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Stardust Memories

Award-winning documentary maker Tony Palmer tells Simon Evans why four of his newly-reissued films still evoke special memories

In a career spanning more than 45 years Tony Palmer has developed a reputation as one of our most distinguished documentary makers, with a body of work ranging from highly acclaimed portraits of the composers Holst, Vaughan Williams and Wagner to documentaries in the field of pop, literature, sport and even space.

Four of his most notable films, All You Need is Love: The Beatles, Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire, The World of Liberace and Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, have just been released in special budget editions, with more on the way.

Tony spoke to Choice about his memories of making the films, and why they remain so special to him.

All You Need Is Love: The Beatles (1976)

This episode formed part of Tony’s 17-part history of pop music, All You Need Is Love, and it remains a fascinating snapshot of the group, with footage that turns up time and again in Beatles documentaries and was the template for Eric Idle’s Beatles spoof The Rutles.

“It was John Lennon’s idea,” Tony said. “At the time it was very fashionable for television to produce 13-part documentaries like Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, so John suggested, quite rightly, that one of the most important developments of the late 20th Century was American popular music. No one had tried to take an overview of how it was all related but it seemed such an obvious idea. So he and I made a list of all the areas that needed to be covered and then he said, ‘I’ve got the perfect title for you, All You Need Is Love’.

“He said ‘you’ve obviously got to do one about us, let me talk to Paul, we don’t need to worry about the others’ – you know what John was like – but they were all consulted. Eric Idle’s The Rutles later lifted the whole thing. I saw Eric recently, (after the Pythons had been sued by a producer for part of the profits of their film Holy Grail), and said ‘Eric, I’m waiting for my cheque’, to which he replied, ‘you might have to wait a long time’.

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