Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beatles and Me -- How I won the War

Let's take a trip back to 1966 and grab an issue of 16 Magazine.   It was there that you would find interesting feature stories by Pattie Boyd or Neil Aspinall.    This one from Neil about John Lennon and How I won the War is really good.  I think it gives information that you can't find anywhere else.   I really wish Neil had written a book.  But at least we have articles like this one!

The Beatles and Me
By Neil Aspinall
16 Magazine 1966

On the evening of October 8, 1966, John Lennon celebrated his 26th birthday in an apartment in Almeria, Spain.  Officially, he was 26 on Sunday, October 9th, but the party took place the night before because John was about to move to a new location.   At the time, we had been in Spain just over three weeks for location work on the Richard Lester movie, How I won the War, in which John plays the part of Corporal Gripweed – a faithful, slovenly and slightly cowardly servant/batman on Lieutenant Goodbody (Michael Crawford) of the British Army.

The entire production unit for the movie got an open invitation to the birthday shindig and believe me, it was quite a wild night!  Almeria is a pretty remote spot – minus most forms of conventional night life, so that party was one of the few really successful social occasions of the month.

John and Cyn had become very friendly with Michael Crawford and his wife, who were renting an apartment nearby.  Already the Crawfords were finding themselves a bit cramped, because they had their lovely little six-month-old baby with them and a nanny.  And Ringo arrived with Maureen for a holiday three days before the birthday party!

“You know what we ought to do?”  John suggested one evening , just after we’d heard that Ringo and Maureen were coming to Spain.  “We should all get together and rent one of those fantastic old villas outside the town.”

The Crawfords loved the idea and the move was organized without delay.  The apartments were very attractive and comfortable – with a wonderful view looking out over the sea.  But everyone wanted more space to move around in and larger “get-togethers” rooms for entertaining.  So, on the Sunday of John’s birthday, we moved into the Villa Corjo-Romera, a magnificent rambling old Spanish villa standing on a hill outside the town.

“It’ll take days just to explore this place,” John declared, as we walked from room to room on the initial four of the villa.  We admired all the heavy woodwork, the superbly decorated ceilings and the majestic main hall.

“That’s it,” replied John.  “A party!  It’s my birthday.  We should have one.”

“We did that last night,” I put in weakly.

“Well, we’ll do it again tonight,” John said.  “It can be called a villa warming, if you like.”

“Hey—you’ve got a game room,” Ringo said.  “Let’s have a go at table tennis later.”

That night’s “villa warming” party coincided with one of the worst storms Almeria had ever experienced in living memory.  Normally, the locals expect no more than about five days of rain each year.  This storm took everybody by surprise.  The rain was torrential and it was accompanied by a fierce wind.  The party was just getting underway, when all the lights went out, so we rushed around trying to find where the fuses were located.    We needn’t have bothered.  The electricity supply cables for the entire area had been damaged by the storm.  And the telephone lines were down too.  Finally, we found enough candles to light the place.  And in the end, the candlelight added a definitely romantic atmosphere to the party, and the power cut turned out to be a novel advantage rather than a disaster.

It goes without saying that there was no film work done on Monday.  The location set had been washed away by the rain.  (After all, this was a desert sequence – and floods just don’t happen in the desert!)  The water supply for the villa came from a well, but the pump was worked by electricity.  It wasn’t until late Tuesday afternoon that the electric power was restored.  So we spent Monday devising ways of eating and existing comfortably without the use of water or electricity. 
The restoration of the power coincided with the arrival of our cook.  So at about three o’clock Tuesday afternoon we all settled down to a late breakfast of sausages and eggs.

“This, I am really looking forward to,” said John and the girls put on a look of mock annoyance.  “Not that I’m saying a word against your cooking, but even you two can’t work wonders without water.”

 John and I had left for Germany to being work on How I won the War less than a week after the Beatles’ American tour.  By  now it must be a matter of well-known historical fact that John’s ceremonial hair-cutting took place at the unearthly hour of 7:30am on the morning of Tuesday, September 6, 1966!  The “operation” was supervised by the film’s producer/director, Richard Lester, and carried out by 28-year-old German hairdresser, Klaus Baruch, of Hamburg.   He came to our small vacation type hotel in the forest of Luneburg Heath to perform his grave task.   John’s familiar fringe was swept back and greased down a bit to transform him into Corporal Gripweed.  The addition of a grubby old army greatcoat plus a pair of very pain specs completed the change from Beatle to “batman.”

Don’t believe any claims people might make about possessing some of John’s clipped-off hair.   I watched the famous locks of hair burning away to nothing while we were at Luneburg!

No true Neil---this lock of John's hair sold at Heritage Auctions in 2016

We got one completely free day in Germany and John took the opportunity of re-visiting some of his favorite haunts in Hamburg.  We couldn’t make the rounds of the Hamburg club scene because we had to be up so early the following morning.  Instead, John went on a shopping spree and picked up an assortment of shirts, shoes, jeans and other accessories from stores he knew well from the Beatles’ days in Hamburg five and six years ago.  It was a fascinating day for John since so many of the places familiar to him had greatly changed since 1960.

We finished filming in Germany on Wednesday September 14th.  By coincidence, that was the day that a “Mr. and Mrs. Sam Wells” flew from London, Airport on a BOAC plane bound for Bombay.  At Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel, it wasn’t long before Mr. and Mrs. Wells alias George Harrison, let himself be pressured into admitting his true identity and explain to the local press his motives for that extended Indian vacation trip:  to study the sitar and everything to do with Asian music.

Meanwhile, back at How I won the War, John and I left Hamburg by the night train to Paris in the small hours of Friday September 16th.  And at the same time (or a few hours later), Brian Epstein left London for Paris—accompanied by Paul McCartney.  We all met in Paris—just for the weekend, because filming in Spain was due to start early the following week.  The flight from Paris to Spain was fast and the longest and most tedious part of our journey was yet to come.  From the airport at Malaga, we faced a five-hour car dive to Almeria, which is, as I said earlier, a bit of a remote spot.  We drove along what the Spanish fondly imagine are highways but are, in fact, more like dirt tracks with superficial tarmac coating.  For most of the way, the “road “runs alongside the sea – I mean ALONGSIDE, because I reckoned we would plunge straight down into the waves at any second.
The living in Spain was a bit rough, but  nobody minded.  By now, most of the cast had become firm friends.  Although John and I had made a particular mate of Michael Crawford, we were equally close with all the other actors.  Like Ronald Lacy, who is Spool in the picture; Lee Montague, who is Transom (Corporal of Musket and Troop Sergeant); Roy Kinnear, who is Clapper; and Michael Hardern, who plays Lt. Col. Grapple.  Each morning we would be up by 7:30 to leave no later than 8am.  John had his own driver and Rolls with him.  The Almeria inhabitants were thoroughly impressed with this vehicle, and John caused a great stir each day as we drove out of the town.  The local people described the Rolls as the “Royal Hearse.”

Once we left the town each morning, that was it for the whole day.  At the actual film location, we spent most of our spare time watching what was happening or sitting around on the floor of an old bus (no seats) which was used as the company wardrobe and the cast’s dressing room. Between 8:30am and 9, John went through the make-up process of becoming Corporal Gripweed, and the next four hours were spent in front of the cameras.  The lunch break was from twelve to one.  We were well looked after, despite the lack of facilities on the location.  We all sat around in a big and very hot tent eating excellent lunches, with things like melon, filet steak and fruit.

Most of our evenings were spent quietly.  Sometimes, John would go through his lines for the following day, with me correcting him and filling in all the other parts.  Just for laughs, we would rewrite whole scenes for ourselves, which got a bit confusing.  So sooner or later, we’d call each other to order and get back to the script-learning bit.  I’m not sure exactly where Corporal Gripweed was born and raised, but John has given him a definitely Liverpool origin.

When Ringo and Maurren joined us at Almeria on Wednesday, October 5th, only one of the boys remained in England.  That was Paul, who was still in the process of putting the final interior finishing touches to his new house at St. John’s Wood in North London. In any case, he wasn’t ready to take an overseas vcacation at that stage because he had started work on the soundtrack musical score for the Hayley Mills’ film, “All in good time.”

So, by the final week of October, the all round situation on the Beatle front was this:  George with yoga experience, sitar lessons and mustache, was located in a picturesque house beside a loe not too far from Bombay, India; Paul was in London, watching different bits of the Boulting Brothers’ film and writing the background music for each scene; and Ringo was taking it easy in Spain and watching John work on the final segments of How I won the War.  Now there was an interesting dispersal of talents and occupations, if ever there was one!


  1. Oh my GOSH, Sara! Thank you for typing this all out!!! And that first photograph! That marries perfectly to the "Strawberry Fields Forever" demos, I'm encoding my mp3s with it as soon as my comment is done! Whoah!

    It also helps date the photos of Ringo visiting the set.

    Oh man, I almost get nauseous thinking about losing Neil, and what that means to Beatle history, and the next volumes of Mr. Lewisohn's books. I hate to be selfish about it.

    Thanks, Sara!!

  2. love the friendship that John & Cyn had with Ringo & Mo

  3. sara how do you know John's hair sold at Heritage Auctions in 2016 was real?

    1. I guess I don't. The story behind it sounded true--it came from the guy that cut his hair. However, it could be fake. I am not going to spend any amount of money on Beatle hair.

  4. Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is a fun little movie that revolves around John being in Almeria filming.

  5. Dear Sara, thanks a lot for the above article. I am serious Spanish Beatles researcher and I would like to know which issue of 16 Magazine includes it. Best regards.