A Guide to Britishisms and Cultural Curiosities in "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night"

Written and edited by saki ( 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'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 interconnected.

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 other confections.

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 member.

"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 a time.

"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 infrastructure.

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 the ice.

"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 "Sherlock Holmes".

"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 hotel.

Tea at the "palace": no self-respecting royal tea service would include tea made with *teabags*; this is an egregious breach of etiquette.

"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 significance.

"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) match.

"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."


"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 time.

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 mischief.

"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 prow).

"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 one.
"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 game. 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 with jam.

"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 of vaudeville.

"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 an Irishman.

"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, stupid).

"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 government.

"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 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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