The premise of new film Yesterday is simple and effective. Young, unsuccessful musician Jack Malick (ex-EastEnders actor Himesh Patel in a breakthrough role) wakes up after a bicycle accident to a world in which The Beatles never existed. While his own uninspiring compositions had been ignored by everyone bar best pal Ellie (Lily James), he now has the key to the pop kingdom – passing off classics from She Loves You to Let It Be as his own, winning global acclaim and surpassing Ed Sheeran (who features heavily) as singer-songwriter supreme.
Both Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle are part of the first generation whose lives have been filtered through a prism of pop culture. Born into a world of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, schooled to a soundtrack of The Beatles, they are of that pioneering generation for whom love and romance was explained and explored through the lyrics of pop songs, politics played out on television, and the big issues of the day were examined on the big screen.
Like The Beatles before them, these filmmakers have also been instrumental in selling visions of Britishness to the wider world. The class system and a particular English masculinity were exemplified by Hugh Grant and co in Curtis’s 1994 smash hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, while Boyle’s acclaimed opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012 offered a thrilling new vision of Britain as ‘Isles of Wonder’ – celebrating the NHS, the Industrial Revolution and British popular culture. It ended, naturally, with Paul McCartney singing Hey Jude…
How are you both doing?
Richard Curtis: Delighted to be talking to you.
Danny Boyle: Yeeeessss!
RC: The Big Issue is still such a great thing. It is so interesting the way that if you have lived somewhere as long as I have, you know the people who sell the magazine. I’m thinking of making the guy who sells The Big Issue on Elgin Crescent the godparent of my next child, I know him so well. It is a great magazine.
I’m thinking of making the guy who sells The Big Issue on Elgin Crescent the godparent of my next child, I know him so well.
You were born weeks apart and became teenagers just as The Beatles were about to disband – did you encounter them at a very formative time?
RC: Danny is not holding up too well. Age is taking its toll.
DB: I was more Zeppelin and Bowie at school. That was the absolutely formative time for me. But I had all the albums. I have been thinking about it a lot recently. Because it is weird, I thought of my parents as old, but they were young and listening to The Beatles downstairs while their kids – who were making them old – were upstairs pretending to be The Beatles. My sister was in love with Paul McCartney so I would be John Lennon and my younger sister got the choice of George or Ringo. You were much more into them, weren’t you?
RC: They were our main entertainment. Every birthday was about hoping the timing would coincide with the release of a new Beatles album. When I heard The White Album was coming out [in 1968] , I was at boarding school. I got up at 5am and sat on a radiator for an hour so I appeared to have a fever. I was taken to the sanatorium and spent the day listening to every track, one after another, on Radio 1. It was an amazing thing to grow up with – not really understanding what was going on but feeling this change. What is so satisfying is to realise I was right.
How did this collaboration, this supergroup come about?
DB: Supergroup – I like that!
RC: Real luck, actually. We met before the Olympics and I helped with the bit that Rowan [Atkinson] did. And we stayed in touch. I’m sure I asked Danny to do a couple of things for Comic Relief, I always do, then Danny was writing to me about something else and put in a PS, ‘If you have got anything you are working on, please do send it’. You must have had your first spare week for 15 years. My girlfriend said send it to him, and he came back with complete clarity saying four things he felt very strongly weren’t right. Danny phrased it as if he was auditioning for the film, whereas in fact he was presenting his red lines… like Theresa May.
DB: Hahahaha. Thanks for the simile.
The Beatles are perhaps our greatest cultural export and took a new version of this country around the world…
DB: You hear about their influence but the way I read them is within this country. They defined our second half of the century. It is that big. We imported Elvis, but these were the guys who defined pop culture as being the dominant belief system after the war. After military service, after religion – really they are post-God in a way – not so much money, although they decried the use of it and its challenge to love – but here was an alternative. It is the reason we became so brilliant at music. And the northern towns especially. So they became, for me, a belief system that has influenced 70 years of peace and the dedication to pleasure, self-expression, well-being. They are the figurehead of that.
We imported Elvis, but these were the guys who defined pop culture as being the dominant belief system after the war.
RC: My daughter was doing something on the most important moments in the history of TV and I asked [film director] Paul Greengrass, because he is cleverer than me. He said number one was the Moon landing. But he thought number two was The Beatles doing All You Need Is Love as the first global broadcast [1967’s Our World event]. Everyone else did an ad for their country, but we had four young men, already in their utter prime, singing a song saying All You Need Is Love with their friends in the studio. The message that sent out, young men singing songs of hope – I do think they are enormously meaningful in a big sense.
When Jack first plays Yesterday, you are so embedded in that world it is easy to imagine you are hearing it for the first time…
RC: That is where the directing comes in. If, in Yesterday, you had gone in on his fingers, you would have given away to the audience that you knew something amazing was happening. But there are the weird shots of the guy with the dog, a shot through the window, it is all happening in a very realistic world. So Danny is a very good director. That can be your headline: Danny Boyle can direct movies shocker!
DB: It is a fun idea to centre the film around these two people who live, initially, very ordinary, lovely lives, she is a schoolteacher and he is a gig economy guy soon to return to schoolteaching. So it is a celebration of teaching, actually! You think, why do people know these Beatles songs? Are they in us as part of our DNA? Well, if they are, it is partly down to teachers – in some way the soul of a nation is passed on through the teachers.
RC: At my kids’ school, they would do a play about the Battle of Hastings – and in the end on walked William The Conqueror and on walked Harold and they held hands and sang We Can Work It Out. I remember that very specifically.
DB: And that is how that song enters their consciousness for ever more.
RC: [sings] Try to see it my way…
It seems very timely, as we ponder Britain’s place in the world, to consider pop culture as the way we present ourselves to the world.
DB: Even though we pretend to be bashful, we do promote our culture. You can make that case to the exchequer constantly about the value of culture. They are building studios outside London now because of the tax break and the weak pound. So culture is earning its keep.
You have both presented versions of Britishness through film, through Comic Relief, through the Olympics…
RC: You don’t want to make a general film of the state of the UK. All you can do is try and be a bit truthful about a bit of it. I hope people see the film and remember there are lovely bits [of Britain] and the people are full of charm and grace and enthusiasm and variety. We are on the optimistic side in this film, Ken Loach’s new film [Sorry We Missed You] is telling a completely different truth. That has been an advantage and a disadvantage of me writing so much about my friends in my career – I have known it is accurate, but it has been more limiting.
Did casting Himesh Patel bring an extra element, representing a more diverse Britain?
DB: He was the best guy. We didn’t set out to do a diverse cast other than your general responsibility [to do so]. We had seen a lot of guys who were better singers but there was something about his performance. He sang Yesterday and [Back In The] USSR and we knew those songs inside out and backwards because we had seen so many people auditioning them. But he was fresh. Then Lily came in and as soon as she spoke, you knew she was going to play the part.
RC: I knew she was going to be good at the funny stuff having just done Mamma Mia! [Here We Go Again] with her, but her reaction to the script was very intense, wasn’t it?
DB: Very emotional, yeah. Electric.
Is this a film the country needs right now, something we can all celebrate? Everyone can unite around The Beatles if nothing else.
RC: I don’t think one would want to say that. You just make a film and hope people find it entertaining. But I do think there is a truth that for all the arguments and rows, there are so many wonderful things that everyone here shares. It is good to have representations of delight to balance the necessary representations of toughness. That is the problem of the news – apart from royal births, The news only gives you bad stuff. Whereas entertainment gives you both.
DB: I was trying to think who said: “Entertainment and information are vital. Entertainment more so because it is always informative, whereas information isn’t always entertaining.” Something like that. It is very true. Entertainment is always informative on some level.
RC: When you think back, you need both A Hard Day’s Night and Cathy Come Home. You need Boys from The Blackstuff and Absolutely Fabulous. They are both telling different kinds of truth.
During the Olympics opening ceremony, it felt like many of us parked our cynicism – how do we return to that feeling?
RC: I think it was a demonstration of the power of art. It was a massive reminder of things that people care about and love – through history but also through popular culture, through movies, through music, through books. My philosophy with Comic Relief is that to make things happen you have to make things. Danny had an opportunity to make something that represented the UK and in doing so, he remade people’s idea of the UK.
DB: One of the things that underwrote it is a belief in good people. Culture is a wonderful belief system and you have to look after it because it doesn’t fight for itself in the way religion, money, war, fight for themselves. They will fucking tear stuff down. But you have to really believe in culture. I think it will ascend more and more – and it must, to save us all.
TWO FILM PROS AND A JOURNALIST…
WE ASK BOYLE AND CURTIS TO RATE EACH OTHER’S WORK
DB: I had an extraordinary experience watching Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was packed. An absolute riot of an evening. I thought, What the fuck is this? It was a wonderful education in the pleasuredome of mainstream filmmaking and also a fascinating picture of Britain. And then, of course, Blackadder. Which is not a film, I know. You have never done a film of it, have you?
RC: We all hated each other so much. We couldn’t have even thought about it. I am going to go for Shallow Grave. We have got slightly obsessed by it in our family. There is something so perfect about it. And I am immensely fond of Slumdog [Millionaire] – I feel it is so many things, a very romantic film, it is also a very truthful film, it is a brilliant film about a foreign country that means a lot to me. It achieved as much as a year’s worth of Comic Relief in making you empathise and understand. And it was unbelievably well constructed. I have always said Danny has nicked most of his stuff from me – like Four Weddings and a Funeral, this was Four Rounds and a Quiz.