AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK HAMMERSLEY ON THE ROLE OF BRIAN EPSTEIN
by Dana Feldman
Decades after the 1970 breakup of The Beatles, fascination with the band’s history the world over has not wavered– not in the slightest if you take note of the packed houses filling up the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown, Los Angeles, where the live musical ‘Backbeat’ runs through the first of March. The show focuses on The Beatles’ formidable years of grueling eight hour sets in Hamburg where their apprenticeship led to their big break and first record deal. This time in the band’s history would prove life altering for the rockers and the world of music as a whole. Based on the 1994 film of the same title, there is one notable difference between the two versions. In the film ‘Backbeat’, the band’s manager Brian Epstein isn’t a character at all. In the musical version Epstein is represented in a small but pivotal role.
‘Backbeat’ the musical intriguingly posits that in 1961 the brilliant visionary Epstein took over imaging of the band from Stuart Sutcliffe when Epstein officially became their manager, soon catapulting The Beatles onto the world stage to a degree unparalleled by any music impresario at the time. (Sutcliffe, a major focus of ‘Backbeat,’ was an actual “Fifth Beatle” who played bass for the band in the Hamburg days). Played brilliantly by British actor Mark Hammersley, Epstein’s role in this production is important though small in comparison to his actual role in the band’s success.
Hammersley acknowledges the short amount of stage time devoted to the man that McCartney has famously referred to as The Fifth Beatle. “I wish there was more of Brian in the show,” he says with a laugh during an interview after a performance. Feeling as he describes exhausted, joyful and electric immediately after getting off the stage, Hammersley sits down to discuss his slight apprehension about a show wherein he portrays likely one of the biggest music managers of all time. “I want to make sure I get who he was as a person right.”
Of the experience portraying the elusive Epstein, he said, “It’s wonderful to be a part of Beatles history. There’s never been a stage production that deals with the Beatles in this way.” Admittedly there isn’t a lot known about Epstein; Hammersley certainly had his work cut out for him in regards to preparation and research for the role. “It was nice to create the role for myself, nice to dig into that as an actor without being influenced.” With more interviews available with others speaking about Epstein rather than Epstein himself speaking, Hammersley had to dig deep. “I found everything I could find on Brian. I studied everything from recordings, videos and books on him. I researched anything that I could find to get real information on him, who he was.”
Ironically, Hammersley had a few unique connections to the man he was researching. “Because my mom was a musician in London in the seventies and knew a lot of people, I was able to speak with Johnnie Hamp and it was very interesting to talk to him about how Brian did business.” Hamp is the now retired British television producer known for being the first person to put The Beatles on TV on Granada Television, one of the main television stations in England.
As the first actor on stage at the opening of the show, Hammersley admits to being nervous each and every time. “We’ve done over three hundred shows in London, Toronto and now the U.S. and it’s always exciting.” After learning about Epstein, Hammersley has come away with a newfound knowledge of the man who has evaded notoriety all of these years. “I found a tenderness to Brian which I hadn’t thought of before. I’d thought of him as a visionary businessman that kick-started pop culture and a man with an awful lot of confidence. I’ve learned that there was so much more to him.”
Hammersley, being the same age Epstein was when he died, spoke to the irony. “Knowing that he was my age and knowing how it feels to be thirty-two, and knowing that you’re not quite grown up yet, makes Brian feel even more human to me. This makes it easier for me to get into his headspace.”
Another commonality between the two, both have at one point or other felt as if they were on the outside looking in. “I think all actors have, at some point, felt a feeling of not necessarily being an outcast, but of being separate. This is what drives us to do what we do.”
Epstein, he explained, was a bit of a loner. “It took him a long time to find his place in this world. He tried a lot of things before managing The Beatles. He even wanted to be a dressmaker at one point. He really didn’t want to work for his dad at the family’s department store even though he was very close to his parents.”
Playing a man who struggled with his homosexuality at a time in history where it was not only unacceptable but against the law to be gay, Epstein proved to be a multi-layered role to take on. In the background of what was to outsiders a happy world amongst The Beatles, he was a man described by many as deeply repressed and unhappy. Fighting his many personal demons, he let nothing stand in the way of bringing forth to the world the legacy of the band. He would manage them from 1961 through 1967 when he died at the young age of thirty-two of a sedative overdose. He died close to the time when homosexuality was legalized. “Brian very much enjoyed the closeness with the band. Here was a group of men who knew he was gay but didn’t care,” Hammersley explained.
“I want the audience to take away just a hint of what Brian went through being gay at that time,” he said. “He was not only their manager but he was also their friend. He definitely had a dual personality that he had to live with. He had a lot of love affairs behind closed doors.” An impediment at the time, he was the subject of rumors that followed him around. One of which was that he and Lennon took a holiday to Spain together.
“He was also known to be a man that was not only conflicted in his personal life, but his professional life, as well,” Hammersley explained of Epstein’s lack of experience as a manager. “He wouldn’t delegate work to others because he felt that all failures had to be his and his alone.”
“When Brian first saw The Beatles they were still into wearing a lot of leather. He brought an air of sophistication to the band.” Thus making them more palatable to the middle class at the time, Epstein, a polite English gentleman who wore a suit and tie every day, believed that the small details mattered. “He had them do little things such as wearing suits, he made sure they gave a bow at the end of each performance.” Not necessarily making them clean-cut versions of their old selves, he added, “He certainly did want them to be neater. There was no smoking, eating or drinking on stage when he came onboard. Those were some of their bad habits from the Hamburg days.”
Epstein and the “Four Lads from Liverpool” forever changed the sound and feel of rock ‘n’ roll. With Stu Sutcliffe’s influence and Brian Epstein’s guidance, The Beatles traded in their shaggy hair for their famous signature moptops and traded in their beloved leather jackets and cowboy boots for identical Edwardian collarless suits. With undeniably addictive tunes that the world over know by heart, they have an inestimable place in the history of music. The Beatles will never be replaced or forgotten—and now musicals like ‘Backbeat’ and our forthcoming graphic novel and film “The Fifth Beatle” will make sure their manager Brian Epstein isn’t forgotten either.
Dana Feldman is a freelance writer covering entertainment and news. Follow her at @danasuewrites.
‘BACKBEAT’ is playing until March 1st at Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. Buy tickets.