On Friday night on PBS, Great Performances presents a documentary about the making of a Beatles TV special from 1967 — Magical Mystery Tour — then shows a restored version of that special. Magical Mystery Tour has the music from the U.S. album of the same name, but it’s not the album. It’s a musical comedy fantasy about the Beatles and a busload of tourists taking a trip to unknown destinations.
It was written and produced in 1967, which was an incredibly fertile period for the Beatles. “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out that year, as well as “Penny Lane” and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. That was followed, a month later, by the live TV premiere of “All You Need is Love,” broadcast globally. The Beatles, it seemed, could do no wrong. And then they did Magical Mystery Tour, which was televised by the BBC the day after Christmas — on Boxing Day — as a holiday special. A quarter of the British population watched it — and many of those hated it.
Back then, the 53-minute program was filmed in color but wasn’t broadcast that way. Imagine the Sgt. Pepper cover in black and white, and you can imagine how much was lost in the translation. Reception to the TV special was so poor that the show wasn’t even picked up in the United States — just the soundtrack. Eventually, the special was syndicated to some local TV stations and toured the college film circuit along with Reefer Madness. That’s when I first saw it. But on a national level, Magical Mystery Tour has never been televised in the United States — until now.
On Friday — as always, check local listings — Magical Mystery Tour will be preceded by the new one-hour companion documentary, Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. This may be the first case on record in which a documentary about a film is longer than the film itself — but it’s worth it.
The documentary, produced by Jonathan Clyde of Apple Films and directed by Francis Hanly, is wonderfully thorough. It explains how the idea for Magical Mystery Tour came about, and how Paul McCartney originally drew the concept as a pie chart — then shows the chart. It covers the origins of each number written specifically for the show, from the title song and “The Fool on the Hill” to “I Am the Walrus” and “Your Mother Should Know.” It presents lots of outtakes and new interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam and Peter Fonda. It also includes a vintage interview with George Harrison, whose assessment of the 1967 TV special is as unfiltered as the program itself.
It’s a fine documentary — better, to be honest, than Magical Mystery Tour itself. But Magical Mystery Tour is so much fun to watch if you’re a Beatles fan, that it serves up one joy after another. John Lennon serving shovels of spaghetti as a waiter in a dream sequence. John and George in a strip club, watching the house band singing a song called “Death Cab for Cutie” — which, incidentally, inspired the name of a much more recent rock band. And the closing production number, “Your Mother Should Know,” which has the Beatles in white suits, dancing in unison down a giant staircase.
In addition to the PBS double feature, Magical Mystery Tour is also now available as a deluxe boxed set from Apple. It includes Blu-ray and DVD versions of the original special, a vastly shortened version of the documentary, and lots of extras, including outtakes and complete scenes that were cut out of the program before its 1967 premiere. These extras are every bit as entertaining as Magical Mystery Tour, and one segment is a minor revelation: singer-songwriter Ivor Cutler, seated at an ornate white organ in the middle of the English countryside, performing his composition “I’m Going in a Field.” It must have been hypnotically bizarre then. It’s hypnotically bizarre now.
It’s no secret that I’m almost ridiculous in my enthusiasm for the Beatles. But for me, all this new Magical Mystery Tour material— the restored TV special, the documentary, the boxed set — is like a perfectly timed holiday gift. The boxed set is expensive — but the Great Performances double feature is free. All you need is … a TV set.