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Joe Orton

In the studio today, yet more overdubs were added to “Penny Lane” — trumpets, oboes, and a double bass — but the more interesting historical event, to my mind, took place behind the scenes. Apparently someone in the Beatles camp had decided that controversial playwright Joe Orton was the perfect choice to write the screenplay for their next movie. (Brian Epstein seems like the most likely suspect, though Paul McCartney had previously invested in an Orton play.) Walter Shenson, producer of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, was enlisted to make this happen.

According to Orton’s diary, on January 12, 1967, his agent received a phone call from Shenson. Another writer had submitted a script called Shades of a Personality. Shenson liked the basic concept — in which The Beatles would play not four separate characters, but four aspects of the same character — but found the execution dull. Did Orton want to have a go at punching it up? He did. I’ll let Bill Harry’s The Beatles Encyclopedia pick up the story from here:

Orton’s ideas grew to such an extent that he ended up with a completely different concept and penned a screenplay called Up Against It.

He submitted a draft of his screenplay to Brian Epstein and was invited to have dinner with Paul and Brian. Of his meeting with Paul, Orton wrote: “He was just as the photographs, only he’d grown a moustache. His hair was shorter, too. He was playing the latest Beatles record, ‘Penny Lane.’ I liked it very much. Then he played the other side — Strawberry something. I didn’t like this very much.”

Epstein gave Orton the go-ahead to finish the script, but even so, Orton had an inkling that what he was writing might not be what The Beatles were looking for.

The boys, in my script, have been caught in-flagrante, become involved in dubious political activity, dressed as women, committed murder, been put in prison and committed adultery.

One dearly wishes that this film would have been made, but of course it was not. Level heads prevailed and the script was returned to Orton, who then partnered with producer Oscar Lewenstein. The project appeared to have good momentum — Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen were being courted for two of the leads — but on the day Lewenstein and Orton were supposed to meet with director Richard Lester, Orton was bludgeoned to death by his longtime boyfriend, who then killed himself with an overdose of Nembutal tablets.

Up Against It has never been produced for the screen, though it has been adapted for musical theatre and radio. One Jem Roberts put the radio version up on YouTube with Beatley visual accompaniment. “In another universe,” he says, “it ended The Beatles’ career. But here it is.”

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