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George Harrison was known as the quiet Beatle, and sometimes also wanted to be invisible.
“Beatle George Harrison, above, is due in court here today to answer assault charges,” John Lennon reads from a newspaper in a scene in Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. “Harrison is accused of assaulting a photographer last May as he and Beatle Ringo Starr left a nightclub.”
The accused looks fairly bewildered, as did much of the audience. The story intermittently creeps back into the documentary, making its presence known while Harrison largely ignores it and moves on.
In The Beatles: Get Back, Jackson shows how news items about The Beatles have a tendency to take on lives of their own. Paul McCartney improvises his version of Michael Housego’s article “The End of a Beautiful Friendship,” about Harrison quitting the band, while the rest of the group rolls through old time rock and roll.
“The awful tension of being locked up in each other’s lives snapped the other night at a TV rehearsal and Beatles John and George swung, at very least, a few vicious phrases at each other,” Paul reads shortly after Lennon and Harrison take good-natured jabs at each other in a mockery of the gossipy news.
But the first item brought out less than good nature in Harrison. The tabloid account about George’s assault on a French photographer makes the guitarist frown as much as giggle. He is both amused and bemused. The incident is mentioned in an online day-to-day Beatles diary, but the entry gives the same information we get in the documentary. It is confirmed in Keith Badman’s book, The Beatles: Off the Record, which says M. Charles Bébert testified in court about the incident. But it was reported.
“BEATLE George Harrison was fined 1,000 francs (tB5 sterling) at Nice today for assaulting a French Press photographer,” reads the un-bylined headline “Beatle George Harrison fined £B5,” which ran in the Belfast Telegraph on Jan. 21, 1969. The news item reported Charles Bébert “told the court that Harrison tripped him outside a nightclub in this French Riviera resort last May, causing him a knee injury which needed seven stitches. He originally intended to claim 15,000 francs in damages from Harrison, but photographers had dropped the action. Harrison was not in court today and sent an apology through his lawyers. Hebert [sic] alleged the incident occurred when he took a flash picture of Harrison and the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr and their wives leaving the nightclub early one morning.”
Photographer Charles Bébert “belongs to the golden edge of picture-making where the professionals know how to become friends with celebrities,” according to the bio for a 2021 exhibition of his works at the Picture and Photography Theater in Nice, France. “His way of working was very easy to do: not spying on stars like paparazzi, and stealing their private life, just having fun with them.”
The incident in question appears to be both less fun and more paparazzi-like, though quite by accident. It happened when the photographer was returning to the restaurant La Pignata, on the heights of Fabron in Nice. “I see George Harrison and his wife. I start to shoot,” Bébert told Christophe Cirone of Nice-Matin magazine in 2021. “They go inside. But there are so many people that they immediately come out.”
Not wanting to lose a moment, Bébert scrambled to catch a better view, only to get much too personal a close-up. “The moment I ran, he tripped me up,” Bébert remembered. “I got back up. I was going to hit him. I know it’s George Harrison, but he doesn’t know my name is Bébert.”
Locally, Bébert was as famous as the 1950s French film stars he shot since covering the Oran Film Festival as a young journalist. He was the only French photographer invited to Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding in 1971.
But the incident with a band member on the run left the photographer with a wounded knee. When Bébert checked in at Saint-Roch Hospital, he told them “I was assaulted by a Beatle.”
This wasn’t the first time Harrison had a less-than-photogenic moment in public. In August 1964, a photo was taken of Harrison, who was accompanied by Lennon and Starr, a moment after he threw his drink at United Press International photographer, Robert Flora, at one of Hollywood’s hottest clubs. He didn’t hit the photographer but a passing starlet.
The story of the Beatles’ “date” with Jayne Mansfield made for tabloid and fanzine fodder. It is one of the most fun, and possibly sordid, tales of the band. It began when Paul McCartney told an interviewer the thing he wanted most to see in Los Angeles was “Jayne Mansfield,” who starred in the1956 jukebox musical The Girl Can’t Help It. The film made enough of an impression on the band, the The Beatles Anthology includes clips of it.
The Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, set up a meeting, but McCartney had to cancel for a photo session, and Mansfield met with the other three Beatles, along with Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, who arrived straight from a screening of the Peter Sellers movie, A Shot in the Dark, which they watched at actor Burt Lancaster’s house. Mansfield was playing the Marilyn Monroe role in the play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at Melodyland Theatre opposite Disneyland, and came straight from a performance.
“Somebody conned us into going to the Whisky A Go Go,” Harrison remembered in Anthology. “It seemed to take us twenty minutes to get from the door to the table and instantly the whole of Hollywood paparazzi descended.”
The entourage could get no privacy as the press corps acted like teenage fans and George and Ringo had to be lifted over the crowds to get to their tables. “It was a total set-up by Jayne Mansfield to have pictures taken with us,” Harrison said in Anthology. “John and I were sitting either side of her and she had her hands on our legs, by our groins – at least she did on mine.”
As the uncomfortable evening went on, and the Beatles waited for drinks, another rock and roll cinema figure sauntered onto the scene, at exactly the moment too many cameras were clicking.
“A photographer came and tried to get a picture and I threw the glass of water at him,” Harrison recalled. “He took a photo of the water coming out of the glass and soaking – accidentally – the actress Mamie Van Doren, who just happened to be passing. We got out of there; it was hell. We left town the next day, and I remember sitting on the plane, reading the paper and there was the photo of me throwing the water.”
The Beatles: Get Back continues to give clarity to The Beatles, regardless of how camera-shy they could be at any time.