Call for Back-Up: A Hard Day’s Night’s Supporting Players

When he was offered the job in late 1963, Richard Lester was well-positioned to tackle the assignment of directing the Beatles in their first feature. A television veteran just coming off The Mouse on the Moon (the Peter Sellers-free sequel to The Mouse That Roared) for producer Walter Shenson, Lester’s own debut was the 1962 jukebox musical It’s Trad, Dad!, which demonstrated his knack for filming musical performances in a dynamic fashion. What endeared him most to the Four Lads from Liverpool, however, was his collaborations with Goon Show alums Sellers and Spike Milligan, particularly the 1959 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, for which he also did the score. If nothing else, music was a language they could all speak.

SIMON MARSHALL: Can he read?
SIMON: I mean lines, ducky. Can you handle lines?
GEORGE: Well, I’ll have a bash.

To devise the dialogue the Beatles would be called on to speak, Lester tapped playwright Alun Owen. Given carte blanche to make any kind of film they wanted, Lester and Owen hit upon a “day in the life” format after spending time with the band and witnessing firsthand their barbed backstage banter and the frenzy of their fans. Writing scenes and inventing situations the untried screen actors could carry off was the order of the day, as was casting the right supporting players for them to play off of.

Chief among them was Steptoe and Son star Wilfrid Brambell, who turned 52 while essaying the role of Paul McCartney’s troublemaking grandfather, along for the trip to London and determined to get up to as much mischief as possible. In spite of this – and the fact that he’s introduced reading Men Only magazine – the elder McCartney is frequently described as “very clean,” a nod to his Steptoe character, who was often called a “dirty old man.” While this detail may have been lost on viewers outside of Britain, it’s nevertheless a running gag that never runs out of steam.

After the Beatles, caught fleeing from their screaming fans, the first actor seen during A Hard Day’s Night’s iconic opening titles is Norman Rossington, doing a bit of comic business (trying in vain to open a container of milk) during cutaways from the hysteria. As the band’s embattled manager Norm, Rossington portrays a man driven to his wit’s end, especially as he’s in a pitched “battle of nerves” with the ever-rebellious John Lennon, whose go-to putdown is to call him a “swine.” (Eventually, John progresses to snorting and tossing off lines like “You’d look great with an apple in your gob.”)

Meanwhile, Norm’s polar opposite is his unflappable assistant Shake, played by John Junkin. McCartney was so taken with the Norm/Shake dynamic, he incorporated it into his screenplay for 1984’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, giving his Australian manager (played by an overqualified Bryan Brown) a bumbling, Shake-like assistant. For his part, Junkin acts more guileless and good-natured than anything else, but his finest moment comes when he gets George to show him how to shave in a mirror and winces when George “nicks” his reflection.

After Norm, the character most given over to worry is Victor Spinetti’s unnamed T.V. director, whose job would be much less stressful if he didn’t have to deal with the talent (or their meddling grandparents). “I see it all now,” he mutters to himself. “It’s a plot. A plot.” His worries about being replaced are unfounded, though. In fact, Lester brought Spinetti back the following year for the Beatles’ second film Help!, in which he channeled his passive aggression into the diabolically ineffective scientist Prof. Foot.

Most of the other actors only get one scene to make an impression, but that’s just what Richard Vernon does as the businessman who shares a train compartment with the Fab Four and encompasses the generation gap in the space of two minutes. That’s twice as long as Anna Quayle gets as the woman who recognizes John backstage, then playfully banters with him when he cheekily denies it. And as much praise as Ringo Starr gets for his one-on-one with a boy playing hooky from school, the real Beatle acting honors go to George for his standoff with Kenneth Haigh’s supercilious ad man (quoted above). The script gives each band member their moments to shine, but George is the best at underplaying the sardonic lines Owen penned for them.

When a film has been around for six decades and still feels as fresh and surprising as it did when it premiered, that’s a sign its makers caught lightning in a bottle. A Hard Day’s Night catches the Beatles just as they were becoming a worldwide cultural phenomenon, but crucially before they grew weary of the downsides of fame. It also collects an array of comedic performers in their prime who played a part, however large or small, in making them look as good as possible.

“A Hard Day’s Night” is streaming on the Criterion Channel and Max. It has also been released by Criterion in 4K.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

Back to top