Andrew Birkin Reflects on Swinging London, the Beatles and His Sister Jane in ‘A Life in Pictures’

Andrew Birkin Memoir
Courtesy of Andrew Birkin

If one daydreams about what film, music, Hollywood, London and all ports in between felt like in the ’60s and ’70s, writer-director Andrew Birkin’s new photographic memoir, “POV: A Life in Pictures,” is a dreamscape of glorious days and nights and legendary personalities. Starring Birkin’s famous model-actress-singer sister, Jane Birkin, along with her famous husbands, plus filmmakers from Walt Disney to Stanley Kubrick (for whom he worked for two years) and festooned with pop stars such as the Beatles and Slade as well as Hitler’s architect Albert Speer thrown in for good measure, the tome is a swirling kaleidoscope that Birkin paints with vivid colors. Here are a few edited entries that should give the reader a feel for what the era hath wrought, courtesy of Birkin’s sharp eye on the swinging times all those years ago.

What follows are some excerpted scenes from the book.

By the age of 18, Birkin had already worked on a couple of U.K.-based pictures as a tea boy/gofer, but could rise no further without a union membership or guild card. In April 1964, he set out for Hollywood.

Party With Walt

At one party given by Hayley Mills’ parents I met Walt Disney, who seemed rather shy and retiring from the general hubbub. He spotted me looking equally out of water, patted the seat beside him and seemed intrigued by my freight-jumping exploits and general take on middle America; never once did I think to ask him about the origins of Mickey Mouse, still less for a job. Later I had lunch at Disney’s studio where Hayley was shooting “That Darn Cat!” Afterwards, Disney ushered me to one side. “Hayley tells me you take her down to Watts?” “Yes,” I responded with enthusiasm — “to show her the other side of L.A. life, much more fun than Beverly Hills.” “I don’t doubt it,” nodded Walt, “but would you mind waiting till she’s finished the picture? See, we’re not insured for that kind of thing, and if anything should happen to her, God forbid…”

By December I was hankering after the rains of home, and with Hayley back in England I saw no cause to linger in Tinseltown … Back in London I found my sister Jane on stage in Graham Greene’s “Carving a Statue” playing a deaf-mute, swiftly followed by “Passion Flower Hotel” — a musical comedy about a gaggle of English schoolgirls trying to lose their virginity to the boys in the school next door. It wasn’t long before Jane was losing hers to the composer of the piece — John Barry, better known for his James Bond scores.

A runner’s job on Hayley’s next picture followed — “Sky West and Crooked”’ a notable cut above her Disney tours of contractual duty, directed by her father, John. I found the location, but even that didn’t help me get my [union card] — indeed, I was reprimanded for doing a union job without one — and although it was fun at times, being a gofer to the star is hardly a recipe for happiness. When the picture finished, I began scratching around for any job that might earn me that magic ticket, even if it meant scrubbing floors in far-flung regional TV studios up in the remote realms of the Scottish Highlands.

Meanwhile Jane had succumbed to John Barry’s proposal of marriage, against the combined advice of family and mutual friends who all deemed John to be a brilliant composer — and a lousy husband. Stowing my jealousy, I drove them to Heathrow to catch their honeymoon flight to Rome, but couldn’t resist brushing her lips with a goodbye kiss at the departure gate. Jane later told me that John refused to speak to her for the entire flight. I was delighted.

Courtesy of Andrew Birkin

With the Beatles

In 1965, Birkin landed a job on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” initially as a gofer, and ultimately shooting second unit helicopter footage and spending five months in the Namib Desert supervising shots for the famous “Dawn of Man” sequence. When shooting ended in 1967 he was asked to be first assistant on the Beatles’ film “Magical Mystery Tour.”

I’d never been a 1st AD before, which didn’t matter much as the Beatles had never made a film before.

Normally a first assistant answers to one director, but in this case there were four. In reality it was McCartney’s baby, but before any scene was shot, at Paul’s insistence I’d drive across the old WWII airfield where we were shooting to fetch Lennon. This was no easy task as he’d be closeted in his psychedelic Rolls, parked as far away from the shoot as possible. A tap on the glass and the door would open, discharging a smoke screen of dope, beyond which John would be chilling with one of the roadies.

“John, Paul wants you take a look at the next setup.”

“Come in, relax, have a toke.”

“Uh — well I’d love to, but Paul wants you to …”

“If it’s OK by him, it’s OK by me.”

… I was still trying to set up “Jude the Obscure,” and asked Paul if he’d give a copy of the script to his girlfriend Jane Asher to play Jude’s wife. Paul looked at the title page. “What’s it mean?”

“Well, Jude is the working-class hero who dreams of becoming a scholar but has neither the class nor the cash to get into Oxford.”

“You mean Jude is a name?”

For the “Magical Mystery Tour” shoot, we had 100 Mecca ballroom dancers for the end sequence, “Your Mother Should Know,” but when the generator packed in at tea time, I had to ask the dancers if they’d stay an extra couple of hours till the replacement genny arrived from London. They agreed, but began getting agitated when two hours turned into three, then four. Having talked to a few, I told Paul we could bribe them into staying if he and the others dished out their autographs.

“I’m not going to sign a hundred bits of paper,” said John.

“You don’t have to: I’m a good forger.” I told them how I’d forged their autographs as and when I needed cash in America … The ruse paid off, and 100 happy dancers stayed late before heading home nursing their precious autographs. Maybe I got my just desserts when the Beatles gave me my first screen credit — with my name spelled wrong.

Courtesy of Andrew Birkin

Kubrickian Drama

In 1968 Birkin went back to work for Kubrick, this time on the filmmaker’s Napoleon Bonaparte project, what some call the greatest unrealized film of all time.

For Kubrick, Napoleon was quite simply “the greatest breath of life to have ever quickened human clay,” as Chateaubriand called him, and it wasn’t long before I was much of the same opinion. My mission? To follow in Napoleon’s footsteps and photograph his every piss-stop throughout his life, starting in Paris, to where I headed a few weeks later in my GT6…

Jane, meanwhile, had landed the part in the French movie for which she’d auditioned, despite her leading man’s apparent contempt…

“He’s horrible!”


“Serge Bourguignon, or Gainsborough or someone — the man in the film. He’s meant to be my lover but he’s so arrogant and snobbish — he absolutely despises me!”

This was my first introduction to Serge … I didn’t much relish the prospect of Jane swooning in the arms of some Gallic lover when she could be spending time with me — indeed, our first such extended time together since childhood — but the more Jane remonstrated against this Gallic fiend, the more I felt my situation threatened. Coming back from a day of photographing Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison, I found Jane on the phone to her nemesis, but from her varied expressions I knew her fate was sealed.

Days later, Jane asked me to join them for dinner … For my part it was love at first sight. Serge was so utterly different from anyone I’d ever met: shy and flamboyant by turns, with a boy-like lust for fun and a scabrous sense of humor. I’d already had several mentors, not least Stanley Kubrick, but unique among them Serge treated me as an equal. He could speak little English and my French was no better than Jane’s, yet we managed to have a lively debate about Napoleon, communism and the student riots then
gripping Paris.

Andrew Birkin’s “POV: A Life in Pictures” will be published in France this autumn by Albin Michel
Beaux Livres.