I watched Love Me Do: the Beatles '62 last night, a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' first single. It is available on BBC iplayer, here, until next Sunday. If you're like me, you will know most of the main points in this programme already: Brian Epstein buying up records; Pete Best replaced by Ringo who was temporarily replaced, in turn, by Andy White; the record which was a creditable start but far from a smash ... it's all in the numerous biographies which you've already read. If you're like me.
So why bother with this?
I admit I sat down to watch it faute de mieux, as they say in Scotland, but in the event it was a pretty good version of that sort of programme. Details which helped provide a sense of historical context were lightly mixed in, and even if "the Beats", as Gerry Marsden calls them, were not on hand except via archive interviews, there was Pete Best, given the chance to put his side of things, and even Andy White had been tracked down to describe the session in which he temporarily displaced Ringo. And played, he says, on Please Please Me.
Which gives a clue to the overall strength of this programme: the quality of the talking heads, all participants or eyewitnesses of one sort or another.
And the unobtrusiveness of presenter Stuart Maconie also helped. He blended into the background - and no, I'm not damning with faint praise here: a more obvious celeb would have jarred, because the programme was about letting people speak. (I still shudder when I remember an Alan Davies programme about John Lennon. Ugh.)
Also contributing were Freda Kelly, secretary of the Beatles' fan club, and Iris Caldwell, Rory Storm's sister and Paul's girlfriend at the time (who told us very firmly that Love Me Do was not about her, so now we know). Bob Harris was there, really to give us a teenager's point of view: looking out for any telltale orange glow during a rugby match which might indicate that the Cuban Missile Crisis had finally come to a head; Gerry Marsden, meanwhile, talked of Kingsize Taylor's roadie fearing World War Three, desperate to leave Hamburg for England until the more sanguine Gerry persuaded him to drink his fears away instead. And a friend and business associate of Brian's talked of actually seeing the £10,000 pile of copies of Love Me Do in a storeroom at NEMS, the kind of thing which helped give the programme a bit of an edge. The tales may be wellworn, but it makes a difference when someone was there and talks about it in a matter-of-fact way.
And the camera seemed to linger on Pete Best for a second or two after he had said his piece rather than immediately cutting to something else, just enough to hint that he may have felt more hurt than was in his words, but without dwelling on it. Everyone came through with their dignity intact and there was no sense of brutal cutting at any point.
True, this was not a lavish Arena-style programme, and in the use of stock archive footage there was a hint of some of the shows which tend to appear on the Yesterday channel on Freeview (if you live in Britain) which are rather less than a full meal, but the quality of the interviews and the editing of them here made this considerably better than such time-fillers.
Even some very familiar Beatle interviews were well employed, and made poignant at the end when the four are individually questioned about what they expect in the future. Paul pours scorn on the idea of singing From Me to You when he's forty; little did he know. Ringo talks about opening a chain of hairdressers, to the sound of laughter from the others, but then a clip I hadn't seen, of his actually being in a hair salon, the ladies under the driers each looking up in turn as Mr Starkey processes.
So no stark (or Starkey) surprises for one already versed in Beatle lore, simply a particularly well-made and unflamboyant exploration of the period via a number of people it had touched. And if you don't know much about the context in which the Beatles exploded, this would be a good place to start. The programme was produced, directed and written by Peter Trollope.
[update: the programme was repeated on BBC 4 on September 19th 2015 and will be available on BBC iplayer via the above link until 18th October 2015]