Ben Wright: The Beatles and Me

Sidney Bernstein, the founder of the Granada Television Network in Manchester, England, hated sport so fervently that he would allow only 20 minutes of it per week on his very popular Monday-to-Friday half-hour-long news magazine program, “Scene at 6.30,” where in the early 1960s I was a producer. And of those measly 20 minutes—always broadcast on Thursday—we had to devote the final 10 minutes to a live pop music lead-in to Bernstein’s beloved soap opera.

On the day in question, a splendid Irish tenor, Val Doonican, who sat on a high stool and accompanied himself on guitar, cancelled by phone from London in midmorning, barely able to speak with acute laryngitis. Panic stations!

Before the advent of videotape, our musicians rehearsed between three and four o’clock, dress-rehearsed at five-ish, and performed live on cue. I summoned associate producer Dick Fontaine—nicknamed “Tricky Dicky”—a young man more in tune with the pop music of the day than was I. Within an hour he returned to my office, visibly flushed with triumph.

“I’ve got four lovely boys on their way from the Cavern in Liverpool [30-odd miles away] called The Beatles,” gushed Fontaine, whereupon I asked him who in their right minds would name themselves after such repulsive insects. No answer.

Then they arrived, and quite frankly I was underwhelmed, to put it kindly. I promptly dispatched Fontaine and his four ragamuffins to the nearby Midland Hotel to get them clean, coiffed, and clad in white shirts, black pants, and black pumps. Fontaine did a superb job, and his “boys” looked quite elegant.

Apparently their music was pretty great, too, even if it fell on my deaf ears. Our technicians and staff gave The Beatles a frenetic ovation. I gave John Lennon a Granada check for 500 pounds for the quartet.

“Lads, we’re fooking rich,” yelled John. “Mr. Wright, can we coom back temorrer?” John’s Liverpool accent, better known as “Scouse” in England, became even more pronounced when he was excited. Of course he couldn’t, I told the boys, but we booked The Beatles to return in four weeks to the day.

This time they were greeted by 3,000 fans, most of them teenaged girls, milling around noisily outside our studios. Even I grudgingly realized we were on to something big, begging forgiveness from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the like. The Beatles, just as they had done previously, performed a fast, up-tempo number followed by a slower, romantic one. It was all very polished—but don’t ask me to remember which songs they were. Our technicians and staff, many more of the latter than before, were even more loudly impressed.

We immediately signed them up for a month hence. But this time there were an estimated 15,000 people in the streets to greet The Beatles. The police had been alerted, and were out in force. Our security people locked the inter-connecting doors throughout the entire complex. Our lady production assistant beat her thankfully puny fists on my chest, shedding floods of tears when I told her she could not go down to the studio.

Alas, the story ends abruptly there. Within weeks, Brian Epstein had signed up The Beatles as their manager, and he did a magnificent job. But his price for The Beatles’ return to “Scene at 6.30” was a country mile above our range, and the boys went on to much greener pastures on both sides of the Atlantic, then worldwide. They deserved everything they earned and even I, a dedicated piano jazz fan, have learned to love The Beatles’ wonderful music.

About 10 years later, by sheer chance I bumped into George Harrison in the bar of a pub just across the green from my 16th-century cottage in the village of Ewhurst in Surrey, well south of London. To my surprise, George remembered me and was incredibly gracious and grateful for all that those Granada gigs had done for The Beatles. In fact, he was so grateful he said he wanted to give me one of his five or six cars! “How about my Ferrari?” he asked. I was truly speechless.

Sadly, this story ended unhappily for both of us. After a sold-out performance at Wembley Stadium in North London, which can accommodate 100,000 people, George went to sleep at the wheel of the Ferrari en route for home. “My” Ferrari was totally wrecked as it bounced around amongst the gravestones of a country churchyard just north of Ewhurst. Thankfully, George suffered but a few bruises. Unfortunately, I never saw him again. Friends told me he had been embarrassed beyond belief.

He needn’t have been. My then-wife was so sorry she promptly bought me a custom-painted, British racing green Aston Martin DB4.

Ben Wright’s career as a golf journalist and broadcast commentator has spanned more than six decades, including 23 years with CBS Sports.



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