As popular culture stirs up a revival of interest in The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, who is currently being portrayed by Ed Stoppard in ITV's Cilla, Ben Kelly takes a look back at his short life, and reveals him to be an unsung icon of the gay community.
On a hot Sunday morning in June, a crowd of up to 200 people assembled on Argyll Street in London’s West End just next door to the legendary London Palladium. With excitement in the air and a sea of raised cameras at the ready, they weren’t here to welcome a celebrity (unless anyone came exclusively for guest star Adam Ant), but rather to honour Brian Epstein; as a blue plaque was unveiled outside the office from which he managed acts like The Beatles, Cilla Black, and Gerry and the Pacemakers in the 1960s. Brian has been dead for nearly 50 years and yet many of the attendees were old pals; well dressed musicians and businessmen who casually told me stories about The Cavern or how Brian would always send their wives liquors on their birthdays. For a man of the 1960s who now exists largely in black and white photographs, he seemed oddly close in this lively crowd of Liverpudlian pensioners.
Although people rarely need an excuse to celebrate The Beatles, the role of their gay manager receives considerably less fanfare. In 2007, John Lennon’s first wife Cynthia told the Washington Post
: “I think Brian’s one of the forgotten people. It’s almost as if he’s been written out of the story. I don’t think they’d have got anywhere without Brian.” It’s timely that Brian Epstein is being honoured in 2014, in what would have been the year of his 80th
birthday, and the 50th
anniversary of him taking The Beatles to America, thus reinventing the exportation of British culture in the process.
Earlier this year, fans remedied a great injustice by having him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside the Fab Four, and now The Heritage Foundation have honoured him with the prestigious blue plaque too. He has been the subject of a graphic novel called The Fifth Beatle
, which is currently being produced as a major Hollywood film – the first to be granted rights to The Beatles’ catalogue of songs. Another biopic is being produced by Tom Hanks with Benedict Cumberbatch signed on to play the lead role. Furthermore, a major West End play called The Man Who Made The Beatles
has just closed, and Brian is a major character in ITV’s drama Cilla
, in which Sheridan Smith will play the young Miss Black. Jeff Pope’s script shows how Cilla’s meeting with the “shy young entrepreneur…struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality at a time when to be gay was illegal in Britain, was to change her life.” A look at what Brian achieved despite this struggle indicates that he deserves every drop of posthumous praise he receives.
Born into a middle class Jewish family in 1934, Brian’s initial burdens in life were borne of his religious identity. Subjected to standard anti-Semitic teasing from his peers in the tough surrounds of industrial Liverpool, he also described in his 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise
that as the eldest son, he occupied “a hallowed position in a Jewish family – and much was to be expected of me”. His father ran a shop, which Brian was to take over and continue the Epstein brand. A letter he wrote to his father as a teenager indicating that he would like to become a dress designer was duly dismissed. In 1952 he was drafted as a clerk in the army and posted to the barracks in Regent’s Park, London. In a private memoir unearthed by the BBC in 1997 he had written, “I never went near the notorious bars and clubs of which I had been told. But I became aware of other homosexuals everywhere I went.” However, an incident in which he had worn a superior’s military uniform to a London club led to him being discharged on “medical grounds”; homosexuality was still considered a medical condition in Britain, and the military was even less forgiving.
When he returned to Liverpool in 1954 his loneliness led to depression and mental illness, yet he maintained that it wasn’t until this point in his life that he first had relations with another man. His family sent him to see a psychiatrist, to whom Brian revealed his homosexuality and his desire to become an actor. Under the psychiatrist’s recommendations the Epsteins allowed his return to London where he gained a place to study at RADA. Within a year he was arrested for ‘persistently importuning’ around public toilets in Swiss Cottage and he dropped out of his studies to return to the family home. In his private memoir he wrote, “I believed that my own will-power was the best thing with which to overcome my homosexuality… I was determined to go through the horror of this world. I feel deeply for I have always felt deeply for the persecuted, for the Jews, the coloured people, for the old and society’s misfits.”
Back in Liverpool once again, his father put him in charge of the music department of NEMS - a new branch of the family’s store. Geoffrey Ellis, who was CEO of NEMS, spoke about Brian for the biography The Brian Epstein Story
, commenting that when he met Brian at this time, “You couldn’t help knowing he was homosexual, partly from the choice of some of his friends and associates, partly because in his private life he made no secret of it at all.” He also noted that Brian’s attempt to portray himself as otherwise to his family had “a very profound effect on him.” It was in his job at NEMS that he first came across an early recording by The Beatles and went along to see them play live at The Cavern.
Brian saw the potential of The Beatles and in return, John, Paul, George and Ringo put their trust in him. He became their manager because he was a young businessman with a love of music who looked the part. In turn, that was one of the first changes he made to the denim jean, leather jacket wearing band he found: he gave them a physical makeover, and from there was born the famous black and white suits and the much copied moptops. From the beginning, The Beatles knew Brian was gay; in fact, they saw his access to the gay network within show business as an opportunity for them to grow and expand.
“We were just Liverpool guys so the word was queer not gay…That’s the way it was” Paul McCartney is quoted in The Brian Epstein Story
. “We didn’t really have a problem with it…I think we suspected that he might hit on one of us. So I think in the early days we were slightly wondering whether that was his interest in us. But in my personal knowledge that wasn’t his interest.”
It’s well known that John Lennon would tease Brian about being gay. It has been claimed that he would suggest Brian call his autobiography A Cellarful of Boys
or simply Queer Jew
, but fans like Vivek Tiwary – author of The Fifth Beatle
- are adamant it should be taken in context. “All of my research on Lennon suggests that’s who he was as a person,” he told me. “He would make really rude, harsh jokes about his closest and dearest friends all the time. It was almost like a rite of passage. I think it was a test. That allowed Brian to be close to John.” One scene in the graphic novel portrays a now famous trip Brian and John took to Spain, which has been mythologised as something of a dirty weekend. Vivek doesn’t believe anything ever happened between the men other than a strong platonic love. Indeed upon their return, when the DJ Bob Wooler commented on the trip having been a romantic one, John punched him in the face. “John was defending Brian”, Vivek explains. “A lot of people have looked back and said John didn’t want to be branded as a gay person. I actually think it was because John cared about Brian, and he knew if it came out that Brian was gay, Brian could’ve been thrown in jail.” Of the relationship, Lennon told Playboy
in 1980, “It was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated.”
Private misdemeanours aside, there’s no doubt that by taking The Beatles from The Cavern and making them international stars, Brian tore up the rule book and raised the bar for British music. He believed pop was an art form and was determined to deliver it to the masses. He traipsed the streets of London to secure the boys a record contract and a publishing deal, and after they had taken Britain he ensured they got their February 1964 slot on The Ed Sullivan Show
- a now legendary television appearance, seen by 73 million Americans. The rest really is history.
The band were as upset as Brian when he didn’t receive an MBE alongside them in October 1965 – a snub presumed to have been because he was gay. The following month The Jewish Chronicle
quoted Princess Margaret as having said, “I think that The Beatles believe that MBE stands for Mr Brian Epstein.” There is a great irony that such an outsider to established society was setting the programme for the cultural mainstream, in almost the same vein as the Motown acts across the pond - who became ‘the sound of young America’, yet weren’t allowed to swim in the hotel pools on tour because of the colour of their skin. A life of secrecy and a culture of prejudice got to Brian, and rather than relish in his behind the scenes powers, he became depressed.
If in his younger years he learned how difficult it was to come by gay sex, as he grew up Brian found it virtually impossible to establish a romantic relationship. It was, after all, illegal. In The Brian Epstein Story,
Joanne Petersen - who was Brian’s personal assistant for the last few years of his life – wrote about her view into his private life. “He was a very sad and lonely person at times, and I felt sorry for him. I thought it was sad that he had so much going and yet he felt insecure. Brian was constantly searching, for love, for something to take his loneliness away, and in a way I think he went through a lot of self-punishment.” It’s widely believed that Brian never had a boyfriend, or indeed any kind of relationship, and this contributed greatly to his unhappiness. It was known in all his circles that he battled with addiction to prescription drugs – sleeping pills and other barbiturates – and he made failed attempts to curb his use at the Priory Clinic. His experimentation with other substances can be aligned with the years in which The Beatles discovered them too; from smoking marijuana with them in 1964, to trying LSD with them in 1967. He was also known to be a keen gambler, but drugs were to be his ultimate undoing.
Brian was found dead on the morning of 27th
August 1967 in his Chapel Street home near Buckingham Palace, with the coroner concluding his death was accidental - a result of an ‘accidental self-overdosage’. He was 32 years old. He had returned to London alone the previous evening after a group of young men had failed to turn up to a party at his country home in Sussex. The events that followed are anybody’s guess, and like other 1960s tragic figures Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, his death by prescription drugs is believed by some to have been intentional, and suggested by others to have been a murder.
A new play, The Man Who Made The Beatles
was commissioned by Homotopia in Liverpool, and is now on the West End with Coronation Street
actor Andrew Lancel in the lead role. Playwright Andrew Sherlock spoke to me about writing the piece, and his attempt to paint a picture of the final, absent night of Brian’s life. “The piece is all about that lost evening” he explains. “He picks up a young lad, and it turns out to be not quite what he was expecting, and he ends up talking to him and he has a confidential chat with him, and he basically tells him about what’s really going on in his life. It becomes an emotional confidante for him.”
It was a tragic coincidence that Brian’s death came just one month after homosexuality was decriminalised by the British government. Unfortunately, his story of depression, drugs and self destruction is far from uncommon in the gay community – even by today’s standards. Brian’s death affected The Beatles hugely, and many believe it marked the beginning of the end for their run at the apex of popular music. In a 1970 Rolling Stone
interview, John Lennon said: “I knew that we were in trouble then…I thought, ‘We’ve fucking had it now.” In fact The Beatles had three more years left in them, in which they produced the White Album, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road
and Let It Be.
But although producer George Martin remained a constant, the boys had lost a crucial wheel. Paul McCartney is famously quoted as saying “If anyone was the Fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”
The general consensus among fans, music historians - and indeed anyone with a full understanding of the story - is that The Beatles would never have been known to the world had it not been for Brian, and the consequences of that would have affected music and popular culture tremendously. I spoke to Ernie Sutton, Treasurer of The Beatles Official Fan Club, who agreed. “The role of Brian as a friend and manager cannot be understated. At the time Brian took them on, all the music acts were based in London, and he did an amazing job to get them known even outside the north of England.” After Brian’s death, Ernie believed the boys “lacked leadership”, and that their subsequent business with Apple Records was “a disaster Brian would have controlled better, had he lived.”
Brian was a catalyst, who saw what The Beatles could become, and made sure it was fully realised. His story provides the gay community with a link to a band which otherwise has no gay sensibility whatsoever. His story can be paralleled with other tragic gay men of the period like Alan Turing: both ahead of their time, and damned by their time. Epstein didn’t exactly save the world, but in providing us with The Beatles, he certainly changed it for the better and provided it with a monumental cultural highlight. Churchill himself, when asked to cut arts funding for the war effort, famously asked “Then what are we fighting for?” The Beatles emerged from postwar Britain and pulled it from the black and white of mod Liverpool into the glorious technicolour of swinging sixties Sgt. Pepper; and because of the vision of Brian Epstein, they will continue to be listened to, studied and preserved for hundreds of years to come.
The notion that Brian could still have been alive today at 80 years old, being honoured in person and not just in memory, is both believable and bittersweet. His story has lay dormant for too long, and it is now high time for the gay community to prize one of its greatest hidden treasures.
This feature originally appeared in the September issue of Attitude. Cilla concludes next Monday night (September 29) at 9pm on ITV, and is available on ITV Player. The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary is out now.