The Beatles's Bizarre 1960s Christmas Shows
By the 1963 Christmas season, The Beatles were already the biggest musical stars in the history of British entertainment. So the boys were asked to star in "The Beatles Christmas Shows" at the Astoria Cinema in Finsbury Park, London. The Christmas shows had been arranged by the band's manager, Brian Epstein, and featured several of his other acts, including Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Tommy Quickly, and Cilla Black. These shows were, quite possibly, the oddest performances of The Beatles's career.
The Christmas shows began on Christmas Eve 1963. Then, The Beatles were all flown home to their families to celebrate Christmas the next day. After that, the Christmas shows continued through January 11, 1964. The shows completely sold out—100,000 tickets sold like hotcakes. Financially, the shows were a guaranteed smash hit. But on an artistic level, well, that was another story.
Traditional British Christmas shows always included a pantomime. "We didn't like doing pantomime," George Harrison said, "so we did our own show, more or less like a pop show, but we kept appearing every few minutes dressed up ... for a laugh."
The Beatles would perform a few songs, go offstage and dress up in ridiculous costumes while the other groups on the bill performed, and then the boys would perform a corny ski, a fluff "melodrama." After the skit ended, the boys would again run backstage, take off the hokey outfits as other acts filled in, and come back on stage to perform the show's finale.
"I'm changing the concept of pantomime," the show's director, Peter Yarrow, said.
The casting, at least, was inspired. John Lennon was "Sir Jasper," the villain, complete with black cape and hokey black mustache. Paul McCartney was the good guy, "Fearless Paul," the signalman. George Harrison played the girl-in-distress, complete with a feminine scarf over his head. And Ringo Starr was the only real pantomime in the skit; he played the "Special Effects," acting as the rain, snow, or whatever other effect was needed in the sketch. For example, as "Snow," Ringo would reach into a container and throw snowflakes all over the stage and actors.
The basic plot: Sir Jasper (John) kidnaps the helpless girl (George) and ties her (him) to the railroad tracks, before Fearless Paul (Paul) comes in and saves her (him). All the while, Ringo as "Special Effects" is adding humorous effects.
"Very Funny Chaos"
The musical part of the Christmas show was, as expected, a smash. And The Beatles gamely performed their required sketch with as much aplomb as they could muster, but it was marred by the screaming female fans in the crowd; none of the band members' dialogue could even be heard. The sketch was also so hokey that males in the audience actually heckled the Fab Four. (There is footage of The Beatles being heckled during the skit at one show, and Lennon shouting "Shut up!" to the hecklers.)
"The Beatles were never much for rehearsals," publicist Tony Barrow said. "That never really mattered as far as the songs were concerned, but the fact that they were so bad at doing the sketches was an added extra for the show—it was organized chaos, but it was very funny chaos."
"Let's face it," said McCartney, "they would have laughed if we had just sat there and read the Liverpool telephone directory."
Barron Knight, who was in the shows with them, explained, "Because it was new to them, they didn't make a fuss. But as the run went on, I think they realized it wasn't really working. They wanted to be songwriters and pop stars, they didn't want to be actors."
"Another Beatles Christmas Show"
Amazingly, even after these very strange shows, the Beatles agreed to do "Another Beatles Christmas Show" in 1964. This included, of course, another series of juvenile skits. At that point, The Beatles were world famous superstars. One has to wonder why they consented to reprising these hokey shows at a time when they were so powerful. The money was very good, but they certainly didn't "need" the money anymore.
At the 1964 Christmas shows, John wore a blonde women's wig with pigtails. Paul and George each wore Victorian outfits, and Ringo wore a lion costume, with a lion's mane draped around his head.
Again, the shows were a huge commercial success. But this series of Christmas shows was, to no one's great surprise, the end of The Beatles's career as "all-around family entertainers."
In August 1965, the upcoming London Christmas shows were announced. The shows again included many of the acts in Brian Epstein's stable of musical talent and featured the skits "Cinderella," "Mother Goose," and "Little Red Riding Hood." One can only imagine what John Lennon said when he turned down the offer.
This story has been updated for 2020.