The Lone Kid At The Lunch Table
Do you remember the animated Beatles cartoon series from the mid-60s? If not, you’re not alone…or if you’re like most Beatlemaniacs, you prefer to pretend it never existed.
When it comes to the Beatles’ entire franchise, ABC’s cartoon show The Beatles is like the lone kid sitting by himself at the lunch table. Most Beatles fans despise it and consider it to be ill-conceived rubbish. Yet I think there are a few reasons why The Beatles deserves at least a little respect, especially when the 50th anniversary of its 1965 debut on American television received zero attention.
The Beatles themselves may be the number one reason why any mention of the series was absent from The Beatles Anthology documentary (at least the edited version that aired on ABC) and has never been issued on DVD or VHS, despite being owned by Apple. That’s because the group pretty much loathed the way they were depicted—particularly their voices—not to mention the goofy plot lines. But more on all that in a moment.
All The Memorabilia You Can Think Of
We all know by now that The Beatles were the top band by 1964 and that their superstar status meant there was money to be made by lending their names and likenesses to several marketing tie-ins. There were Beatles dolls, the Beatles Flip Your Wig board game, Beatles lunchboxes, Beatles hairspray, Beatles bubblegum, and even Beatles nylon stockings, and those are just the tip of the licensed product iceberg.
Given the critical and box office success of A Hard Day’s Night, which enabled a multitude of fans to see their favorite band on the big screen when seeing them in concert wasn’t an option, it only made sense that an animated series based on the Fabs would eventually be proposed. That Liverpudlian cheekiness and perpetual sense of fun that The Beatles always seemed to emanate, even during media interviews, seemed to be a natural fit for a cartoon series.
American film and TV producer Al Brodax became enamored with the idea of an animated series of The Beatles after watching the band perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Brodax had previously produced a series of Popeye shorts for television in the early ’60s, which were purposely kept brief so that several of them could be made quickly and aired consistently. These shorts are considered by Popeye fans to be low quality as a result, and a blemish on the franchise. Brodax also produced a revival of Krazy Kat as well as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Beetle Bailey, and several other animated series.
Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, agreed to let ABC and Brodax create a series for American viewers but he wouldn’t allow the show to be aired in the UK. He felt that the silly depictions of the band, cheesy plot lines, and somewhat primitive animation were disrespectful of the group. In fact, episodes of the series didn’t make its way to the UK until the 1980s…a good decade after the band split up.
The Voices No One Wanted
And that is why the show to this day is much maligned by many Beatles fans. The biggest issue most people have with it is the inaccuracy of the voices given to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Much as it would have been nice to hear the actual Beatles voice the animated versions of themselves, it just wasn’t feasible at the time given their hectic touring and recording schedule. So that meant that voice actors had to be hired for the show.
It may sound like four separate men voiced the characters but in fact, it was only two. American actor Paul Frees voiced John and George while British actor Lance Percival was tasked with Paul and Ringo. Frees in particular was no slouch when it came to voicing animated characters; he did a ton of work for the Rankin-Bass stop motion TV specials, several Disney projects, and much more. Along with Mel Blanc, he was often referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”
In my opinion, Ringo’s animated voice sounds like it should have been used for George’s…John’s sounds more like an upper-crust Brit…while Paul and George are almost interchangeable to me.
The Beatletoons Book
According to Mitchell Axelrod, the author of Beatletoons: The Real Story Behind The Cartoon Beatles (so far the only published book about the show) the Beatles themselves felt a bit insulted when viewing and hearing their animated selves for the first time. The book reveals that during the screening Ringo Starr commented to Paul McCartney that he’d been made into a dummy to which McCartney replied that his voice was way too high pitched. All the while Percival, who did both of their voices, sat embarrassingly between them. John Lennon quipped that the group had been turned into The Flintstones.
Axelrod also explains that it wasn’t accidental that little attention was given to an accurate voice depiction. Brodax’s choices for the Beatles’ voices were intentional since he felt that children (and the series was aimed at the youngest of fans, after all) wouldn’t be able to comprehend a Liverpudlian accent.
A Debut As A Smash Hit
Despite the initial reaction from the band, the series was a ratings smash hit upon its September 25, 1965 TV debut. A total of 39 episodes were created and aired until 1969 (the show really aired for only two seasons but then ran in repeats until ’69.) Each episode was named after a Beatles tune and features two “singalong” songs (but without the red ball bouncing across the screen, another complaint from the Fab Four.)
And therein lies one of the redeeming features of these cartoons: when a song is played, it’s the actual recording by The Beatles. Also, the series was the first television cartoon to depict real-life people in animated form. It later set the stage for The Beatles’ more psychedelic animated feature film Yellow Submarine released in 1969, which Brodax also worked on along with the same studio that did The Beatles.
And yes, the storylines are a little dopey with the boys usually thwarting female fans or something in female form (even female crocodiles and vampires aren’t immune to Beatlemania) and getting themselves mixed up in all kinds of predicaments. The dialogue is punched with bad puns and some Britspeak that the Beatles themselves probably never actually said. Indeed, poor Ringo is usually portrayed as a very dim bulb and prone to trouble. But the cartoon is actually quite charming in its own way as well and the illustrators captured each Beatle’s physical features and mannerisms accurately.
Chris Cuddington, one of the series’ illustrators, once recalled that “It took about four weeks to animate each film and I enjoyed it immensely. The characters were easy to draw, and the stories were simple and uncomplicated.”
A DVD Release We Could All Benefit From
Axelrod believes that there’s real potential for Apple to capitalize a bit on The Beatles and renew interest in the series if only they would issue an official release on DVD (bootlegs have been making their way to Beatles conventions for decades.) As he pointed out in a 2015 radio interview, the simple animation isn’t that far off from what many cartoon cable networks are creating today, and it would offer a chance to introduce kids to The Beatles’ music. The cartoon has gained something of a cult following in recent years.
Even the attitude of The Beatles themselves toward the series softened in later years, with Lennon remarking during an interview, “I still get a blast out of watching the Beatles cartoons on TV.” George Harrison admitted in 1999 that he “always kind of liked (the cartoons.) They were so bad or silly that they were good, if you know what I mean, and I think the passage of time might make them more fun now.”
That seems to be the sentiment of the toons’ current following (which may have been spurred by millennial-aged fans); there are Tumblr pages dedicated to the series, memes that have been created, and curiously, McFarlane Toys released a box set of figurines modeled after the cartoon in 2004 that included a crocodile, speakers, and radio (and they’re not cheap!)
Hopefully one day the cartoon series will be officially released on DVD so that fans who do appreciate them will be able to add them to their Beatles collection. In the meantime, you can follow Axelrod’s Facebook page on the series for any developments, and enjoy a few clips of the show on YouTube.