(Pictured: the Beatles pose with their cartoon selves in November 1964.)
I have written occasionally over the years about the Beatles’ 1960s cartoon series. The most extensive history of the project I’ve seen to date is in the new book Fab Fools: The Last Ever Untold Beatles Story by Jem Roberts, which discusses the Beatles as comedians, in the context of British comedy on radio, TV, and film from the 50s to the new millennium.
Producer Al Brodax of King Features made a deal with Brian Epstein for an animated series the day after the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. The scripts were written by showbiz veterans whose credits, among other things, included scripts for Gilligan’s Island and jokes for Milton Berle. Although a detailed bible was written explaining how to animate each Beatle to express his character, the look of the animation is fairly cheap; King Features, which had made Casper the Friendly Ghost and Popeye cartoons, farmed out the work, and sharp-eyed viewers would occasionally notice that various Beatles were sometimes missing various extremities. (Roberts says, “the animators always insisted on reshooting sequences with missing heads, no matter what the cost.”) Actual Beatles songs were used, although the wrong Beatle was sometimes shown singing, and songs were abruptly edited.
The Beatles wanted only to sign a contract and cash the checks; they were not interested in providing the voices for their animated selves. But it’s possible that ABC, the network buying the show, might not have wanted them. As natives of Liverpool, they had a very specific accent that sounded foreign even in their own country; there’d been talk of captioning A Hard Day’s Night to make them more understandable. ABC also feared that American viewers would find Liverpudlian accents unintelligible. So Brodax turned to English comic actor Lance Percival to do the voices of Paul and Ringo. When Paul first saw the show, he didn’t recognize what was supposed to be his voice; nevertheless, the Paul and Ringo voices are closer to the originals than those of John and George. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees, who had done radio drama, Disney cartoons, and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, didn’t capture either man, and didn’t really try. Roberts says, “Harrison ended up with a strange kind of squeaky, Irish-cum-Mexican brogue, while Lennon’s famous tones were replaced with Frees’ stab at a Rex Harrison impersonation.… the complete misunderstanding of what made John John to this day utterly undoes all the things the animators strove to get right.”
Epstein hated what Brodax and King Features had wrought (although in later years, John and George had kind words for it). He intervened directly with British TV channels to keep it off the air in the UK. It was a hit in the States, however, from its premiere in September 1965. No new episodes were produced after 1967, although the show ran on ABC until 1969. It aired on local channels after that, on MTV in the 80s, and eventually in Britain.
(By 1967, the Beatles’ more psychedelic sound and look didn’t fit the TV mold anymore. It did, however, transfer to the big screen: Yellow Submarine, produced by Brodax with a larger budget and a better voice cast, fulfilled the Beatles’ three-picture deal with United Artists in 1968.)
Today, episodes of The Beatles can be found at YouTube and Dailymotion, although they come and go. Apple owns the rights to the series, but Roberts says it’s filled with “staggeringly crass and offensive cultural and racial depictions throughout,” and suggests that the series would generate complaints today “from those of a Chinese background—and Japanese, Italian, German, Romany, Native American, Hispanic, Indian, British, Extra-Terrestrial … and so on.” While a restored release is high on the wishlist of many Beatles fans, it seems unlikely.
Fab Fools is a great idea for a book; part of what made the Beatles so appealing was their sense of humor. Their humor came from some very specific inspirations in post-World War II Britain, however, and an American reader who knows little about the place and the period will get lost now and then. Similarly, there is much about the comedians and the humor that inspired the Beatles that does not translate; an American reader sometimes just isn’t going to understand why some stuff is supposed to funny. (Also, what’s funny when it’s performed on stage frequently loses something on the page.) Nevertheless, Beatles-as-comedians is a unique angle, and the book is worth your time.