Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Riddle Me That, Riddle Me This…: The Solution

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry.  Yesterday he puzzled us all with a masterful riddle, below he explains the answer.

Riddle me that, riddle me this; can you tell me what it is?
Was not born in Leicester Square; nevertheless, the square was there.
Did not start out as a star; still a nocturnal sun is tougher by far.
Not that parent’s parent, but very mean; Fred came off as very clean.
Did not need to take a tram; a Welsh transplant saw through the glam.

On Monday 6 July 1964, forty-five years ago Monday 6 July 2009, the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, premiered for an audience of royalty, dignitaries, record executives, and friends. Of course, the surrounding streets were jammed with fans hoping for a glimpse of the Fab Four as would be Liverpool a few days later for its premier. The film arguably marked the peak of international Beatlemania with record audiences around the globe returning to see the film and memorizing the lines. In theaters almost everywhere, the film’s opening scene of the Beatles racing down Boston Place chased by fans near Marylebone Station elicited screams that suggested the band was about to exit the screen and dive out among the viewers. This riddle plays with some elements of the film

“Was not born in Leicester Square; nevertheless, the square was there.”
A Hard Day’s Night premiered at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus, not Leicester Square where today you can find several film theaters. On the surface, Richard Lester (whose name is not spelled “Leicester” but is pronounced that way) seemed an unlikely candidate to direct the film. Prematurely bald, 32-years-old, and American, he appeared a bit too square to interpret the adolescent world of England’s shaggy-haired heroes. Nevertheless, his work with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers in translating their radio Goon Show for television and, in particular, his work on the eleven-minute short, The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film marked him as a favorite of the Beatles.

Did not start out as a star; still a nocturnal sun is tougher by far.”
The film’s title notoriously comes from a quirky aside by the Beatles’ drummer. Ringo Starr did not begin life with that name, but rather as Richard Starkey. Like many other teens in postwar Britain, he had a fascination with American westerns and, when he became a professional musician, adopted a stage name that reflected that interest.

The Beatles had become used to a schedule that had them performing at night followed by personal time. Richard Lester introduced them to the life of film crews, which had them up early in the morning. One day during the shoot, Starr emerged from one of the theaters or studios thinking that the sun might still be in the sky. He began to utter the line, “It’s been a hard day’s work,” when he realized the sky was dark. Instead of “work,” he substituted “night,” which apparently delighted John Lennon. Lester preferred this phrase to Beatlemania as the film’s title and Lennon wrote a song to close the deal.

“Not that parent’s parent, but very mean; Fred came off as very clean.”

One of the films conceits introduces a character played by Wilfred Brambell who repeatedly causes trouble for the band and everyone else in the story by inciting arguments and eliciting money. The film introduces us to Brambell through the eyes of the other characters who, when they ask about his identity, are told he’s Paul McCartney’s grandfather. When they respond that they’ve met McCartney’s grandfather and that this isn’t him, the response is that McCartney has two grandfathers and that this is the other one. The running gag—along with the line that describes him as very “clean”—serves the purpose of legitimizing Brambell’s presence among four of the best-known individuals in the world at that time.

“Did not need to take a tram; a Welsh transplant saw through the glam.”

Although the idea behind the film was to capture the lives of the Beatles in a kind of cinéma vérité black-and-white style, Lester wanted a script. He turned to a promising young screenplay writer, Alun Owen, because the Welsman had been so successful at capturing a working-class image of Liverpool in his No Trams to Lime Street. Owen, who had spent his adolescent years in Liverpool, had an ear for dialect and an eye for detail. After briefly traveling with the Beatles, he came to see how their fame had trapped them in hotel rooms, dressing rooms, and train compartments and he brought this image to the film. He also listened to their stories of the kinds of things that happened to them, such as the scene where a suited middle-aged businessman reminds them that he had fought a war for them. In general, although the film had the Beatles playing a band called the Beatles, McCartney thinks that Owen accurately distilled their world.

Recent Comments

  1. Gordon Thompson

    A point of clarification and correction: although Ringo Starr by all accounts is the origin of the film’s title and Hunter Davies cites the timing of the statement to late in the filming, evidence suggests that the drummer had had this phrase in his vocabulary for a while. For example, it appears in John Lennon’s poem “Deaf TEd, Danoota, and Me” from In His Own Write published just as the Beatles were beginning filming. Lennon credits the origin to Starr who also uses a variation on it in an interview with NME’s Chris Hutchins (13 March 1964).

  2. […] Riddle Me That, Riddle Me This…: The Solution (oup.com) […]

  3. Peter

    I really liked this book too. My book; True Love Is Not Common; http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TrueLoveIsNotCommon.html, has similar main characters. I grew up reading this author. Hope one day my book will reach many readers as this author.

  4. […] with the release of the film A Hard Day’s Night and its title song. (See last month’s riddle.) Every record producer (called “artist-and-repertoire managers” in the sixties) and would be […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *