Archive Article: George Harrison. 9 Dec 01
January 4, 2009

The passing of George Harrison has been a major news item this past week. Here are three comments on the Beatles, not least on the pioneering role

I used to talk to the Beatles in the late 1960s when they ran a shop selling their souvenirs in west London. Indeed, I even have their autographs. It was a safer world in those days. Stars mingled with the general public in a way that seems inconceivable today. It was a far cry from today’s more violent society.

A second comment relates to the fuss over the Beatles receiving imperial awards in the late 1960s and how they pioneered the provision of such awards to the British entertainment industry. They were made Members of the British Empire (MBE). There was a huge outcry, with some existing holders of the MBE apparently returning their own awards back to the Queen because they disapproved of musicians receiving the awards.

The MBEs were awarded to the Beatles for “service to British exports” – and there is no doubt that the Beatles were a major contributor to British export revenue. Indeed, given the intellectual property involved with music rights, there will be royalties accruing to the estate of the late George Harrison for another three decades.

All this fuss was based on an element of snobbery. The Beatles were entertainers for the masses. Their being honoured followed in a line of controversy over such awards.

Sir Henry Irving – the first actor to receive a knighthood – had received his knighthood in 1895. He was the greatest actor of his era. He certainly appealed to the masses and his death in 1905 brought the country to a halt. Throughout Britain, flags were at half-mast; the pillars of his Lyceum Theatre in London were wrapped in black crepe; and every London horse cab driver tied a black bow around his whip.

However, acting for most of Sir Henry’s life was seen as a dubious profession; a profession that was on the fringe of proper society. His aim had long been to make acting as respected as medicine, the law or the church. He made great progress but right to the end of his life acting was still not quite respectable. Indeed, there was even controversy over whether he could be buried in Westminster Abbey; eventually his ashes were placed in the Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

Thus, the award of the MBEs to the Beatles in the 1960s revived traditions of old disputes and snobbishness. It is pleasant to note now how many British entertainers have since been honoured and so the Beatles carried out pioneering work in making pop entertainment more respectable.

Finally, there is a lesson here for politicians. Some people get attracted to that profession for fame and a place in the history books. But most politicians are no more permanent than the perfume on a silk handkerchief. The arts provide a much greater chance of being remembered over the centuries.

For example, who can remember the name of any politician from the time of Elizabeth I? But most people have heard of the name of William Shakespeare.

Similarly, the name of the British Prime Minister who nominated the Beatles for the MBEs – the late Harold Wilson – has slipped from the public’s memory. But the Beatles will be remembered for as long as fine music is played.