50 years since The Beatles filmed two groundbreaking music videos

It was 50 years ago…May 20th, 1966, that the four most famous people on the planet strolled into a public park in West London to create two ground-breaking mini films which were to change the course of music history.

The Beatles performed ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ in the iconic 18th century gardens of Chiswick House for promotional films that were the precursors of today’s ubiquitous music videos.

Up until then the few music promos in circulation had been largely straightforward studio performances, shot in black and white. But the legendary British rock band led the way, as they had in their music, creating two cutting edge films, for the first time venturing into full 35mm colour, conceptual film (rather than video), shot on location.

‘Paperback Writer’ opens with close-ups of the Fab Four, still sporting their iconic Beatles mop hair, sitting on a bench in front of the conservatory. It has to be said, they look a tad bored. Then, with customary Beatles creativity and humour, it cuts to a close up of the head of an antique statue, as if he were the 5th Beatle. The film moves inside what is now a Grade I listed glass house before switching to them performing in the gardens surrounded by more antique stone figures, thought to depict Caesar, Pompey and Cicero.

“The idea was that we’d use them in America as well as the UK, because we thought, ‘We can’t go everywhere. We’re stopping touring and we’ll send these films out to promote the record.’ These days obviously everybody does that – it’s part of the promotion for a single – so I suppose, in a way, we invented MTV.” George Harrison.

© Robert Whitaker
© Robert Whitaker

Although the ‘B’ side was called ‘Rain’, the day of the shoot remained fine and they are shown playing under the dappled light of shrubs and trees in the Wilderness, a series of serpentine paths in the grounds’ woodland. The opening shot is of Ringo, in what is now a cherry orchard, walking away from a group of secondary school children pressed against a locked gate, trying to get a glimpse of the famous four. Some primary school children got luckier, and can be seen climbing a cedar tree whilst the Beatles sit on the branches playing their guitars.

The Beatles pioneered pop videos with the same ease and sense of invention with which they had revolutionised the use of the recording studio…They saw the possibilities and explored them. They understood the value of promotional film as an avenue to the largest global audience available and…….they embraced the whole caper with boundless enthusiasm”, explains music journalist Mark Ellen. “Now they drifted enigmatically round an 18th century ornamental park full of Grecian urns and stone sphinxes. It wasn’t just in colour. Suffused with pastoral impressions of space and time it almost felt three-dimensional.

Although the Beatles are long gone, fans and film aficionados still make the pilgrimage to the 65 acre heritage estate, cared for by the Chiswick House & Gardens Trust. It looks significantly better than it did, thanks to a major £12 million restoration in 2010 and is a popular setting for weddings, film and fashion shoots.

I adore Chiswick House Grounds, I live nearby, and I’m constantly banging on about its pop history. I’ve been taking friends round it for 30 years and photographing them in the precise spots where The Beatles shot their videos. One of the trees that appeared in Rain and Paperback Writer was cut down a few years ago and I took some members of R.E.M. to see what was left. They flew back to the States with bits of it in their luggage – sacred souvenirs of ‘the Beatles’ tree! Mark Ellen.

You too can follow in the footsteps of the Fab Four, free of charge, visiting the Exedra, the Wilderness, conservatory and walled garden and ‘Get Back’ to where the Beatles made music history half a century ago.

The pictures below and on header were taken by Robert Whitaker and are reproduced courtesy of the Whitaker Estate.

© Robert Whitaker

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