Imagine there’s no Beatles. Danny Boyle makes it easy if you try

The director on his new romcom, in which only one man remembers the band existed

Before they had shot a single frame, the makers of Yesterday, a new romcom directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, were down $10 million.

Nobody was being frivolous or extravagant.

The film concerns a struggling singer-songwriter (Himesh Patel) who awakens after an accident to realise that he’s the only person who can remember The Beatles. He quickly gets to work, becoming the world’s hottest musical ticket, while struggling with feelings for girl-next-door Ellie (Lily James) and a particularly claustrophobic case of imposter syndrome.

It's a fun idea, one that is in keeping with Mindy Kaling's notion that the romcom ought to be treated like science fiction. In material terms, however, the songs of Lennon and McCartney required an eight-figure sum, the approval of both Apple Records and Sony Music Publishing, and some very polite inquiries.


Boyle wrote letters to the surviving band members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the two widows, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono. Happily, he received warm "meaningful" responses, a result that dovetails with his own warm memories of the Fab Four.

“I started thinking about this when we started promoting the film because that’s the question you get,” says Boyle. “What’s your first Beatles memory? And mine was absolutely clear. It was me and my twin sister, Maria. We were seven. And we’re upstairs and we are meant to be in bed but instead we’re playing being The Beatles. Maria was totally in love with Paul McCartney. So I got to play John. And our younger sister, Bernadette, who was, like, four: she got to play George and Ringo or whoever. It didn’t really matter. I don’t think she really knew who George or Ringo was. Downstairs, our parents, who we always imagined were old, were playing the original 7in singles. It’s only now I look back and realise that they were young then and they were dancing to The Beatles because it was brand new and it was exciting and it was different.”

Boyle’s fascination with The Beatles goes beyond their impressive back catalogue and the excitement around his 13th film as director. The band, he suggests, heralded the most significant cultural shift of the 20th century.

“At the end of the film there’s a picture of four girls screaming,” says the always affable 62-year-old. “It’s a still from Beatlemania. We put that in deliberately because those girls changed the world. People wonder what would the world be like without The Beatles, and you say obvious things; the world would have been very different unless someone else would have compensated by doing what they did. But The Beatles would never have been a force, they would never have taken centre stage, without the screaming girls. It was those girls that pushed them to the centre of British consciousness. And the establishment was horrified. They regarded the girls as hysterics but they also knew the girls signified that something is changing and they wouldn’t be able to control it. And that made The Beatles aware of their power, and that’s why they began to write themselves rather than just being a cover band. They moved into a self-expression, which then produced all the amazing songs.”

Boyle has been known to take time between feature films – Millions and Sunshine were separated by three years – but he lost at least six months of last year to James Bond. The film-maker, who was announced as the director of Bond 25 in March, 2018 (and departed the following August), has said he walked away from 007 when the screenplay he had been working on with regular writing partner John Hodge failed to impress producers.

Today, however, I'm under strict instruction not to mention the new Bond film, which, following multiple injuries for star Daniel Craig, a set explosion that destroyed part of a sound stage at Pinewood Studios, and rewrites, looks increasingly hexed. The director is, almost certainly, as well out of it.

The delightful and surely preferable Yesterday brings together Boyle and Curtis, the screenwriter behind Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s a dream team that has been written in the stars since both film-makers ushered in the Cool Britannia era of the mid-1990s.

"It was a weird time, wasn't it?" grins Boyle. "And it was all Channel 4. Film4 had just arrived. They did Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I remember – because we were finishing Shallow Grave – the boss of Film4 was taking three films to Toronto, one of which was Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he wasn't talking about that; he was talking about this other film called Shopping. He thought that was going to be the big hit. When he came back 10 days later, he knew it was all about Four Weddings."

I read the script for Notting Hill, and it was so good. I thought, I don't know what it is we've shot in Utah for the past few months, but if we thought A Life Less Ordinary was a romantic comedy, it's not

Curtis would subsequently pop up as a thief of dreams. "We had done Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and they had done very well," says the director with a smiling shake of the head. "So we were sadly, but understandably perhaps, a bit cock-a-hoop, a bit cocky. We could do anything. Or so we thought. So we went to Utah to make this romantic comedy, A Life Less Ordinary, with Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor.

“And I come home for Christmas and all of a sudden I’m sent this script, which was the script for Notting Hill, and I read it and I was shocked. In fact, I was extremely upset because it was so good. And I thought: that’s a romantic comedy; I don’t know what it is we’ve shot in Utah for the past few months but if we thought it was a romantic comedy, it’s not, because this is a proper romantic comedy. Anyway, I went off to try and edit A Life Less Ordinary and it was a huge flop, which is a big lesson to learn.”

The last time we caught up with Danny Boyle he was improbably juggling a National Theatre production of Frankenstein, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and the Trainspotting alumnus Jonny Lee Miller; the psychosexual heist thriller Trance, starring James McAvoy; and the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, in London. That glorious pageant, entitled Isles of Wonder, saw 10,000 volunteers re-enact British history, from Hobbit-friendly greenery to the satanic mills of the industrial revolution, while cheering on the NHS and Queen Elizabeth's unlikely Bond girl. Best of all, the Tory MP Aidan Burley dismissed the ceremony as "multicultural crap"; the Daily Mail called it Marxist propaganda.

The post-Brexit version might have looked very different.

"The football team I support is Bury," says Boyle. "It's a very small team, but we've just come up to the First Division. We haven't paid our players since March, and we have a food bank for the players. And that's football. It's insane that we're promoting this kind of level of dependency on charity to evolve as an alternative to state responsibility. People have been warning over the NHS for a while. That's the ultimate goal; to work out a way to secretly privatise it. I don't think the country will tolerate it, but they are working on it. If a figure like Boris Johnson gets in – and it looks like he will – then you just don't know. It depends how long this obsession with personality politics and politicians will last. If it goes on for much longer, the impact and the damage could be irreversible."

Raised in Radcliffe, Manchester, by Galwegian parents, Boyle – before he became the Oscar-winning director of such films as Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire and Steve Jobs – had harboured notions of becoming a priest.

“There’s not a lot of difference between priests and directors because you just basically tell everybody what they should be thinking,” he laughs. “I know my mother was desperate for me to be a priest; I realise in retrospect I broke her heart by not becoming a priest. But I don’t know if I had faith. I don’t think when you’re 12 or 13 that you know what faith is, really. You say prayers and you do the rituals. I was taught by the Salesians. And it was one of them – a Fr Connolly – who said don’t go to the seminary; there will be other things. And there were other things: they were girls, there was music, there was self-expression.”

I spent four years in Belfast and Derry, and they were the best times I've ever had. But I left in despondency, thinking this problem will never be solved. So when they made progress that was the most astonishing thing

And there was cinema; specifically one daring cinema in Hale: "I used to go to a cinema called the ABC and, you know, my kids used to tease me rotten that, about 15 years ago, I used to look a lot like Morrissey. And apparently, he used to sit in that same cinema; these two lonely boys sitting in the cinema watching Kurosawa and Truffaut movies. So there was some kind of appetite for that around Manchester. Maybe that came out of The Beatles. For me, it was David Bowie; the idea that you can express yourself in a way that wasn't to do with your background or your family or anybody that you knew. And after that, it was luck; a lot of people have not had the luck that I have had."

After graduating from the University of Bangor and a spell in the politically charged theatre of the Royal Court during the early 1980s, Boyle commenced work at BBC Northern Ireland, where he produced, among other projects, Alan Clarke’s incendiary Elephant.

"I went into Belfast with a young person's Marxist perspective, which was: class struggle will sort it all out," he recalls. "I spent four years in Belfast and Derry, and on a social level, they were wonderful years, the best times I've ever had. But I remember leaving in despondency, thinking this problem will never be solved. I abandoned the class perspective and I felt there was no way to proceed. So when they made progress that was the most astonishing thing.

“When I came to do the Olympic opening ceremony, I said to Cameron, the British prime minister at the time, I want to include a side of this in a ceremony. And he said, Don’t, it’s too fragile, you could get it wrong, there’s something much bigger at stake here. But I think, of my lifetime, it’s the biggest single achievement that I’ve witnessed.”

Yesterday is released on Friday, June 28th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic