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We Happy Few

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I.

When it comes to preparing his audition speech for RADA, Brian’s first choice is Henry V.‘s big monologue. Helen, one of the actresses from the Liverpool Playhouse whom he has befriended and who has agreed to rehearse him, is trying to be polite about it, and first says something about not being predictable, and that every young male actor who grew up, as Brian did, infatuated by Laurence Olivier as Henry, was doing the same. But in the end she admits her real reason for advising him against it.

“I’m sorry, Brian. I just don’t see you as Henry V., and I don’t think anyone else will, ever.”

“Because I’m Jewish?” he challenges. Because I’m homosexual, he doesn’t say. He can never bring himself to say it out loud.

“No,” Helen replies, sympathy and pity in her eyes, and that is worse than the taunts he remembers from all the schools he’s been in and out of during his miserable adolescence. “Because you’re just not the Henry type, darling.”

But he is. He has always identified with Henry, who is also Hal, a dissolute prince in bad company just waiting to throw off his mask and reveal the great man beneath, the most beloved and admired of English kings.

Not a year later, when RADA, too, has become a failed dream, Brian gets back into the family business as a last resort, and then pleases and surprises his parents by winning NEMS gallons of new customers. It stops becoming a store for musical instruments with some records and becomes the record store of Liverpool, of the North, full stop, and every time his employees look at him with admiration as he exhorts them, he thinks back to Helen’s comments and feels some satisfaction at being vindicated.

It never lasts, though. At the end of the day, he’s not doing the impossible, is he? He’s just a reasonably successful businessman, and there is nothing heroic in that.

There are many reasons why he loves the boys as he does, some of which he can verbalize, and some he can’t, never, not even to himself, but one of them is this: they finally give him his Agincourt. Over and over again. “This is but a temporary setback,” Brian says when returning to Liverpool after being rejected down by yet another producer, “but we will succeed.” No ditches in France were ever so deep as what he conceals, the London ridicule about the mere idea of a Northern group being equated to Elvis, the patronizing advice about sticking to his business and not to dabble in management, the closing of ranks against them, and here he’s not an outsider because he’s Jewish and a homosexual, but because he’s from Liverpool and so are they. They’re one. A band of brothers. Brian paints a glorious image of the future while driving them to work yet harder, one more concert, never mind how small the club, it’s good publicity, isn’t it, and they do it because they believe him. His cajoling, promising, demanding voice has the ring of Olivier precisely, and while they’re prone to mock anything and everything, especially each other and him, they do not doubt. They believe, as Helen and the people at RADA never did.

“Now, have you rehearsed new material?” he asks over some tea in the cold of the Liverpool train station’s only café, and no “for England, Harry and St. George” has ever sounded better in his ears.

II.

Brian can pin point the exact moment when John stops being a cross between a promise of the future and a dangerous fantasy turned flesh and becomes real to him. They’re in Barcelona, at the hotel bar, and John, between eating up all the olives meant for their martinis, says: “You’ll lose interest before we do, you know, Brian.”

This comes as a shock. How can John think that? With several hit singles and an album and the promise of more to come, how can he assume Brian would desert them now, when he didn’t through the lean year of trying to get the world interested in them?

“I would never…” Brian begins, protesting, and John laughs. It’s so very John, that laughter, cruel, but not unkind, because it’s not designed to take you down, it’s self-mocking and directed at the world in general.

“Look, Eppy, you’re just doing this as a hobby,” John says. “When we’re last year’s flavor, you’ve got the family business to fall back on. Me, I don’t even have a family.”

Immediately, Brian thinks of Cynthia as he’s seen her last, exhausted from giving labour, trying to look pretty for John nonetheless with a desperately cheerful smile, and of the baby who looks as wrinkled and alien as all babies do. He thinks of the imposing Mimi Smith, and John’s rumoured half sisters who appear bundled away to some other aunt, and whose existence he only knows about because Mrs. Smith has made it clear in as many words that under no circumstances were her late sister Julia’s “unfortunate family circumstances” to be mentioned anywhere in any publicity for the Beatles.

And yet, as John leans forward and punctures the air with a finger to make his point, there is no sense that he’s lying when he says “I don’t even have a family”. It’s something that simultaneously bewilders, chills and exhilarates Brian, who finds the love of his parents and the expectations they have of him both nourishing and suffocating. Who adores them yet wishes, just once, he could declare “I don’t even have a family” with as much freedom as John does right now.

“I’ve got the band,” John continues. “And it’s a bloody good band. The best there is. And I want every bastard who ever laughed at me to be sick with envy at what we can do. Because if they don’t, I’ve got nothing. I’m nothing. They can put me to the loony bin then because that’s the only other thing I’m good at, you follow?”

He’s smiling all the time while he says this, but his eyes, the compelling intensity of which owes something to the fact he can’t really see a thing that’s further than arms length away from him are wide open and looking at Brian with a desperation that’s so completely at odds with John’s usual devil may care manner that Brian, for the first time, wonders just how much of that irresistible attitude and confidence he fell for is as make-believe as anything he’s ever seen on stage.

There are any number of things Brian wants to say in reply. Reassurances of John’s brilliance, the group’s brilliance. Reminders of how well their album sold, and how the press, usually prone to ridicule pop musicians, seems to be enchanted by them. But if he’s sure of anything, he’s sure, right now, at this moment, that this isn’t what John wants to hear, not really. This isn’t what this whole outburst was about. He hesitates a moment longer, then decides to follow his intuition and to say what he thinks this is about. If he’s wrong and John will mock his assumption, well, it won’t be the first time.

“I won’t ever let anything happen to you,” Brian declares solemnly, “and I won’t ever desert you. I’ll be there for you always, I promise.”

I love you, he doesn’t say, because the same intuition that tells him what John has just revealed isn’t a fear of a lack of success as much as it’s a fear of being abandoned tells him these three words aren’t what John wants to hear, because they always demand an answering confirmation, or at the very least acknowledgment.

“Now don’t get real on me, Eppy,” John says in his sing-song taunting voice, but his hands reach out over the bar counter to clasp Brian’s and don’t let go.

III.

When Brian originally turns giving George a ride home to Speke into a side trip to his own house, his parents’ house, he doesn’t intend anything but to be social and maybe to get to know the youngest of the group a bit better. As compelling as the boys are together, they’re also somewhat impenetrable; full of inside jokes and difficult to get close to beyond a surface level. Besides, he knows that they think, not completely without justification, that John is his favourite, and he wants to make an effort to show he cares for them all.

So he invites George in, and George, whose language on stage and off otherwise tends to be as liberally salted as those of the other group members, is scrupulously polite and wide-eyed at the sight of the antiques Brian’s father has tastefully decorated their home with. Brian’s parents aren’t at home, they’re at Bournemouth for the weekend, but Clive is there, his younger brother, returning from work just when George is relaxed enough to confide about how intimidating Hamburg was the first time around. Clive looks at George, who wears leather because Brian might have persuaded the boys into wearing suits on stage, but certainly not off stage. He looks at Brian in disbelief and mounting outrage and explodes.

“How dare you bring your filth into our parents’ home!”

They have never talked about Brian’s private life, Clive and Brian, not even when Brian was arrested and put his parents through the shame of that experience. They both pretend it doesn’t exist. To hear the disgust in his brother’s voice now is horrible; to see the utter confusion in George’s eyes is worse.

“This,” Brian says, forcing the words out of himself at normal voice level because if he gives into the temptation to scream, he’ll lose it altogether, “is a member of the group I’m now representing.”

Clive knows he’s decided to become a manager, because Brian has told his entire family. Nonetheless, he sneers: “If that’s what you call it now – representation, is it?”

It is unbearable. Humiliated, Brian asks George to excuse him for a moment and drags his brother into another room. But his whole indignant speech about professionalism, courtesy, privacy, how he keeps the life he cannot do without away from their home which is why he’s rented a flat and how none of this is Clive’s business falls flat when Clive says:

“Right. So if these were four girls, you’d feel exactly the same way about them, would you?”

When he leaves his parents’ home with George in silent miserable fury, it’s one of the worst moments of Brian’s life. Then George asks quietly:

“Clive is your younger brother, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Brian replies between clenched teeth.

“Well, he shouldn’t talk with you like that,” George says decisively, a younger brother himself twice over as Brian recalls, both in the biological sense and as far as his position in the group is concerned. The kindness in his words overwhelms Brian, and suddenly he knows effort at showing equal care is no longer necessary: He loves George as well.

IV.

Ringo in himself is both a blessing and a symbolic threat. He’s unpretentious, professional, modest, cheerful and the fact he joins the group so late means that he takes over Brian’s position as the new arrival. On the other hand, the manner of his joining never fails to touch on a secret fear. If the boys could drop Pete Best, who’d been with them for two years, what was to stop them from trading in Brian for another manager?

Then there’s the fact Ringo and Brian have the least in common. Ringo is literally from the closest thing Liverpool has to a slum. He hasn’t learned how to read and write until he was nine and still lacks some of the most basic elements of education, due to all those childhood illnesses which kept him in hospital for nearly three years. Brian often catches himself making allusions Ringo can’t understand, not deliberately, just because he takes too much for granted, and feels inhibited and guilty as a result when talking to him.

This changes radically on the day of their first Washington concert. It’s a resounding success, of course, and the boys are practically glowing afterwards in the cold February air. “I could have played for hours,” Ringo says. “What an audience!”

It has yet to stop being miraculous to all of them: the fact they have conquered America, the fabled land, origin to all that is rock’n roll. So everyone is in an excellent mood as Brian ushers them to the reception at the British Embassy. He wouldn’t have said to out loud, but this is supposed to be his personal moment of triumph. The Epsteins may be wealthy in Liverpool, but in terms of the upper class aristocrats who staff the most important British Embassy abroad, Brian knows exactly what he and his parents used to be regarded as: shopkeepers. Jewish shopkeepers.

Well, no longer, he thinks, as he brings his group to the Embassy, his group who right now are the most famous Englishmen alive on the planet. The magical key to the realm of privilege that used to be out of reach, and he, Brian Epstein, has made it possible. He tries not to show it, but he does feel somewhat smug, all the same.

Until it dawns on him what the reception really is. They look at him and his boys, alright, all the guests and the staff, but the expressions on their faces are greedy, amused disdain, not admiration. When John makes a crack, one of the women says “it speaks” and giggles. Then the guests move closer to touch them, like visitors to a petting zoo, pinching, squeezing if they can, and there are no policemen at hand as there are in hotels and at concerts to keep them away. “Which one are you again?” another of the guests asks Paul, and Paul, who can usually relied on to be invariably charming on public occasions, replies shortly: “Roger. Roger McClusky the Fifth” and ducks away. The ambassador tells his guests there will be a raffle where the lucky winners would be able to swap their copies of Meet the Beatles for “a Frank Sinatra”, and the laughter that greets this announcement is condescending and malicious.

The boys try to keep up the cheerful façade, and so does Brian, even when one of the supposed diplomats with a double name and a flawless Eton accent casusally asks him: “So, do the working classes really have as much stamina as advertised, old boy?”

But then a woman takes out nail scissors from her handbag and snaps off some of Ringo’s hair, as if he was a doll or a tree, and Ringo whirls around.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asks, dropping the cute and cheerful act for unbridled rage.

“My, my,” the reception guest next to Brian says gleefully. “You can take out the boys of the gutter but not the gutter out of the boys. What next, a brawl?”

Ringo looks at Brian, blue eyes full of anger and yet awareness of the familiarity all of this has. Because they should have known, shouldn’t they? They’ll never be more than entertaining freaks to these kind of people. Not our sort, dear, forever and ever.

Enough is enough, Brian decides, feeling an overwhelming wave of rage on his own, protective fury and disappointment intermingling. “We’re leaving,” he says out loud. Ringo nods curtly, but his shoulders are still tense, and as their whole party marches out, with George Martin muttering disgustedly about “chinless wonders”, Brian walks next to Ringo and, at a loss of how to apologize for this entire experience, ends up saying: “This will never happen again, I promise.”

“Hope not, otherwise I’ll be bald soon,” Ringo returns, but his usual deadpan manner feels strained.

Something in Brian expects to be blamed. Because he’s the one emphasizing how important for their career it is, playing the game. Because of the way he had looked forward to this event in particular. Because he has looked up to these people, has trained himself to talk like them. Has wanted to become one of them.

“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” he says, giving Ringo his opening. To his surprise, Ringo actually gives him a little smile.

“Can’t expect any of the toffs to be as decent as you, Eppy,” Ringo replies, and only the fact their cabs arrive prevents Brian from hugging him.

V.

Paul has always been the most difficult of them to Brian. Not because they have too little in common. On the contrary; in one way, Paul is his natural ally, seeing the sense in a change of costume and stage presentation before any of the others did, being reliably available to reporters, and nearly as inexhaustible fond of work much as Brian himself is. If the others are too tired for another rehearsal, or, from what George Martin says, for another take in the studio, it is Paul who can be counted on to encourage and drive them to try one more time, to give it their all. They even are closer musically than the rest of the band and Brian are. John and George are rock’n roll purists, and while Ringo likes the occasional sentimental country song as well, none of them would whistle something that is purely music hall or would be able to recognize a Noel Coward song after the first few bars the way Paul is.

But if John under his cynical veneer hides a needy core Brian could identify with and recognize, Paul under the public affable manner has a steely center. He’s the only one of the four who bothers to read the contracts first before signing them, and later, courtesy of his actress girlfriend and her advice, demands to see a script before agreeing to their first film. He’s also frighteningly self-sufficient: rejecting first the flat Brian has rented for them in London and then the houses Brian finds for the other three in the suburbs in favour of living with the Ashers, choosing his own holiday destinations. Brian is best man for Maureen and Ringo as he has been for John and Cynthia, and he’s present at the first date George goes on with Pattie Boyd, but he can’t recall a time Paul invited him to dinner with himself and Jane. And while Paul is not given to John’s cutting rages, he’s capable of becoming cold and withdrawn at the drop of a hat when not getting his way or being criticized by anyone but John. What it comes down to is this: Brian is sure the other three Beatles need him, not just as a manager but also as a caretaker and mentor, and he’s not sure Paul does. He's not sure Paul needs anybody, except possibly John. He’s not even sure Paul really likes him at all, and as time goes by, this bothers him more and more.

“Do you think Paul likes me?” he asks Peter Brown because Peter is utterly dependent on Brian and thus can be trusted with such confidences. Not many other people can; Brian would die rather than to admit to the world such an insecurity about any of the Beatles.

Peter shrugs and says something about Paul and his blank, unreadable face, but that just goes to show Peter doesn’t understand the boys the way Brian does. Brian finds Paul’s face readable on many occasions, good and bad, from the utter focus and joy he exudes on stage when performing to the irritated annoyance when being told about having caught the clap in Hamburg and no more sex for a while if you please. It just doesn’t help him regarding what Paul might or might not feel about Brian.

Then the boys meet Bob Dylan for the first time, and despite the social awkwardness of the occasion, what with Dylan demanding cheap wine, refusing the expensive brand the hotel provides and catching them at ignorance about the joys of marijuana, this proves to be a turning point. They soon find themselves using the hotel towels to seal off one of the bedrooms, what with all the New York policemen in the floor, and then Dylan passes his joint around. Brian is familiar with all the pills by now, but this is something else again. He feels ever freer, and at the same time connected to them, all of them. Even his reflection in the mirror looks lovable to him now; he points, giggles and says “Jew”, and that’s alright, too. Everything is.

Paul walks through the suit in circles in search, as it turns out, of pen paper, and can’t find any. “This is so amazing,” he says, “I’ve got it now, what it’s all about, I need to – need to…” And he bends over in helpless laughter at his inability to act on his enlightenment.

Brian is only too happy to be of assistance. “Tell Mal to take it down,” he advises with all the gravity of the world because finding out what life is all about is an important discovery, oh yes, and then it’s funny again as Paul dictates something about seven levels to their roadie who is enjoying Dylan’s joint as well.

It’s Brian’s turn again and he lies back on the hotel bed while the stump between his fingers glimmers and glows. “Oh,” he says.

They’re all sitting down on and around the bed, including Paul who has finished dictating to Mal, and Paul leans over him, peering at Brian.

“It’s been so hard, Eppy,” he whispers, “not knowing why. What it’s about. You see?”

And Brian does, for the first time. He’s got it all wrong, evidently, because if Paul has been wondering all these years, then he isn’t so frighteningly closed off and untouchable after all. Paul is simply better at hiding within himself. And if Brian knows one thing, is an expert at, it’s hiding.

He pats Paul on the cheek, which he’d never have dared before.

“It’s awful,” he says. “Not to know. But now you do.”

Paul nods and sits back while Dylan lits up the next joint for them, and John eagerly reaches. George and Ringo tickle each other, or maybe they’re laughing just because; Brian feels like that, too.

“I love you,” he says to all them, and only after realizes he said it out loud this time, but that’s alright, too, because tomorrow, when they have calmed down from the drug, nobody will remember anyway.