For some time now I’ve been writing a series of mini-essays on Paul McCartney, who I reckon is the most interesting Beatle – maybe not the coolest, or the greatest, or the most lovable, but easily the most interesting, and I’m not ruling out, either, that Macca may be cool, great and lovable. They are intended to be read in alphabetical order. Here’s one.
McCartney is said to have introduced this word to common use in Britain, after he heard a New York policeman use it during the Beatles’ first trip to the U.S. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest British print citation for `zap’, in the sense of imitating the sound of a gun, is from Len Deighton in 1967, but McCartney got there in 1964, in a semi-improvised scene from A Hard Day’s Night. Alun Owen’s screenplay for the movie sometimes bears very little relationship to what actually happens on the screen. Richard Lester liked on-set improvisation and the Beatles, impatient with the whole process of learning lines, were happy to indulge him.
Notable moments of improvisation in the movie include:
The press junket in the bar of the theatre, in which the Beatles’ dialogue in the finished film is largely lifted from things they’d actually said at press conferences. Owen’s attempt to imitate the tone of Beatle humour falls notably flat, here:
Reporter: What’s your outlook on life?
Lennon: I’m torn between Zen and I’m All Right Jack.
For whatever reason (Lennonian incredulity possibly playing a part), these lines were thrown out. In the finished scene, an earnest girl reporter asks Lennon `Do you have any hobbies?’ Instead of answering, he takes her pad, writes something on it and hands it back. She reads what he’s written and her eyes widen in appalled horror, but before we can find out why, Lester cuts away. (The rumour was that he wrote ‘Tits’; thanks to DVD technology, I was able to pause the movie at this point and zoom in on the notepad, and I can confirm that the rumour is correct.)
Reporter: What do you call that haircut?
Elsewhere, Lennon piles self-reference upon self-reference. A journalist asks him `How did you find America?’ and Lennon gives the same reply that he gave at a real press conference, `Turn left at Greenland,’ but then does an exaggerated silent laugh as if to signal his awareness that he’s quoting himself.
McCartney’s tactic in the press junket scene is to give the same deadpan answer to every question: `No, actually, we’re just good friends.’ This was a mild joke about his own well-earned reputation as the group’s heartthrob, although ‘groupie magnet’ might be a more accurate reflection of his behaviour; his own comment on the matter was `It should have been “Can Buy Me Love”, actually’. However, McCartney pushes the remark into the realms of the surreal when he gives it as the reply to the question `Do you often see your father?’
An entire scene written for the movie, in which McCartney chats up a girl, was later dropped. Perhaps it was too boring, or exposed his limitations as an actor too much, although one possibility is that it resembled too much the brief but wonderfully strange scene where Lennon, passing along a crowded backstage corridor, is accosted by a young woman (Anna Quayle) who thinks that she recognises him. What’s never spelled out in the scene is who, exactly, the young woman (called ‘Millie’ in the script) recognises Lennon as being; does she think he’s John Lennon? Or someone more famous? In spite of the fact that there really wasn’t anyone more famous than Lennon at that point?
The scene was intended to end with Lennon blowing the girl a kiss, but this was cut, probably to reinforce the central theme of A Hard Day’s Night, which is that the Beatles are continually being chased, shunted around, insulted, mistaken for other people, forced to move on when they want to stay put and to stay put when they want to move on, and generally not given any time, privacy or freedom. Has any band ever been hated as much?
In any case, the ‘Zap’ moment comes in a scene that rather bears out Richard Lester’s impression that, of all the Beatles, McCartney was the one most interested in acting. McCartney, rather than Lennon, was always the artiest Beatle; Lennon was merely the most rebellious, but McCartney’s interest in the arts can be traced back to his story about his legendary English teacher Alan Durband teaching the kids Chaucer’s spectacularly bawdy The Miller’s Tale, complete with arse-kissing scene. In A Hard Day’s Night, Paul picks up a hairdryer and says to it in a fluty, cod-Shakespearean voice ‘Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…’ Then he points the hairdryer directly at the camera, like a gun, and spits ‘ZAP!’ It’s the only moment in the first Beatle film when the fourth wall is definitively broken, and it sticks out.