“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.
So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.
In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.
In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”
The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.
The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.
It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.
He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.
All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.
Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.
Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.
He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.
Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.
Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?
I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.
Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.
It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.
I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.