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Lennon Naked & Depictions Of The Beatle On The Screen
Terry Staunton , June 14th, 2010 08:15

With Lennon Naked about to hit the small screen, Terry Staunton examines the various ways that cinema and television have interpreted his life

Christopher Eccleston came under perhaps the greatest scrutiny of his already impressive career when he emerged from the Tardis five years ago. In the forthcoming BBC4 drama Lennon Naked he finds himself once again stepping into a cultural icon's shoes previously worn by several other actors.

The difference between The Doctor and a Beatle, however, is that there is no definitive template for the former. Depending, for the most part, on the age of the individual Dr Who fan, any newcomer to the role will be held up to the benchmark of a personal favourite, be it Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, David Tennant or (unlikely as it sounds) Sylvester McCoy. With the latter, audiences are inescapably familiar with the original Beatle, the real John Lennon.

When bringing Lennon to the screen, the common practice is to restrict the action to snapshots in time. Thus, last year's Nowhere Boy concentrated on the singer's pre-fame teenage years, while Ian Hart in Backbeat focused on the mayhem of the group's Hamburg residencies, the same actor also depicting a brief three days during the early rumblings of worldwide Beatlemania in The Hours And Times (see below).

Lennon Naked picks up the timeline in 1964, opening with an awkward meeting between a freshly-minted global pop star and the scoundrel father he hadn't seen for 17 years. Director Edmund Coulthard's film pays little attention to the nuts and bolts of fame, devoting a large chunk of its 80 minutes running time to the fractious relationship between parent and offspring (it receives its TV premiere as part of a series of programmes about fatherhood).

Salford-born Eccleston slips into the Scouse vernacular with ease, delivering his lines with the acidity and venom that was clearly second nature to the real John. This is an angry and dissatisfied Lennon, rarely the kind of man to give anyone an easy ride, least of all an absentee dad whose return coincides suspiciously with his son's newfound wealth. After the opening few minutes, the drama jumps forward to 1967 and the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was, to all intents and purposes, a surrogate father to all the band. Eccleston's Lennon is now an even more complicated and troubled figure, questioning the spiritual worth of success and growing apart from his own son Julian.

There's no way of knowing exactly what John and his dad (played by Christopher Fairbank, aka Auf Wiedersehen Pet's Moxey) talked about behind closed doors, but screenwriter Robert Jones deftly concocts a series of imagined conversations, the elder man a sounding board for the thoughts of the younger. This is where Eccleston excells in the role, bringing depth to the raging inner demons that are seemingly only tamed by the arrival of Yoko Ono into his life.

Fairbanks is solid and dependable as Lennon Senior, perfectly judging the work required of a supporting dramatic player, but Naoko Mori never quite gets to grips with the intensity and single-mindedness of Yoko, her portrayal irritatingly too close to the timid Toshiko she played in Torchwood.

Eccleston, though, is terrific, an actor of considerable emotional strength and subtlety. He may still be some viewers' favourite Doctor; cast an eye over the candidates below to see if he might also be your favourite Lennon.

Lennon Naked is out on June 28 on 2 Entertain DVD, and will be shown on BBC4 later this summer

Aaron Johnson in Nowhere Boy (2009)

Johnson wasn't born until over a decade after Lennon died, and although there was no archive footage or recordings on which to base his depiction of the teenage John, it's an impressive portrayal of a troubled and conflicted youth at the centre of a tug-of-love between two strong female relatives (Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne Marie Duff). Having said that, there's a sharp-tongued delivery to the verbals, referencing Lennon's well-documented love of Goons-type humour, and a boyish nasal quality to the vocals that suggests authenticity.

Mark Lindsay Chapman in Chapter 27 (2007)

Lennon, as a character, appears so fleetingly and anonymously in director JP Schaefer's ponderous film about the Beatle's slaying that he could have been played by anyone, so the casting of an actor with a strikingly similar name to the killer suggests a tasteless publicity stunt. The thespian Chapman (a veteran of Dallas, Falcon Crest and Murder, She Wrote) is seen largely in silhouette, perhaps to disguise the fact that 40-year-old John is being portrayed by someone well into his 50s. And if we're supposed to be impressed by pretty boy Jared Leto's De Niroesque “method” in gaining 70 pounds to play the chubby murderer, any brownie points he might have earned are quickly confiscated when we witness his cartoon-like redneck nutter schtick.

Tom J Raider and Richard Sherman in The Killing Of John Lennon (2006)

There can't be many movies in which the title character appears only in brief cameo and requires two actors to play him. Raider appears in one scene outside the Dakota building in New York, signing an album sleeve for his soon-to-be assassin Mark Chapman (Jonas Ball) and grunting something in a strong Liverpool accent - despite Lennon's speech developing a markedly mid-Atlantic twang by 1980. The murder scene, however, was filmed in London, and although it's supposed to be only six hours later, Sherman is sporting a shaggier hairstyle that appears to have grown by about four inches. It's difficult to assess the accuracy of his John, as all he's called upon to do is pirouette dramatically while a special effects supervisor triggers a handful of small explosives strapped to his torso to replicate bullet wounds.

Philip McQuillan in In His Life: The John Lennon Story (2000)

Irish actor McQuillan shares Lennon's aqualine features and gets the singer's sneery vocal inflections just right in this made-for-TV quickie, although his frame is perhaps a little too stocky compared to the lean and hungry teenage Scouse rocker. He was chosen from more than 300 hopefuls, but has made little impact on screen since. He played Lennon again in a stage version of the film Backbeat, but has more recently been seen treading the boards as another rock god, taking the Bono role in a U2 tribute band called Vertigo.

Ian Hart in The Hours And Times (1991) and Backbeat (1994)

Considered by many to be the most textured and compelling depictions of Lennon on screen, although the first and lesser-known of Hart's portrayals is by far the superior. Writer and director Christopher Munch's short-ish (running time: 60 minutes) black-and-white film chances its arm with a little dramatic licence and historical revisionism, imagining John accompanying Fabs manager Brian Epstein on a short break to Barcelona at the height of Beatlemania. It explores the pair's complicated friendship, not least Epstein's unrequited love for his charge, in a series of dialogue-heavy scenes that would also make an intriguing stage play. Hart masterly switches between tenderness and cruelty, just as John himself was known to do, utterly convincingly throughout. In comparison, his turn in Backbeat is a little more showy and exaggerated, but his scenes contain enough grit to compensate for Stephen Dorff's rigid and one-dimensional Stuart Sutcliffe.

Mark McGann in John & Yoko: A Love Story (1985)

Woeful TV movie which feels twice as long as its 148 minutes running time, with a stilted script and performances that would be booed off the stage of an amateur dramatic society village hall production. McGann is disastrously miscast, grinning inanely and boyishly in the earlier scenes, and scowling like a shopping centre cider tramp during the beardy years. More people might actually risk dabbling in heroin, if withdrawl was as casual and uncomplicated as McGann portrays it here, ie ten seconds of the sweats before flying off to Manhattan to start a new life.

Stephen MacKenna in Birth Of The Beatles (1979)

The hangdog expression is remarkably close to Lennon's own, even if the accent is little more than broad and generic Liverpudlian, but the most notable casting is a young John Altman as George Harrison, several years before he became the nation's favourite villain, nasty Nick Cotton in EastEnders. The film itself is an overly sanitised account of the Fab Four's Hamburg adventures, complete with syrupy background music more suited to a Catherine Cookson melodrama. Director Richard Marquand would return to rock with 1987's insipid Hearts Of Fire, starring Bob Dylan, but is best known for helming Return Of The Jedi.

Neil Innes in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Worthy of inclusion here, as The Rutles' Ron Nasty was Lennon in all but name, his peacenik exploits and sardonic utterances in Eric Idle's affectionate spoof firmly rooted in real-life events, then spun for comic effect. Innes may be the only performer on this list who can claim to have known the real John, having appeared in the 1967 TV film Magical Mystery Tour with his then group The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band. As a result, the speech inflections are spot-on, and he's also mastered the more subtle facial expressions and reactions overlooked by most actors. He also captures the Lennon singing voice brilliantly, especially on Cheese And Onions and Good Times Roll.

John Clive in Yellow Submarine (1968)

A children's TV hero as the star of the 1970s mad professor comedy Robert's Robots, Clive's bogstandard Scouse slur is no better or worse than any of Fab Four voices in this animated favourite, although Alan Bleasdale regular Paul Angelis does a fairly accurate Paul McCartney. Comedy veteran Lance Percival, who voices Old Fred, had previously lent his larynx to Paul and Ringo in the US cartoon series based around Beatles songs (see below).

Paul Frees in The Beatles (1965-67)

A regular voice artist for Disney since the 1950s, who also impersonated Orson Welles and Peter Lorre on radio, Frees never truly masters the nuances of regional English accents, his interpretation of Lennon's hard-edged Liverpudlian drawl bafflingly closer to camp Home Counties. Mind you, it's not as bad as his George Harrison impersonation, on which he appears to be channeling a Calcutta cab driver.

John Lennon in A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965)

Game over - the best screen Lennon was the first and the original. In common with Paul, George and Ringo, he can't resist hamming it up for the cameras, but he's also a knowing cinematic extension of his real self, all acerbic wit and couldn't-give-a-fuck cool. Arguably the only member of band who's patently aware of how preposterous their world has become, John offers a masterclass in self-satire, and it was no surprise when Peter Cook and Dudley Moore came calling to exploit his comic skills in Not Only... But Also.

Lennon Naked will air on BBC4 at 9.30pm on Wednesday June 23.