"Am I late?" Paul asked. He closed the door behind him and stepped inside Brian's library.
"Yes, but I knew you would be, so I gave you the wrong time," Brian replied with an irritated look.
"We've only been waiting for you for about five minutes," Ringo added, glancing at his watch.
John winked at his songwriting partner and smiled. "You'll have to take Eppy's new tactic into account the next time he calls a meeting."
Paul laughed and took a seat on the sofa between John and George. "So what's this bit of news you have for us, Brian?"
Brian pulled a thick stack of papers out of a manila envelope. "It's a movie proposal I'd like you four to consider," he said, struggling to hide the nervousness in his voice. "Actually, it's a script for a television movie to be broadcast in the States. Normally, I would automatically discount any projects of this sort. I only want you lads to be in top-notch productions. But the producers insisted this movie would be filmed in color and will boast a very large budget, almost as high as a cinematic film."
"So what's it about?" Ringo asked.
"It's a holiday movie," Brian answered.
"It's fucking June!" John immediately protested. "Who wants to even think about the holidays now?"
"We've only just finished recording the post-production dialogue for our latest Dick Lester film," George pointed out. "We need to take a break from being movie stars and concentrate on our music instead, if you ask me."
"Hallmark would like to commence filming as soon as possible, so they can air the movie in December," Brian noted. "I've reviewed our calendar, and if we fly directly to Los Angeles after your shows in Spain next month, we'll be able to squeeze in quite a few days of filming. Your July is mostly free."
"That's because you said you were going to give us the month off," John reminded him.
"Maureen and I were planning to shop for a house this summer," Ringo added. "The baby's due in September. We'd like to be settled into our new home by then."
"What studio did you say would be producing this film?" Paul asked. "I could have sworn you said 'Hallmark', rather than United Artists."
"Yes, I said Hallmark," Brian agreed. "The American greeting card company, based in Kansas City."
His response was met with a loud chorus of groans from all four Beatles.
"Now hear me out," Brian pleaded. "Hallmark has been producing a branded series of high-quality televised films under the name, 'Hallmark Hall of Fame' since 1951. They've staged productions of Macbeth and The Tempest, as well as countless dramatizations of classic novels and historical events. And they've featured top-name stars in their films, ranging from Roddy McDowell and Roger Moore to Christopher Plummer and Charlton Heston. This won't just be a silly set-piece cashing in on your fame."
"So what's the plot?" Paul asked, raising his left eyebrow doubtfully.
Brian released a long, drawn-out sigh. "Well, alright, I'll admit upfront – the script is perhaps a tad bit silly as it stands just now, but if we sign on board, Hallmark has promised to hire some award-winning comedy writers to punch it up. So, here's the concept…"
Brian examined his protégés' dubious faces, then put his hand to his forehead to rub away an oncoming headache. He sighed dramatically once more, then offered them a half smile.
"Imagine, if you will, a small town in Midwestern America, in the middle of December," he began.
"How big of a small town?" John interrupted.
"We're city-boys, you know," George added.
"English city-boys," Ringo clarified.
"Just imagine the damned town!" Brian exclaimed. "It's imaginary! Smallish, but not too small. Now, this story centers around a young man named Paul."
"Hey, that's my name!" Paul laughed. "Can I play him?"
"No, it's Ritchie's turn," John countered. "You get to play George. I'll be Ringo and George can play me."
Brian cast John a reproachful look, then continued with his summary. "Now this young man Paul has a crush on a girl named…Oh, hell…why should I even bother? You'll just mock me!" He started slipping the script back into the large envelope.
Paul sprang from the sofa and grabbed the packet of papers away from Brian. He flipped back the title page, scanned the dramatis personae, and started to laugh. "Bugger me, is this for real? I'm going to fall for a girl named 'Holly' at Christmastime?"
Brian grabbed the script away from Paul and scowled at him. "Sit back down if you want me to continue."
Paul smirked, then plopped himself back on the sofa. "Sorry, Brian, I was just overcome by a rush of holiday spirit."
"Don't be so blinded by the narrow religious constructs the Church of England has imposed upon our country," John chided Paul. "This could be a Chanukah story. Or a Yultetide tale that coincides with the Winter Solstice. Holly might be a druid priestess, or a…"
"Holly is a florist," Brian interrupted, struggling to compose himself. "She works in her mother's flower shop. Now, 'Paul' and Holly have been platonic best friends since they were children, though Holly has never particularly fancied him romantically."
"That's impossible," Ringo interjected. "Every girl fancies our Paul."
"I'd say that plot point is impossible because Paul speaks with a British accent," George pointed out. "How could he have been born in an American small town and grown up sounding like a Scouse?"
"The scriptwriter has actually taken that problem into consideration," Brian replied irritably. "The character 'Paul' is the son of an American veteran who married a British girl while he was stationed in England, then brought back to the States as a war bride."
George rolled his eyes. "The child of such a marriage would still grow up speaking like an American. He might just use a few British expressions here and there."
"Like 'Bullocks! This effin' script is a bleedin' piece of shite!'" John suggested.
"Belt up, John," Ringo scolded. "I want to hear about my character!"
"Thank you, Ritchie," Brian said. He smoothed back a rogue strand of hair, then cleared his throat once more. "Now, as the movie begins, our hero 'Paul' is facing a crisis of the heart. Another chap with a British accent had moved into town – a lad named 'John' – and Holly has developed a hopeless crush on him. But 'John' is not just any young man. He's actually a prince in disguise. And because he's a prince, he needs a valet to take care of him. And that would be you, Ritchie."
Ringo's face fell. "Are you serious, Brian? John gets to be a prince, and I have to be his valet?"
"Mind your station, Ritchie, or I shall have to behead you," John said with a sneer. He turned towards Brian and spoke in an affected, posh accent. "Dare I ask the name of the country which I am destined to rule once my father the King pops his clogs?"
Brian started paging through the script briefly, then flipped back to the dramatis personae. "Oh, here it is. You are the Crowned Prince of 'Wooltonia.' I imagine the scriptwriter did a little research and named your country after the suburb of Liverpool in which you grew up."
"Do I have a role in this bloody film?" George asked. "Or could I just sit this one out, please?"
"Of course you have a role!" Brian said. "You're the…oh, let me explain the plot a bit more first. When the King of Wooltonia discovers that his son is chatting up an American commoner, he sends his emissary – that would be you, George – to remind the prince that he is already betrothed to the Princess of…oh damn! What's the name of John's fiancé?" Brian looked back at the script and sighed once more. "Princess Ivy of North Tundria."
John snorted in laughter, then broke into a fit of giggles. "Oh, that's priceless! The holly and the ivy!"
"Is there no girl for George or me?" Ringo asked, struggling not to pout.
"Of course not," George replied. "We're the second tier Beatles."
"You are not second tier Beatles," Brian insisted. "And yes, you do each get a girl. If John will stop laughing, I'll continue with my summation."
John cast a helpless look at George, then covered his mouth with both of his hands and mumbled through his fingers, "Mpweez gowonn."
"Fine," Brian said. "Now, while Prince John has been living incognito in this small Midwestern town, studying at the local uni and fighting off the unwelcome attentions of Holly…"
"Wait!" John exclaimed, dropping his hands to his lap. "I thought I was trying to steal Paul's bird!"
"No, actually, you're more interested in Holly's older sister Joy, who works at the local book shop," Brian explained. "She's a modern sort of girl. Not quite the ingénue that Holly is."
"Great!" John replied, swallowing back another laugh. "I like modern girls. Particularly free-thinking ones who work at bookshops and don't feel bound by the outdated religious constructs the Church of England has imposed upon them."
Paul nudged John. "Yeah, but Holly and Joy live in America, not the U.K. They have a different set of outdated religious constructs imposed upon them."
George leaned forward on the sofa and focused his gaze at Brian. "You were going to tell Ritchie and me about our romantic counterparts?"
"And I will," Brian agreed. "Now, in addition to having an older sister, Holly has a quirky best friend named 'Mary.' Only it's spelled M-E-R-R-Y, as in 'Merry Christmas'. Merry works at the local dry cleaners, and Ringo chats her up every time he stops by her shop with John's dirty laundry. They get to be quite friendly."
"Oh, come on!" Ringo complained. "Is that the best this bloody scriptwriter can offer me? I was the central character in the film we just wrapped up! And the critics all went to town over my acting in A Hard Day's Night. They said I was the 'master of melancholy'!"
"You weren't acting. You were just bloody hungover," John reminded him.
Ringo shrugged, rolled his right hand into a fist and casually blew over his fingertips. "It was a trick of the trade I learned from a method actor."
"And my girl?" George asked Brian impatiently.
"You end up with Princess Ivy," Brian said. "As the film progresses, the King grows weary with his son's failure to respond to your ministrations, so he journeys to this mythical Midwestern town himself to take matters into his own hands, and brings along John's betrothed. But it turns out that Ivy and the emissary 'George' have been secret lovers for quite some time already. So the King cancels John's arranged marriage and sets everything to right."
"Not quite everything," Paul said indignantly. "My bird Holly is still in love with Prince John!"
"No, she ends up with you. Now how did that come to pass again?" Brian flipped through the pages of the script to refresh his memory. "Oh, yes, here it is – there's a big chase scene towards the end of the film. All eight of you go looking for a little lost puppy. And 'Paul' finds it. That tips things in your favor, in Holly's eyes."
"This is the stupidest movie proposal I've ever heard!" George groused. "I can't believe you told the pillocks at that greeting card company that we would even consider making this film!"
John nodded sympathetically at George, then turned back towards Brian with a weary expression. "Are we supposed to write new songs for this picture?" he asked. "Or could we just slack off and sing Christmas carols instead?"
"I told Hallmark that you'd consider writing four new tunes," Brian replied, a pleading tone creeping into his voice. "Two for playing over the opening and closing credits. A third upbeat, bouncy number to accompany the madcap scene where you're all searching for the lost puppy. And a romantic ballad to play over a montage of Paul and Holly doing cute things together."
Paul furrowed his brow. "Cute things?" he asked warily.
"Yes, you know…" Brian said hesitantly. "Trying on hats. Riding swings in the park. Washing dishes and splashing each other with soap bubbles. Running through the rain. That sort of thing."
John started giggling uncontrollably once more.
"Rain?" Ringo interrupted. "I thought this was a Christmas film. Shouldn't it be snowing?"
Paul shrugged. "We'll be filming it in Kansas City in the middle of July. I don't think it snows there then."
"I thought Brian said we'd be flying to Los Angeles to film this bit of crap," George pointed out.
Brian slipped the script back in its envelope. "Actually, there is supposed to be one rather dramatic scene with snow at the very end of the film – the first snowfall of the season, representing the magic of Christmas. The executives at Hallmark assured me that it would tug at every viewer's heartstrings."
"Leave me out of that," Ringo insisted, feigning a shudder. "I saw enough snow when we were filming in Austria to last me a lifetime. I'd rather take Holly's quirky best friend to a California beach on our date. The editors can paste in some footage of a cornfield in post-production to make it look like we're in Kansas."
"And I'll slip off to the bookstore with my new bird," John proposed. "Perhaps her shop manager stocks copies of The Kama Sutra."
"Cut Princess Ivy and me out of that final scene too," George said. "I'm sure Her Royal Highness and I can find better things to do than frolic in the snow with Paul and Holly and their prized puppy."
Brian rested the envelope on his coffee table and frowned. "The folks at Hallmark will be disappointed. So will Peter Ustinov. He was in negotiations to play the king."
"I'm sure his agent can find him a better script somewhere else," George insisted. He stood up from the sofa and started walking towards Brian's liquor cabinet. "Anyone else fancy a Scotch and Coke?"
"I do!" shouted John, Paul and Ringo in unison.
George laughed and pulled five glasses off the shelf above the whiskey bottles.
Paul got up from the couch and approached Brian. "Sorry about everyone else's lack of enthusiasm," he said quietly. "I rather fancied the film myself, you know."
Brian offered him a sad smile. "Well, I suppose it's for the best. I'm still rather uncomfortable with the notion of you four acting out romances in films. I'd like each of your fans to imagine she could have you for herself, and not have to picture you in the arms of another woman."
Paul nodded sympathetically. "Yeah, I know. You've said that before."
George approached Paul and Brian and offered them drinks. "The big brass at United Artists might not have been too keen about our making a film for another studio anyway," he reminded his manager. "Even if it was just a television movie."
Paul and Brian accepted the glasses and started sipping their Scotches. George walked back to the liquor cabinet to grab his, John's and Ringo's beverages.
"I have a better idea for a film," John announced. He sipped his drink, then smiled gamely at Brian. "I think we should make our own version of The Lord of the Rings."
"You've said that before too," Paul noted. "Ringo and I will play Samwise and Frodo. George will be Gandalf, and you'll be that weird little creature Gollum."
John hunched his shoulders and contorted his face. Then he turned towards Ringo and started eyeing his fingers greedily. "My precious!" he hissed as he reached for one of his drummer's rings.
Ringo laughed. "We just made a movie about my ring! I say we try something completely different next time. Like a movie about cavemen!"
"Or we could make a musical documentary," Paul proposed. "Bring cameras into the studio to film us while we're recording an album, then present the new songs in a concert at the end of the movie."
"Hell no!" George scoffed. "I don't want any cameras in my face while I'm working out a guitar solo." He sipped his Scotch, then started smiling as a dreamy look washed over his face. "I'd like to make a spoof of those religious spectacles that are so popular in America."
Brian rolled his eyes. "George, please be serious! No reputable studio in Hollywood or London would ever produce a biblical farce. The general public does not want to see a film like that."
"Well, then I'll produce the film myself, because I want to see a biblical farce!" George said with a laugh. "Let's see...how's this for an idea? In my movie, instead of telling the story of Jesus, I'll film the life of some bloke who was born at the same time as Christ, but lived in his shadow. Some guy named…"
George hesitated while he considered possibilities.
"John the Baptist?" suggested John.
"Paul the Apostle?" suggested Paul.
"Ritchie, Christ's unsung and underappreciated valet?" suggested Ringo.
George threw back his head in laughter, then focused his gaze on his manager. "Brian," he said at length. "I'll film a parody of a biblical epic, and call it 'The Life of Brian'!"