'Universe' unveils long history of critical cynicism

You never forget the first time you are directly chastised by Paul McCartney.

I was recently reminded of my uncomfortable moment when I read the blisteringly negative reviews in the British press of Julie Taymor’s musical film “Across the Universe.”

Here in the U.S.A., the film has had mixed-positive response, including many raves — from such diverse sources as the New York Times, Roger Ebert and Oprah Winfrey.

But in the Beatles’ homeland (my own country of origin), the verdict was almost universally derogatory, with a lot of venom reserved for the Beatles’ utopian ideals. The film tanked at the U.K. box office, too.

How could that be? How could the nation that produced the Beatles be so negative about a film that is 133 minutes of unadulterated homage to the Fab Four’s music and philosophy?

The answer is one of those dirty little secrets that the British don’t like to reveal to the outside world. But McCartney knew it — which was why he gently rapped my knuckles a few years ago.

Back in 2002, I had produced the DVD edition of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” In 2004, I realized that we were coming up to the 40th anniversary of the film’s world premiere and I thought it might be nice to stage a private reunion of all the surviving cast and crew on the exact day. So I put together a little shindig in London on July 6, 2004, and invited everyone. Paul agreed to come, which made the event even more special.

At the last moment I thought that this historic cast and crew reunion ought to be witnessed by a few journalists who could document the joyous occasion. So I agreed to admit a couple of writers — but only from the upmarket “serious” papers, not the notorious British tabloids.

McCartney was in great form, meeting and greeting old pals, some of whom he hadn’t seen for many years, and the mood was jolly. Then McCartney spotted a few strangers among the crowd. His radar alerted, he discreetly took me to one side and enquired as to who they were. I explained who and why they were there.

“Not a good idea” was his verdict and, without making a scene, he made it clear that I had committed a serious faux pas. Now, McCartney is somebody I admire greatly and he’d never told me off before. But I remember thinking that this was an overreaction by him: After all, what possible harm could come of a few reporters witnessing such a wonderful event?

Paul, of course, was right, a point made brutally clear to me when a column item appeared in the Observer — a respected newspaper. Instead of the story reflecting on the warm and touching anniversary of one of the world’s most acclaimed movies, it bashed McCartney, the Beatles and this “old black-and-white film.”

No respect. No joy. Just Blue Meanie sneering. This was snide flippancy — the uninformed trailer-trash second cousin of cynicism.

When did the British media stop loving the Beatles? And why would they be so mean toward an homage such as “Across the Universe?” After all, through most of the ’60s, the Fab Four could do no wrong and enjoyed an almost universal approval in their homeland press.

And yet now, as my research revealed, there is a pervasive disdain in Britain when the topic of the Beatles is raised by those who still revere them. It is as though the Beatles are tolerated as a useful hook to fleece Americans — a cultural tourist attraction on a par with Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace. But the homeland respect for who they are and their monumental, enduring achievements is negligible.

I spoke to several pals to help me find the answer. One of the Beatles’ first publicists was the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham, who promoted them in the crucial early months of 1963 before he discovered the Rolling Stones. Oldham recalled that the Beatles burst upon the hard-bitten cynical press like a breath of fresh air.

“They were gobsmacked — they had never seen anything like it before and the press just went for it.”

So when did the British press first turn? Oldham thinks that it was when the Beatles grew more sophisticated and became leaders of the emerging counterculture. “By 1967 their use of drugs and their visual appearance showed that they were no longer playing the ‘showbiz game.’ When they were no longer making smiley faces for the nation that — as the press saw it — had paid for their Rolls-Royces and their swanky manor houses, that was a big turning point.”

Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn concurs: “They had a very good and complimentary press until the drug-taking emerged. And then a whole series of things changed. While Paul and Ringo remained friendly and outgoing to the press, John and George crossed a divide. John had his political antics with Yoko, and George entered his ‘I don’t care about the image’ phase. … By the spring of 1969, the press was angry and out to get them.”

My mentor and dear pal, the late Derek Taylor, who repped the Beatles in 1964 and 1968-1970, had spoken to me and others shortly before his passing in 1997 of the malaise within the British body politic.

His theory was that the British media and establishment embrace of the Beatles in the 1963-1967 era was actually an aberration by a society and media that is intrinsically nihilistic and selfish, and that the exuberance of the early Beatles had led to a temporary suspension of the usual rules. It was a brief shining moment when the British forgot their Teutonic roots and embraced the positive.

“There was this zeitgeist, which they represented, which was extremely warmly disposed to the human race and to the mode of goodness. The central song is ‘All You Need Is Love.’ The constant battle is the ugly against the beautiful. And the ugly part is that which seeks to line our pockets and adorn ourselves and our lives with our own possessions, to the exclusion of our fellow man. And this is not unusual; most people have been like this for most of history, I believe. We did have a window when we believed that the world would be a much, much nicer place. It shows how starry-eyed and foolish we were. It’s tough because selfishness is such a raging instinct.”

Derek Taylor, as always, got it right.

The Beatles succeeded in Britain despite, not because of, the British media. The U.K. media toasted the Beatles while they ruled the roost internationally as cutesy-pie pop icons of Swingin’ London — but when they had the temerity to use their popularity to tackle social and political issues, the Establishment turned.

“And that’s why it’s easy for the British to ban blood sports,” explains Oldham. “They don’t need them. The British press fulfills that blood lust quite nicely.”

Humorist-producer Martin Lewis is one of the world’s leading Beatles scholars.

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