The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour: a lost classic?

Arena's series editor says a new documentary about the 1967 film - and a long-delayed repeat on BBC2 - will see it deservedly re-assessed

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The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour: a lost classic?
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Boxing Day evening, 1967. After enjoying This Is Petula Clark at ten past eight on BBC1, at 8.35pm the nation settles in for Magical Mystery Tour, a new TV movie by the unstoppable authors of Strawberry Fields Forever and Sgt Pepper, who previously appeared in the wholesomely enjoyable films Help! and A Hard Day's Night.

Fifty minutes later, Britain is pretty angry. The fallout lasts for weeks. Magical Mystery Tour is seen as a baffling, murky meander, made by musicians arrogantly thinking they can make up a film as they go along and get away with it. Even today, it's routinely cited as The Beatles' only major creative failure.

Is that impression fair? Tonight, a new Arena documentary re-assesses the film, complete with previously unseen out-takes and a rare screening of Magical Mystery Tour itself, newly remastered, to follow.

"It was shown on the BBC in 1979, but that was part of a Beatles film fest, they didn't make a big deal out of it," says Arena series editor Anthony Wall. "For practical purposes it's not been seen since 1967. The documentary tells the story - which in retrospect is hilarious, although it wasn't for The Beatles at the time because they got such a drubbing - and contextualises it by looking at 1967 and what The Beatles were responding to: in London it was a very intense time, artistically."

Wall thinks Magical Mystery Tour, when a new audience sees it tonight on BBC2, will soon be re-appraised as "a piece of work in a very surreal, British, literary, visual tradition: from gothic to Lewis Carroll to HG Wells to William Golding to the Goons to what became Monty Python. Python was massively influenced by Magical Mystery Tour."

In 1967, the accessible innovation of Sgt Pepper had seen The Beatles leave their traditional influences behind and forge an identity of their own. Wall thinks television was a logical destination for The Beatles, because the medium was such an important conduit for radical, countercultural ideas. "There was this incredible sense of freedom in television at the time, probably kicked off by That Was the Week That Was. Orton, Pinter and Potter were writing for TV and they were uncompromising. If people found it bleak or difficult, that was too bad.

"But there were only two channels, so these plays got 14 million viewers. TV and radio were increasingly challenging. BBC2 was showing Japanese art films. Television was a great educator for that generation, with access to all sorts of things that aren't on television any more."

That's not to say that the still extremely popular, old-fashioned mainstream – which saw The Seekers selling comparable numbers of singles to The Beatles in 1967, and Engelbert Humperdinck keeping Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane off number one – wasn't very much in evidence at the BBC.

"There have always been lots of BBCs," Wall says. "On one side there was [Cathy Come Home producer] Tony Garnett, TW3 and the Wednesday Play. On the other side you had the Black and White Minstrels. It managed to accommodate the two. Radio 1 was banning I Am the Walrus, but then you'd also have Aretha Franklin for 45 minutes on a Saturday night, and John Peel on a Sunday afternoon."

The Beatles were so big, they usually bridged the gap. When Magical Mystery Tour was shown, however, it didn't. "It didn't help that it was between a Petula Clark special and a Norman Wisdom film [The Square Peg] on Boxing Day, Wall recalls. "Every family in the land was sitting down for their Christmas entertainment, but they got something psychedelic, taking the mickey and with the distinct aroma of strong drugs.

"Everyone we spoke to for the documentary, of course, was a teenager at the time, and thought it was gloriously subversive and not like anything they'd seen before. Their parents thought it was a disgrace. The film marked a watershed, a generational conflict, as the Summer of Love gave way to 1968, the most turbulent year since the war."

One aspect of the BBC's broadcasting of the time weighed particularly heavily against Magical Mystery Tour. It was shown on BBC1, a channel that was two years away from converting to colour. When people saw The Beatles' freewheeling psychedelic road trip, they saw it in black and white, which now seems ludicrous.

"Only about four people in the country had a colour television," laughs Wall. "It was shown the following week on BBC2 in colour and we did find one guy whose father was a techno buff and who had a colour TV, so he saw it. Until then I'd never met anyone who saw it in colour."

Couldn't it have been foreseen that the reaction to Magical Mystery Tour might be affected by it being in black and white, and in the middle of prim, primetime TV? "I can say with some confidence that there were all sorts of things that weren't thought through about the reaction to it! But then if it had been shown in a cinema, it would have exploded with all the people wanting to get in. When the BBC bought it, it would have seemed positively perverse to tuck it away late at night on BBC2. There would have been a different kind of outcry. There was nothing the Beatles could do until then that everybody didn't want. They'd become loved by nearly everybody."

The strength of the outcry wasn't foreseeable: "The British go into these states of hysteria now and again. This was one of those. There was a lot of humbug."

These days, the BBC reacts to such situations with elongated periods of self-flagellation. Not so in the late 1960s. "There was a much more robust class of person in charge in those days: Aubrey Singer, Michael Peacock, Paul Fox. These were big guys. 'That's happened, let's get on with the next thing.' They were much less cowed by the press, yes, absolutely. Much more strong-minded. And the BBC acquitted itself very well in 1968 with the amount of coverage it gave to what happened."

The cultural shifts of that specific part of the 1960s are key to understanding Magical Mystery Tour, says Wall, which meant the new Arena film had to represent the trends of the time accurately. "Very few films about the 1960s get it right. They usually mix things up hopelessly. It's very important when you use archive to be precise – try to get it to the month. It invariably looks earlier than it is. When you see '1967' it's usually footage from 1970!

"We were determined to be as precise as possible, and we had key witnesses who could talk not just about The Beatles, but also what was going on at the time. One of the main ones, apart from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, is Barry Miles, who ran the Indica bookshop and was one of the publishers of the International Times.

"McCartney was living in central London, the other Beatles weren't. He was there, immersing himself in this stuff. In the documentary he reveals he was making his own experimental films, which I've never heard him talk about. Our film is full of people saying stuff you've never heard before."

Not just that: the Arena documentary draws on ten hours – yes, ten – of out-takes from the film that survive but have never been seen. "The idea that there's anything you don't know about The Beatles is startling enough. But the film was, consciously or unconsciously, suppressed. The out-takes were in the Apple vault, which is deep below the streets of London in a World War Two-type bunker. Sleeping down there for many, many years."

Some of the unseen footage has been taken out of the documentary and released online, as part of The Arena Hotel, an online spin-off from the strand hosted on The Space, a collaboration between the BBC and the Arts Council.

So when people have seen the documentary and the original movie, how does Wall think they should look at Magical Mystery Tour?

"It's of its time, and not. For me it transcends its time. They shot it on a mixture of reversal film, a cheap film news used to be shot on, and 16mm, so it doesn't feel like television or film, it feels like something else. When people remember the date, they'll realise a lot of the things they think might have influenced Magical Mystery Tour actually came after it. It's before 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's before Monty Python.

"In the documentary, Martin Scorsese says he saw it when it went to American universities in 1968. Peter Fonda, too. They saw it on a big screen. Scorsese came to Britain to find out more about it, and he cites it as an influence: the shots, and the attitude that there were no rules. There's a freedom about Magical Mystery Tour. The Beatles tried to do something spontaneous, in the way William Burroughs would write a book.

"Hopefully this time round, people will be prepared for it being a little strange, and for it just being a laugh. It's a hoot."

Arena: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited is on BBC2 on Saturday 6 October at 9.45pm. Magical Mystery Tour itself follows at 10.45pm.