A Guide to Britishisms and Cultural Curiosities
in "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night"
Written and edited by saki (email@example.com
Researched by Tony Quinn, Nickey Davies, and Steve Carter
Based upon a suggestion by Joe Brennan
Copyright 1995---no unauthorized use permitted
Last update: 13 June 1995
Even if you've seen the two primary Beatles movies over and over
again...and if you're at all like the average Beatles fan, you've
seen them multiple times...it's possible for even British viewers
to miss a number of cultural and linguistic references.
I was surprised myself when I started to watch for them!
What's even more true is that a new Beatles fan, who has come to
the Fabs' cinematic oeuvre without having absorbed certain elements
of their society and time, may be entirely confused over what
they're seeing. Jokes may be missed without some guidance---
a road map is what's handy, essentially.
That's what this FAQ aspires to be. BTW, I've arranged these two
films in reverse order to enhance the distinction between them;
the visual British puns and jokes of "Help!" seem more accessible
to many, while the highly-verbal ones of "A Hard Day's Night" take
some pondering. I dealt with these two films because neither "Magical
Mystery Tour" nor "Let It Be" rely upon strictly British verbal or
visual humor, at least as far as I can see; and "Yellow Submarine"
seems quite self-explanatory.
Like any FAQ, I rely upon input from readers (especially British
readers) who might have first-hand experience with the terms and
concepts, so please feel free to contribute, correct, and comment
upon the findings below. My apologies if some of these references
seem self-evident. You never know who's reading...and watching!
If you're interested in the actors and artists involved in each
film, please use your Web browser to reach:
where you'll find a link to the Internet Movie Database.
Many thanks to Joe Brennan, Tony Quinn, Nickey Davies, and Steve
Carter for their preliminary input, Steve Carter for "translation",
and Harold Somers, Ed Chen, and Bruce Dumes for editorial suggestions.
BOAC: Ahme gives Clang his airline tickets, marked BOAC---British
Overseas Airways Corporation (no longer in business). Same company
referenced in "Back In the USSR" ("Due in from Miami Beach
BOAC...") Later merged with BEA to form British Airways.
Row houses: The Beatles appear to live in typical British lowermiddle
-class terraced houses (filmed on Ailsa Avenue in
Twickenham); of course such domiciles are not usually
John's book: John has several copies of "A Spaniard In The Works"
scattered over his trendy sunken bed, one copy of which he kisses
rapturously. Cf. "A Hard Day's Night", where a copy of John's
earlier tome ("In His Own Write") can be seen on the mantle shelf
in the theatre dressingroom. Neither of these instances is a
Britishism per se but they're fun to note. :-)
"I thought she was a sandwich, till she went spare on me hand":
Ringo explains to John what transpired at the vending machine in
the corner. To go spare means "go berserk"; Ahme had just tried to
bite Ringo's ring off! There's a secondary meaning: a girl "going
spare" is one who's sexually enthusiastic or available. A
deliberate double entendre is entirely possible, especially in
light of a long-standing music-hall tradition of having such lines
delivered with complete innocence by a straight man (like Ringo).
"Are you messin' about with me in my kip?" Ringo asks John this
after his ring is manhandled by Ahme's hook-and-fishpole
arrangement. Kip is sleep, sometimes bed.
John dials the phone: To wake up his compatriots, John dials twelve
numbers, while the normal amount of phone digits at that time (and
for such a local call as this!) would have been seven in London; in
some very outlying areas like the Mull of Kintyre, you might need
only two. The number for Scotland Yard was WHI 1212 (Whitehall one
two one two).
The Harrods van: Clang and company are travelling about in a green
Harrods' delivery van. Harrods is the massive British department
store in the Knightsbridge section of London, well known for
carrying all manner of goods from fine jewelry to gourmet food;
Harrods shut its doors to the public to let famous folk (like the
Fabs) shop there in private. This is an electric van; note the
shilling needed to start the motor! This is probably a reference to
"a bob in the meter", a pay-as-you-use scheme for electricity. It's
no longer common way to collect the bill.
"I sat belonely...": As they walk down the street to "post" a
letter, John recites one of his poems to Ringo. Poem is probably a
take-off on Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud".
"Boys, are you buzzing?" asks the record producer from the booth.
John, misinterpreting the statement as a question about commuting,
replies, "No thanks, I've got the car". A rather bad pun on
*busing*. Some also believe it's a hidden marijuana reference.
"Yippee! It's Mr. Whippy!": The Mr. Whippy van in which Clang
escapes is like the American Good Humor van, selling ice cream and
High tea: while Clang is pontificating about the irreligiousity of
today's youth, he and other appropriately-garbed spiritual leaders
are enjoying afternoon tea (high tea, cream tea) on a garden lawn,
involving small sandwiches and cakes in addition to the beverage.
It's distinct from a meal called "Tea" involving meat and/or
sausages, beans on toast, or even more hearty fare; this sort of
tea can become a main meal for some. Clang prefers to enjoy a
"proper" tea in the garden of a posh establishment.
"Does this ring mean anything to you?" Ringo asks the maitre d' at
the Indian restaurant. "Freemason?" he guesses. Freemasons were
seen as a mysterious underground gentlemen's club, one of whose
hallmarks is a large, ostentatious ring identifying one as a
"Even the royal house of Hanover had the wheel, sir", says the
Jeweler. This was the royal family that gave rise to Mad King
George III, who bedeviled some famous American colonies once upon
"What's your electricity bill like?" George asks Algernon in Foot's
science lab; "Just a long counterfoil" he replies. A *counterfoil*
is the receipt or stub for a bill, such as a utility bill.
"Good British plugs": Algernon is forced to configure British
electrical plugs himself; American plugs are sealed and
standardized and do not require being affixed directly to the power cord.
"Metropolitan scuffers": scuffers are policemen; London area
policemen are meant.
"Brain Drain": Foot decries the Brain Drain, the loss of the best
British scientists to other countries, where research funds and
opportunities were greater and more plentiful, particularly Harvard
and MIT, two universities mentioned by Foot.
"Get me the home office, he's wrecking my home" John telephones
when under attack from Foot and Algernon. The Home Office is
actually an agency dealing with domestic British political
Foot (Victor Spinetti) wears a characteristic university scarf
during the entire film, with college colours of navy, maroon, and
ivory/yellow. Can anyone identify the affiliation?
Curling: In the Alps, the Boys encounter a rousing game of
*curling*, popular also in the UK's colder climes like Scotland,
and in Canada, where a stone or weight is slid along ice and points
are won depending upon the stopping point. Foot and Algernon
substitute a bomb in one of the devices, which blows open a hole in
"Excuse me...White Cliffs of Dover?" The gentleman who emerges from
the hole in the ice (see immediately above) is an English Channel
swimmer, a well-known athletic pastime somewhat easier to
accomplish than scaling Everest, but almost equally as cold. The
swimmer is played by Beatles' pal an roadie Mal Evans.
The Famous Scotland Yard: The building housing the famed
Metropolitan Police. The name has been changed to New Scotland
Yard. Also known to Americans who might have read about it in
"I believe you...thousands wouldn't". The superintendent from
Scotland Yard is finally convinced the Fabs are being pursued. The
phrase is a popular saying among previous generations of
Britishers, and sometimes carries the connotation of wry disbelief.
"A well-known palace": Buckingham Palace, London residence of the
Queen and her family. Inside shots were actually filmed at the
then-Astor Family estate, Cliveden, in Berkshire; it's now a large
Tea at the "palace": no self-respecting royal tea service would
include tea made with *teabags*; this is an egregious breach of
"A well-known power station": Battersea, in south London, whose
famous shape also graced the cover of a Pink Floyd LP some years
after this. Battersea was the main power source for the city's
southern end, as can be seen by the outlets labeled by postal-code
districts: SW. 1, SW.6, SW.3, OHMS (the royal insignia is right
above it---it stands for On Her Majesty's Service), SW.7 and W.6.
In one of the more bizarre schemes known to mankind, Margaret
Thatcher tried to get Battersea turned into a theme park. It is now
still standing but empty, preserved because of its architectural
"Scotland the Brave": the bagpipe anthem is being played by a group
disguised as Black Watch guards (royal Scottish guardsmen usually
assigned to the King's/Queen's watch, or guard); the song is
"Scotland the Brave" (lyrics available on request).
"Two lagers & lime and two lagers & lime": a pint or half-pint of
lager with sweetened lime cordial; Ringo orders these in the pub
for his bandmates and then is trapped into buying the round of
drinks. Shortly he falls into another sort of trap.
"Ode To Joy": from the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth
Symphony. The stadium from which this song is supposedly emananting
is Wembley, stock footage from the 1961-62 FA Cup where Tottenham
Hotspur beat Burnley with a score of 3-1. A community sing
traditionally takes place before the football (British soccer)
"Not if I get the boot in first": John says this about Clang's
gang. He means that they won't triumph if he stops them first.
The receiving line in the Bahamas: The Superintendent is obligated
to review a receiving line of local troops upon landing in the
Bahamas, though there are only four in number (a situation they
try to disguise with a neat visual trick).
"Don't be windy; where's that famous pluck?" asks the Supervisor of
Scotland Yard. To be windy is to be weak; pluck is its opposite.
"It's the heat, you know; it makes him stroppy" says Foot about
Algernon. Stroppy means bombastic, argumentative, contrary. Cf. in
"A Hard Day's Night" where the boy says to Ringo, "Oh, don't be so
stroppy". A shortened form of "obstreperous."
"A HARD DAY'S NIGHT"
"4 poses 2'": Four photos from the photo booth for two shillings,
twice as much as it costs to run the Harrods van in "Help!"
Before the UK decimalized its currency in 1971, a pound was made up
of 240 pence, or twenty shillings. 21 shillings made a *guinea*, a
slightly richer pound...thus the Circle Club manager's correction
of Norm later on in the film: "A hundred and eighty quid?!" "I beg
your pardon...guineas!" "Quid" is slang for pounds.
The train: The Beatles ran down Boston Place adjacent to Marylebone
Station, where train arrival *and* departure scenes were filmed;
the interior train shots were done from a chartered service running
out of Paddington to Somerset and back again. The Fabs have been
bought tickets for *1st class* reserved compartments, meaning they
don't have to sit with the 2nd-class rabble; but they do have to
put up with the likes of the upperclass gent who values his quiet
Note that the gent reads The Times, a posh newspaper; George
Harrison reads a tabloid, not posh at all, but much more popular.
While waiting with Paul in disguise at the station, Grandad reads
a tabloid with a decidedly risque photo on the cover...probably
"News of the World", the paper mentioned in "Polythene Pam" ("She's
the kind of a girl/Who makes the 'News of the World'..." i.e.,
she's somewhat scandalous.)
Also note the "British Railways" logo (now British Rail) on the
mirror where Paul combs his hair.
"...Let's not pull any strokes...": Norm (their on-screen manager)
admonishes the Boys to behave. Pulling strokes means to commit
"If you're gonna have a barney can I hold your coat?" John asks of
Norm and Shake. A barney is a fistfight.
"Let's give 'er a pull". John, George and Paul discuss whether to
approach a young lady with the intention of attracting her
interest. It's like a pass.
"Let's look up the sharp end" says Norm when looking for Grandad.
This is a borrowed nautical term: the front end (like a boat's
"I'll get you the best lawyer Green Stamps can buy". Lennon refers
to American promotional stamps given out with purchases, usually
groceries; there were also Blue Chip stamps. Popular in the 1960's,
these stamps were pasted in books and redeemed for a variety of
low-quality luxury goods (in England there were Green Shield Stamps
and Pink Stamps, but these varieties would not have been widely
known outside the UK). John is implying the lawyer will be a cheap
"Odds or evens?" In the States we are more likely to hear "Heads or
tails?" This is the strategy for determining the first player in a
Le Circle Club: the trendy gambling club (French pronunciation
"circ") where Mr. Richard Starkey (Ringo) is invited to partake of
chemin de fer (a card game), baccarat (a very similar card game),
and banco (like roulette).
"College puddings": Norm calls the Fabs this when assigning them
their daily regimen of fan letters. A college pudding is a diligent
but oblivious student.
"Didn't even get a jam buttie..." complains George after the press
conference which precedes their rehearsal. This is a sandwich made
"I saw your father at the Old Empire in 1909" says Grandad to
Leslie Jackson and his Ten Doves. The Empire was a generic old
music hall style name; note there was a Liverpool Empire as well
(the Fabs played there). Music halls were mostly English versions
"They're dead grotty". The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the
origination of this word to "A Hard Day's Night" (and indirectly to
screenwriter Alun Owen); synthetically derived from grotesque. Owen
says he did not invent it but heard it used by an infamous
Liverpudlian street person. Other scattered regional uses crop up
in the Oxfordshire area c. 1958. Clearly "AHDN" popularized it.
"Look, he's reading 'The Queen'. That's an in-joke". Ringo has his
nose buried in a copy of Queen, a magazine devoted to upperclass
mentality: parties, royal engagements and appearances, estate
decorating, etc. Not your average Dingle Boy's reading matter. The
class dissimilarity may be the joke; there may also be a reference
to homosexual mentality (viz., the talk by Grandad of "sissies" and
"powdered gewgaws", the use of "queen" as a pejorative word).
"Oh, you've been to Harrods? I was there in '58, you know". John
examines a gentleman's tie, implying that it's a school tie (John
had a Quarry Bank tie that he treasured) and that he attended in
1958. Viz.: "Oh, you've been to Oxford? I was there in '36...."
Harrods is, of course, the famous Knightsbridge department store
(see "Help!" above).
"When was the last time you embarrassed a Sheila with your cool,
appraising stare?" asks Grandad of Ringo. A Sheila (or Sheena) is
an Irish term for a young girl; actor Wilfred Brambell is playing
"You poor, unfortunate scruff". Grandad is calling Ringo a lout, an
outsider; cf. "Apple scruffs" used to describe the girls who hung
around Apple Studios in London in the late sixties.
"Come in, number 7, your time's up!" Ringo is mocking the boatsfor
-hire manager who would be alerting a hired boater than his
hour's time has run out. The boater on the Thames is actually
probably training for a race.
"Southerner!" A play on the derisive comment "Northerner!" about
someone whose accent is perceived (by those in the south of
England) as lower class or unschooled. Folk from the North and
South were inclined to think ill of each other. In pejorative
terms, "Northerner" means uncouth, "Southerner" means soft (daft,
"That'll be two and nine." The pub lady is telling Ringo that his
sandwich will cost two shillings and ninepence.
"Right! On your way! Troublemaker..." Ringo disturbs patrons in the
pub by accidentally dropping coins on a "shove ha'penny" board
(players use the ball of their thumbs to shove coins onto grids on
a slate board); by setting his beer down on a table skittles game
(also known as Nine Mens Morris), and by accidentally spearing a
patron's sandwich and a parrot's perch. All these are typical pub
games; Ringo's unintentional antics are not.
"You'd look great with an apple in your gob" says John to Norm;
another in a series of "swine" jokes.
"Sit Charley Peace over there...." A 19th century burglar of great
notoriety, who became something of a folk hero to some, a
psychopath to others. Lithographs of Charley Peace are said to
resemble Wilfred Brambell (the actor playing Grandad!).
"Lloyd George": This famed Welshman was Prime Minister of the UK in
1916 and leader of the Tories during the time of the Irish
uprising, and presided over the eventual partition of Ireland in
1921. During the Great War (World War I) he led the coalition
"Soldier of the Republic" etc. Grandad's speech is full of
references to the Irish uprising, as is the nationalistic song he
attempts to sing.
"BEA": the helicopter used by the Beatles to "forge ahead to
Wolverhampton" is owned by British European Airways (BEA), a
domestic and short-haul service (later merged with BOAC and became
British Airways). Wolverhampton is near Birmingham. The Fabs have
a "midnight matinee" scheduled next---a late-evening show---and are
being flown from London to make a last-minute appearance.
Any other additions or suggestions? Please email
firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll add to this list.
"I asked Bobby Dylan, I asked the Beatles, I asked Timothy Leary, but
he couldn't help me either."
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