the Beatles were going to come out of the woodwork and say they didn’t like the idea, and my first job was to go and talk to Lennon and McCartney to see how they would feel. Paul just shrugged and said it was an interesting idea; John was the one that I knew slightly better, and he just said ‘Make sure they use Give Peace a Chance.’” And so the film was made, with covers specially recorded by Elton John, The Bee Gees, Bryan Ferry, Leo Sayer, Keith Moon, Rod Stewart etc.

Producer Sandy Lieberson asked Tony to edit: “But at the same time I was trying to get off the ground my huge series All You Need is Love, and then suddenly overnight we had the money. I had to go with that and tell Sandy that I couldn’t do it. In the end, the film was shown to 20th Century Fox who were the financing partner. I was not involved at that point, but it was reputed that not only did they hate it, but they hated it with a vengeance and junked it. It was shown once and absolutely vanished. They realised though they had some wonderful recordings and they put out LPs and made a fortune.”

Many years later, at a 90th birthday party, Tony came across Sandy Lieberson again, not having seen him for ages: “I asked if he had kept a copy of the old film, and he said he had a copy which was very, very poor quality VHS. You just couldn’t watch it.”

But it sparked Tony’s curiosity. And then coincidence took a hand. When he was looking for a different piece of his work at the National Film Archive, he found a basic print of the film under his name. Wrongly, as it happens, given that Tony had had nothing to do with it.

But it set Tony’s mind working: “I strong-armed my distributor to let me completely re-edit the film and to try to come up with what I hope will be a really interesting film…”

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