Sunday, May 16, 2010

Knight On A Train

East Coast trains, Easyjet, British Airways – they’re each as dull as the other. Short haul? Long drag, I’d say. Last week I tried them all as I trekked to and from London for numerous meetings with broadcasters.

So it was a welcome relief on Thursday afternoon, when, as I was meandering up the train to find my seat, I heard a familiar voice boom out “Tom!”. It was Sir George Martin.

I’ve known George for 25 years. Considered by many to be our greatest record producer, he’s also one of the world’s nicest, most charming men. George is a towering presence: quite literally, for he stands well over six foot tall with the straight back and posh voice of a former Fleet Air Arm pilot. He had a copy of Aeroplane magazine on the table as I sat down to join him.

Now 84, he is still going strong. He and his son Giles produced the award-winning soundtrack for Love, the Cirque du Soleil spectacular based on Beatles music, now in its fourth Las Vegas year. In the last few months he’s written a seven-part oratorio, The Mission Chorales, which has just had its premiere in Santa Barbara. Meanwhile he’s filming a multi-episodic documentary on the history of recorded music for a US network. That’s why he was on the train: he’d been up to London to interview Sir Paul McCartney. I felt a surge of jealousy: I’d love to have been a fly on a wall in that room.

In fact, it was a documentary series that first brought us together. George had wanted to share his vision of popular music, so he asked me to direct and co-write a 13-part epic for Channel 4 to be called “All You Need Is Ears”. An ironic title, for George confided to me then that his most valuable assets were already beginning to deteriorate because of the relentless pounding he’d given them during his long career. In fact, on our journey last week I had to sit by his good ear, and we raised our voices over the rumble of the train, recalling the fun we’d had during the summer of 85.

We made a taster film and George persuaded some famous friends to contribute: we filmed Clapton and Knopfler showing us how to play the guitar (in Abbey Road, no less), and Phil Collins gave us a drumming masterclass. When we finished filming, Phil asked us what we were doing the following day. I told him George was getting out some of the Beatles’ original 4-track recordings to analyse how they were put together. The following morning George and I were sitting in Air Studios with Sgt. Pepper on the machine, and he faded up each track in turn, spotting mistakes. After undoubtedly the most fascinating filming session of my life, I turned round, and there was Phil Collins sitting quietly on the sofa behind us. He said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The public were denied “All You Need Is Ears” because an ignorant and shortsighted commissioning editor decided George Martin was “too old and grey” in 1985. George is still sparkling today – though at one stage he opened the buttons of his shirt and made me feel his new pacemaker through his skin. Extraordinary, he said, how it keeps time at exactly 65 beats per minute. Better than Ringo, I thought but didn’t say.

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