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Lennon Naked digs beneath the skin of John’s family relationships

Older but wiser, Christopher Eccleston is a good choice to play the late Beatle.

In 1970, Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone magazine, captured what is probably the most famous – and most infamous – interview John Lennon ever gave.

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This was in the immediate aftermath of The Beatles’ break-up and, while the conversation ranges over a lot of territory, scorching the ground, Lennon’s bitterness about the group at that moment is what stands out.

At one point, he practically writes off everything The Beatles did after they came back from playing as a young garage band in the raw clubs of Hamburg – which is to say, pretty much everything The Beatles ever did. Later comes rancour for Paul McCartney: “I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being sidemen for Paul. After Brian [Epstein] died, that’s what happened… After Brian died, we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”

And on it goes. Elsewhere in there, though, comes a question that was throwaway at the time, but has since accrued great poignancy. It’s the same flip question all The Beatles had to contend with regularly since they released the song in 1967, but to which only Paul and Ringo Starr ever learned a true answer: “Do you have a picture of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’?”

“No, no. I hope [me and Yoko are] a nice old couple, living off the coast of Ireland or something like that, looking at our scrapbook of madness...”

At 46, Christopher Eccleston, who plays the singer in the one-off drama Lennon Naked (BBC Four, Wednesday, 9.30pm), is already six years older than John Lennon was when he died. Eccleston is, in fact, exactly the same age as Ian Hart, the Liverpudlian actor who has come closest to getting Lennon right on screen, not once, but twice, in The Hours And The Times, the 1991 movie detailing Lennon’s relationship with manager Epstein, and 1994’s Backbeat, a flawed but vibrant portrait of the Hamburg era.

It’s worth mentioning Hart not only because he remains the yardstick by which all others are to be judged – no-one has quite captured the drawling attack of charisma, arrogance, charm, spite and danger unleashed in The Hours And The Times – but because, almost 20 years on from those films, it’s very difficult to imagine he would ever return to the role now. Simply put, unless some film-maker delves into fantasy and imagines what might have happened if the musician had survived the bullets of December 1980 (and, given the unflagging fascination with the man, there’s every chance that might yet happen), he’s just too old to play John Lennon now.

What, then, to make of Eccleston as Lennon, in a piece that ends in 1971, nine years before his death, and offers snapshots of him during the intense period between the ages of 24 and 30? It’s all acting, of course, and if Eccleston can play a 900-year-old Timelord, it’s perhaps no great stretch to play a Scouser 16 or 20 years his junior. Try as we might, though, there is no denying there is a difference between being 30 and being 46, and, for all Eccleston’s brilliance, for all the hair pieces and glasses, the sheer fact of his being the wrong age can be a heavy presence. Not least because the heart of the piece is Lennon’s relationship with his father, Freddie – here played by Christopher Fairbank, who is only about a decade older than Eccleston.

Written by Robert Jones, Lennon Naked is very much a companion to Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s recent movie on Lennon’s troubled teenage years. The same primal trauma lurks at the centre of both: the impossible day by the sea in Blackpool in 1946, when Lennon’s parents, already separated, asked the five-year old to choose which of them he wanted to live with. He chose his father; then, when his mother Julia walked away, he started crying and ran to be with her. As it happened, she packed him off to live with her sister Mimi, and effectively he lost both parents that moment. He didn’t see his father again for 20 years, a meeting Jones takes as leaping-off point, reconstructing the moment in the style of A Hard Day’s Night.

For Jones, that childhood moment of being ripped in two and losing everything is the key to Lennon. It’s hardly a new idea; Lennon himself offered it up in the cries of his 1970 solo song Mother, which shows up on the soundtrack with almost crushing inevitability. All the same, Jones builds a coherent and credible portrait around it, and the sequence detailing the event that led to the writing of Mother – the crisis-struck Lennon’s experiences in ­therapy, as he finally confronts, relives and lets out that abandonment – is powerfully moving.

Mostly, though, this is Lennon at his most coruscating and scathing, casually laying into, pushing away, almost all those closest to him: Epstein, wife Cynthia, tiny son Julian, soul-brother Paul – everyone except Yoko (Eccleston’s fellow Doctor Who alumnus, Naoko Mori). With her, he learns to breathe again; but the virulent reaction to their relationship gives him the excuse to draw his barricades even tighter.

Eccleston’s accent is a few degrees adrift, but, as he drawls out the mals mots, he is superb. Surrounded by crowds, but always alone, seeing everything, but keeping himself apart from it, his Lennon carries himself through sheer tension. It gets so you can almost see the bones tightening in his forehead. In certain respects, his being the wrong age is perfect. Jones’s script is fragmentary, more a meditation on Lennon than a straight portrait, and Eccleston’s intense, mature, sometimes literally naked presence lends a certain abstract, out-of-time quality.

This is the guy everyone always thought was ahead of the rest, always the sharpest in any room. But Jones’s script draws heavily from Lennon’s bitter interview with Wenner, which perhaps leads to a slightly skewed perspective. Yes, there was all that acid, all that anger, all the defensiveness and all that heavy tension. But wasn’t there some fun, too? Lennon Naked is a strong piece, but what gets lost is what often gets lost when we look back: a sense of how young the guy really was, beneath that scabrous surface. How young he was when doing all this, writing all those songs, getting through all those nights. Once again, the lost boy who was never allowed to grow old gets made old, before his time.

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