What are Mae West and Diana Dors doing on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’ Lonely Hearts Club band? If you feel you’ve heard too much already about the 50th anniversary of the record, then fear not. Producer Luke Doran (who modestly insisted on remaining hidden in the photo above) came to me with the genius idea of exploring all the faces on the sleeve. Hence we’ve put together 13 hours of archive dramas, documentaries and interviews this Saturday on Radio 4 Extra: The Stars of Sergeant Pepper. Why were they there? What did they represent? And how did they make that photo shoot anyway?
The BBC Grams library copy of the album was only partly helpful. Though the large Please Return Promptly sticker might explain why this original mono copy has survived all these years without being pinched.
Luke and the team at BBC Radio 4 Extra dug out some gems from the archive including a Shirley Jenkins story The Child, starring Marlene Dietrich. And a dramatization of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum from 1943, never we think re-broadcast since. Paul’s girlfriend Jane Asher had of course starred in Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, one of his landmark cycle of Poe adaptations in the 1960s.
In between we’ve done new interviews about the shoot. Barry Miles was there. He ran the Indica bookshop at the time and recalls Paul McCartney coming in to check out books and a shopping list of names being sent by The Beatles. You might like to check out Chris Shaw’s website – Sergeant Pepper Photos – which is tracing the provenance of every photograph used on the cover.
Artist Jann Howarth who co-designed the cover with her then partner Peter Blake gave me a wonderful interview, speaking from her home in Salt Lake City. She explained how her father, the Hollywood designer of such films as Some Like It Hot was in London working on the Half A Sixpence film. He suggested some Hollywood illusion work to help create the crowd of stars, sticking the photo heads onto cardboard stands and treating them with a special varnish. Howarth also has strong views about the lack of women on the cover and is involved in work on a mural in Salt Lake City correcting the imbalance.
I particularly loved her insight into how the Beatles originally conceived the shoot as a parody of them as Northern boys getting the freedom of the city from a mayor in front of a floral clock. It seemed such a sophisticated self aware idea, not dissimilar to the image of Arnold Bennett’s The Card – the young maverick who defied expectations and came back a hero. The flowers that were delivered made that impossible and Jann recalls the challenge in coming up with an alternative budget design before they all wilted. The story about the shoot is a marvel of make do and mend. She reckons she and Peter were paid no more than a couple of hundred pounds between them.
Luke went to Madame Tussauds archive to find out about the sad Ringo and those other wax figures that join the Beatles – Diana Dors and boxer Sonny Liston. While Matthew Sweet offered expert knowledge on the Victoriana obsession of the mid 60s.
I remember George Melly at a screening of Smashing Time (also 1967) recalling how the Victorian dresses Rita Tushingham wears and Alice in Wonderland references – (Lewis Carroll is on the cover of Sergeant Pepper too) were the height of fashion at the time of shooting. He said hostile critics complained the fashion was already obsolete by the time the film came out.
So whether you’ve heard the album or not, the Stars of Sergeant Pepper is a fascinating delve into the cultural attic of a decade and an insight into the richness and ambition of McCartney’s mind especially, hanging out with beat writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg, listening to avant garde composers. While Harrison’s fascination with Hindu spiritualism is expressed in 3 gurus and the goddess Lakshmi. John in stockbroker belt Weybridge will soon break out. Decades before we began presenting carefully curated profiles of our influences on social media, the cover of Sergeant Pepper is an analogue template. 40 years before MySpace and decent digital photo manipulation here is the very idea of a personalised web presence composed in real time, with decaying flowers and bits of card and sticky tape.
Luke has found some breaktaking bits of archive, notably the jeering mockery of Diana Dors on an edition of Any Questions. Listen out for it ahead of her Desert Island Discs. It’s a sobering reminder of the attitude lag among powerful public figures towards younger people and any women in the public eye who defied conservative social convention. And for those of you who cherish her presence in Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming video, it will make you love her more.
Dion Dimucci, one of only 5 survivors from the cover, reflects on his presence and the fact that he was supposed to be on the plane that crashed, carrying Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. And for anyone who grew up fascinated by the disappearing world of old Hollywood, variety and music hall there are gems aplenty in our 13 hours of programming to keep them alive in our collective memory.
The Stars of Sergeant Pepper is on BBC Radio 4 Extra from 9am to 10pm on Saturday June 3rd and iplayer after.