In 1967, The Beatles were the most famous band in the world. Maybe they were even the most famous people in the world. Just a year earlier John Lennon had claimed they were “bigger than Jesus”, and it was hard to argue.
These days we know them as boundary-pushing rock stars, who pushed studio experimentation to its creative peak and became the icons of the swinging, psychedelic Sixties. But in 1967 they were just beginning on that path, with Revolver (1966) showing the first signs that they were more than just polished pop stars. They came within a whisker of risking it all on an outrageous, provocative film featuring political assassinations, polygamy and the occasional dominatrix. For a few mad months in 1967, The Beatles were nearly Up Against It.
After the huge success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, United Artists were understandably desperate to cash in on the final part of their three-picture deal. The Beatles were less keen. Projects were being fired at them from all directions (including a Lord of the Rings adaptation!), but they were reluctant to turn over months of their lives to a regimented shooting schedule when there were already so many demands on their time. Most of all, they didn’t want to knock out an obligatory crowdpleaser at a point when all of their minds were expanding – whether that was down to the drugs, or the natural growth of age and new experiences. They wanted to make something ambitious.
Producer Walter Shenson commissioned screenwriter Owen Holder to produce an experimental script, reminiscent of a proto-Inside Out with the Fab Four playing various personalities inside the main character’s head. His idea was gradually sidelined until Shenson brought in the hottest writer in London to punch it up: Joe Orton.
Orton was making his name with a series of riotous and farcical plays that provided a welcome shock to the system for London’s old-fashioned theatre scene. He was the perfect person to cater to The Beatles’ maturing and increasingly radical image. Orton was also a big fan of the band, though he was less enamoured with their dramatic skills, writing in his diary in January 1967, that “The Beatles are getting fed up with the Dick Lester type of direction. They want dialogue to speak … Difficult this, as I don’t think any of The Beatles can act in any accepted sense.”
Nevertheless, he soldiered on with the thought of a possible £10,000 fee for the first draft, a fortune at the time, and a month later he handed in his script – one of the maddest and most risqué projects that would ever land on The Beatles’ desk.
The plot of Up Against It is a ramshackle, anarchic manifesto for free love, and very hard to summarise neatly. The lead roles are Ian McTurk, a promiscuous charmer (to be played by John Lennon) and his more innocent friend Christopher Low (Paul McCartney), who are banished from their village after McTurk takes the virginity of the priest’s niece. That alone would have been a shocking concept for such popular stars to be involved with, but things got much, much weirder.
The rest of the film follows their adventures as they meet a band of anarchists, escape a dominatrix, fight in a new English Civil War, and finally enter into a polygamous marriage. Oh and there’s the small matter of them dragging up to sneak into the Royal Albert Hall and assassinate Britain’s first (fictional) female Prime Minister.
Any one of these plot points would have been front page news, but Orton crammed all that and more into one script. It’s hard to imagine the scandalised reaction if the film had ever been made and released, though at this point in their careers The Beatles cared less and less for popular opinion.
Months later, the script was returned to Orton with no feedback, no comments, no nothing. “And apparently Brian Epstein had no comment to make either,” he wrote in his diary. “Fuck them.” Orton assumed his script was too much for The Beatles to handle, though Paul McCartney later claimed that “the reason why we didn’t do Up Against It wasn’t because it was too far out or anything.”
The real reason is in the second half of McCartney’s quote and it’s far more depressing: “We didn’t do it because it was gay. We weren’t gay and really that was all there was to it. It was quite simple, really. Brian [Epstein] was gay … and so he and the gay crowd could appreciate it. Now, it wasn’t that we were anti-gay – just that we, The Beatles, weren’t gay.”
Just in case you had any doubts I can clarify that they, The Beatles, weren’t gay.
The Swinging Sixties may have been an era of free love, but it’s easily forgotten that it wasn’t free love for everybody, especially London’s queer community. Homosexual acts were still a criminal offence up until August 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act was passed in parliament, and clearly even the most liberal members of Britain’s creative revolution had a few hangups about associating too closely with a proudly gay artist like Orton.
He retained the rights to his script and continued unfazed, working closely with past Beatles collaborator, director Richard Lester, to find a new home for the project. Producer Oscar Lewenstein optioned the script and the three of them arranged a meeting to discuss a new direction for the film, including the possibility of Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen as more willing co-stars. Everything was finally looking up for Orton’s ambitious project.
A few days later a chauffeur arrived to collect Orton. No one answered the door, so he looked through the letterbox to see Orton’s partner Kenneth Halliwell slumped in the hallway. Police broke down the door.
The night before, Halliwell had beaten Joe to death with a hammer, then taken his own life with an overdose of Nembutal tablets. At Joe’s cremation, his coffin was carried in to a recording of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’.
It would have been amazing to see The Beatles take on such a provocative and challenging film at the height of their fame, but any faint thrill at that prospect quickly pales in comparison with the tragedy that soon found Joe Orton. He was a daring talent, constricted by the fears and prejudices of British society who had all too brief a window in which to flourish.
Up Against It was adapted for an Off-Broadway musical theatre production by Todd Rundgren in 1989, and a radio play starring Prunella Scales, Damon Albarn and Joseph Fiennes was made for BBC Radio 3 in 1997. The original draft of the script was never published.