On Monday, November 4th, 1963, The Beatles were to all intents and purposes imprisoned.
They were inside the Prince of Wales Theatre near Leicester Square in London preparing to perform at that evening’s Royal Variety Performance in front of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Their manager Brian Epstein refused to let them outside for fear of causing a riot.
In a few heady months the band had gone from playing in the bowels of a Liverpool cellar to become a teenage national craze that had been labelled ‘Beatlemania’ by the nonplussed headline writers of Fleet Street.
So many newspaper column inches had been dedicated to the Fab Four already in 1963 that readers could at last see beyond the uniformity of their strange hairstyles and identify the members individually. The names John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were on the tips of everybody’s tongues. Teenage fans were drunk on the glorious alchemy of their harmonies and melodies, while their parents had been won over by the Beatles’ charm, wit and cheek.
Their hit singles Please Please Me, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand had made them British stars. America beckoned (their triumph with US audiences was three months away and was at this stage by no means assured; remember, all British stars had failed to crack the States). But for tonight, they were focusing on their greatest accolade so far: the invitation to play in front of royalty.
Epstein was worried as the show approached. Lennon had threatened to do something rebellious. Rumour has it he intended to use the F-word. To Brian, keen to impress the Establishment, this was madness.
The Royal Variety Performance line-up included family-favourite singer Max Bygraves, movie legend Marlene Dietrich, comedian Charlie Drake and the stars of sitcom Steptoe and Son. It was the entertainment event of the year in the grey, buttoned-up world of 1960s Britain.
In the hour before the show, more than 3,000 Beatles fans were crammed outside the theatre. More than 500 police officers had to be called upon to keep the crowds in order for the arrival of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon.
It must have been a strange experience for the Liverpool lads. They were used to screaming fans drowning out their performances. But for once the theatre wasn’t full of their adoring teenage fans. It was filled with mostly middle aged people with enough money to afford the price of a Royal Variety Performance ticket.
When they took to the stage, The Beatles were welcomed by polite applause before they launched into their set. Epstein must have been biting his fingernails backstage. How were they going to be received? More importantly, was John Lennon about to send The Beatles’ career into a spectacular nosedive?
The band started with two of their self-penned hits: From Me To You and She Loves You, complete with the now-famous ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain and the hair-shaking ‘whoos’. Then Paul McCartney introduced the show tune Till There Was You, perfect for the older audience. His introduction was polite and respectful and he later told a Liverpool Echo reporter he had fluffed it, although he doubted that anyone had noticed.
Applause greeted the band as they finished the song. They did their famous bow in unison, which they did after every song, a touch of old-style showbusiness that Epstein had convinced the boys to adopt.
Now John Lennon stepped up to the microphone. Perhaps Epstein was unable to watch what happened next.
“For our last number we’d like your help,” Lennon invited the audience. “Those of you in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” An impish smile, a bob of the head, and the rebellion was over.
All eyes were on the royal box. How had the comments gone down? The Queen Mother was smiling; she offered a polite wave of approval.
The Beatles exploded into the opening chords of Twist and Shout.
The Sixties had arrived.
(Sources: Liverpool Echo & Evening Express, Tuesday, November 5, 1963; The Illustrated London News, November 16, 1963; The Press and Journal, October 11, 1963)