Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Arena: Produced by George Martin (BBC documentary)

One of the better sketches in the variable BBC comedy series Big Train - in fact, the only one which has stayed with me - imagines a heavily bearded George Martin as a Terry Waite-style hostage, speaking at a press conference after his release. Whatever question Martin is asked, he immediately responds with one or other of the well-worn anecdotes about the Beatles: not realising John was high when he sent him to the roof  for a breath of air, etc.

I don't know what the average viewer made of it, but for someone who thinks about the Beatles maybe a little too much (and hey, there's a dullblog for that), it was screamingly funny - on a first viewing, anyway. If you do fall into the latter category, try it if you haven't seen it:

(Our Fabs-fixated hero is played, incidentally, by The Actor Kevin Eldon; Ian Hart-style, he was later to reprise the role as a younger man for the Harry and Paul sketch show, viewable in this entry.)

There's a certain amount of poignancy in the above sketch as well: it isn't altogether impossible to believe that, worn down by demands for those same anecdotes over the years, George Martin might indeed have come to think whatever other excitements  happened in his life journalists would only ever be interested in one subject.

Well, his imaginary incarceration may not have rated a mention, but otherwise there could be little cause for complaint about Produced by George Martin, last night's Arena documentary on BBC 2, which placed his time with the Beatles in the context of his wider career, giving due weight to his earlier achievements as a producer of comedy records. In fact, the Fabs did not figure until about half an hour in, and there was a fair amount of time devoted to his subsequent projects.

Yes, quite a few details would have been familiar to Beatleologists - and a fair proportion of those to the regular public - but the virtue of the programme was that everything seemed fresh. Maybe it was because a sense of revisiting, and reassessing, was integral to the programme: we saw the surviving makers of some of Martin's productions listening to the records again and (especially in the case of Rolf Harris and Ringo Starr,  playing imaginary drums) palpably back in that moment.

And, in its juxtaposition of film and photographs from the sixties, the programme could not help being about time passing. Martin may have looked like James Bond once upon a time (footage was used from, I think, Bernard Braden's interview project) but when we saw him mix a cocktail in the here and now it was difficult not to wonder whether it would be wise for him to down it (he did). There was insight into Martin's increasing deafness - at one point we heard a muffleed Lark Ascending as through his ears - which I didn't realise had started in the seventies.

Talking to Ringo, he blames it on a habit which presumably stems from Beatle times:
George: One of the reasons I'm deaf is that I used to sit in front of a desk, because I would then get right inside the triangle, and I could hear in stereo, and I used to shut my eyes and hear this arc of sound and I could hear everything from right to left - and it seemed to go up as well, not just stright in front of me.

Ringo: That's because you were on drugs!

George: (laughs) Well , it was in a way, wasn't it? It was a kind of drug.

The question is not asked, but it is tempting to wonder whether he feels it was a price worth paying for that experience.

 There are some pleasing moments of - well, not bitchiness, exactly, but he admits to his son that he was pleased when, with Epstein's Merseybeat stable, he finally beat Norrie Paramour's record for number one hits. And safely thus: by that time, Paramour had been dead for a couple for years.

And when quizzed about the Let It Be album, he says that when told the production credit would not mention him (even though he was responsible for the original recordings) he suggested a joint credit:
Produced by George Martin; overproduced by Phil Spector
which did not, it seems, find favour.

The decision was made to use several interviewers for the programme - although that implies a degree of formality which is misleading: more a series of conversations.

 His son Giles, talks to him about his early life; Judy Martin, his wife (much loved by the Fabs), is there to confirm details about his time at Parlophone; Michael Palin asks about the comedy records by Sellers,. Milligan and others, which helped shape the future Python; Macca, looking through photographs with Martin, fills in some unexpected details (it's Ringo who is filmed listening to recordings with Martin).Luckily, as it's Arena, not Imagine, Yentob can no longer insinuate himself. And as, by coincidence, I had been watching the expemplary Arena documentary about Brian Epstein earlier in the day, I can testify that this programme was not an anti-climax.

In short, as documentaries of this sort go, the list of talking heads (and drumming hands) could not be bettered. And key recordings, telling their own story, are played throughout. If Time means this turns out to be George Martin's last public hurrah then it's as warm and comprehensive a tribute to one who has been a major facilitator of joy and laughter for over fifty years as could reasonably be expected.

Related posts and links:

[Updated 10/3/16] The programme is currently available on BBC iplayer here once again for 29 days but after that if you can't find an alternative source, or if you merely want a taster, a substantial number of clips from the programme appear to reside permanently on the BBC site here.

I 've written a couple of posts about comedy songwriters Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge, whose Right Said Fred, produced by Martin, featured in the documentary; find them here and  here. George Martin is quoted in the latter.

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