TV review: George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Martin Scorsese's film shows that none of life's strings can last, says Gary Day

November 17, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

England played football against Spain on Saturday but the real contest was between the commentators Andy Townsend and Clive Tyldesley (ITV1, Saturday 12 November, 4.45pm). Last time, Andy won, and Clive was out for revenge. Andy's great strength is the dummy. His sentences look as if they are going one way but then they suddenly sprint off in another direction. This time, Clive wasn't going to be caught out. Every time Andy set off on a run, Clive jumped in with a two-footed tackle. "This is like watching a cricket match," said Clive, leaving Andy, who had just started to talk ball retention in the exploded language of Finnegans Wake, rolling on the ground clutching his shin. But he rallied in typical fashion: "After 49 years, Lampard finally gives England the lead over the European and world champions," he screamed as the English midfielder just managed to head the ball into an empty net from point-blank range. The tension between the two commentators mounted. "Parker goes down on Mata," shrieked Clive; "He's got his foot on Villa's ball," yelled Andy. But Andy was left completely flat-footed by Clive's "whereas the rebound on the other post favoured England, the rebound on this post favoured England". 1:0 to Clive. And to England, in fact. But they only won because it was a friendly. When it matters, they go to pieces.

Which is what I would do if Robert De Niro demanded to know if I were talking to him. Because he has worked so closely with Martin Scorsese, I half-expected to see the star of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Casino sneering at Paul McCartney or pistol-whipping Ringo Starr in the director's new film George Harrison: Living in the Material World (BBC Two, Saturday 12 November, 9.45pm; Sunday 13 November, 9pm). But no. By the end of nearly four hours no one had even been called "jerk-off". Which isn't to say that it wasn't worth watching, just that it lacked a certain punch, unless you count the odd one George threw at police and photographers. And him supposed to be the quiet one of the Fab Four too.

At least according to Astrid Kirchherr, who was introduced to the group by her boyfriend Klaus Voormann when they were playing in the Kaiserkeller bar in Hamburg in 1960. "George was just very sweet," she said. An insight that promised to make the next 3 hours and 55 minutes just trickle by. But Ringo speeded up the flow when he said "George had two personalities", which seems a bit unfair as some people haven't even got one. The drummer elaborated. George could be very loving or very angry. He was certainly very loving to his first wife Patti Boyd and his friend the guitarist Eric Clapton, but he then got very angry when they fell in love with each other. After a while, he was very loving towards them both again. Paul hinted that George did a lot of loving. "He was a guy. I can't say too much but he was red-blooded and liked things guys liked." His second wife, Olivia, concurred, adding darkly that George "had a lot of karma to work out". Quite what George's sensuality had to do with his spirituality was never made clear. And why did a man who rejected materialism live in a luxury mansion?

A lot of this rather scrappy film was devoted to George's views on religion. God was everything. And the best way to get in touch with him was to stop thinking. All you had to do was chant a mantra. It was George's contact with the divine spirit that made him such a comfort to his friends. Eric Idle said that his great gift was to make you realise how insignificant your problems were when put into a cosmic perspective. Presumably George hadn't quite reached that stage of enlightenment when he threatened to sue Ringo because he disliked the way he had mixed one of his songs. George's inner calm could sometimes look like coldness. When Roy Orbison died, he rang Tom Petty and said: "I bet you are glad it wasn't you." George himself seemed happy to pass on. When asked what he would miss, he said "my son". Other than that, "I can't think of much reason to be here". It must have momentarily slipped his mind that he was married.

George belonged to a generation born just after the war. They grew up in working-class communities and enjoyed a degree of social mobility but lost touch with their roots and began to drift. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Nothing quite worked. The experiment with Eastern religion crumbled to be replaced by faith in the free market. Another god that failed. Eric Clapton talked of being in the garden with George as he started to compose Here Comes the Sun. Years later, it seemed to visit him on his deathbed. The room was suddenly bright, Olivia said. And then he was gone.

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