BBC doc reveals new details in Beatles vs Imelda story 2
The Beatles during their tour of Australia in 1964. Photo by WilleeM on Wikimedia Commons

These close encounters reveal another side to The Beatles’ ‘disastrous’ Manila visit in ‘66

In a new radio documentary for the BBC, David Guerrero revisits ‘The Beatles snubs Imelda’ story and finds there’s more love there than people would have us believe
JEROME GOMEZ | Dec 20 2021

It remains one the most fascinating events from the early Marcos years, but no matter how many times it’s been written about, there’s still much to be said about the 1966 visit of The Beatles in Manila. In a new radio documentary from the BBC called “When the Beatles didn’t meet Imelda,” advertising powerhouse David Guerrero presents new voices, never-before-heard recollections, and a few illuminating archival interview clips that give a clearer answer as to why the Fab Four’s only visit to the Philippines has come to be known as the worst experience they had on tour.

But first a brief backgrounder for those who have no inkling about what happened: in July 1966, the Beatles, at the height of their popularity, arrived in Manila to perform two shows at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. But even before they could step onstage to sing to a total 80,000 fans—believed to be the biggest crowd they’ve ever assembled in a single day—they’ve already committed a blunder: they did not show up for a lunch invitation at the Malacañang Palace extended by First Lady Imelda Marcos. 

After disappointing Madame and her 300 guests, including the Manila Symphony Orchestra, their security was pulled out and the boys and their entourage received some major bullying care of uniformed thugs at the airport the next day—a rough sendoff George Harrison will recall in a now viral interview that quotes him as saying President Marcos tried to kill The Beatles. 

“To some extent we’re trying to tell the Filipino point of view of what happened,” Guerrero tells ANCX about the 50-minute radio documentary. “We’re just trying to build a more nuanced picture of the event, of history [because] there’s this simplistic narrative that has emerged over the years.” 

Beatles and Imelda Marcos
When the Beatles Didn't Meet Imelda poster. From BBC website

To help Guerrero achieve this, the advertising creative gathered a cross-section of personalities that include four Filipino fans who were at the concert and fortunate enough to meet the Beatles during the group’s brief stay at the Manila Hotel; Peter Brown, the one surviving member of the Beatles management from the period, and who was in Manila when it all happened; Raquel Romualdez, who was among those who dressed up and waited from lunch until 4 o clock for the Beatles in Malacañang; veteran journalist Larry Henares who talks about Imelda brother Kokoy Romualdez’s involvement in the airport incident; and the very private Josine Elizalde, then newly crowned Miss Manila, who talks about hosting the Mopheads aboard the MV Marima yacht. 

Josine’s recollections are among the more interesting parts of the documentary. Guerrero interviewed her at the very yacht that was supposed to serve as alternative sleeping quarters for the band in ‘66—a hotel being a place that could ultimately invite obsessed fans and myriad crashers. 

“We were anticipating they’ll be well guarded in the boat and taken care of by the military,” says Elizalde who recalls mostly hanging out at the back of the Marima while seated in between Harrison and Ringo Starr. She remembers the boys happy and having a pleasant time, kicking back and listening to Ravi Shankar whose music was very popular at that time. 

This was after a tense moment at the airport where the boys’ hand carried bags were inspected by customs security. “This alarmed the band because it was there that the drugs were and they were worried they would get busted,” narrates Guerrero in the docu. “Ironically, and unlike the rest of the world, marijuana was not in fact illegal in the Philippines until 1972.” 

Elizalde in the documentary talks about one of her guests having a couple of joints and enjoying himself, but the docu leaves the person unidentified. “They were so at ease, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing that, I mean if they felt uneasy, it was a usual thing so people understood,” adds the society figure. “It was just very, very comfortable. They were so properly behaved.” 

Another invaluable part of “When The Beatles didn’t meet Imelda” are the reminiscences of the Filipino fans. Guerrero first met a group of them at the Jollibee in the corner of Taft Avenue and Vito Cruz—which was a stone’s throw away from the Rizal Memorial Stadium; and then Guerrero interviewed them again at the Manila Hotel where, 55 years ago, by sheer luck, they would meet their idols, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who will invite them to their their hotel room. 

Now in their 70s, the ladies giddily talk about those two days in July 1966 like it was yesterday: how they screamed their hearts out at the stadium, how they dared search for the boys’ rooms in the off chance they would catch a closer look of any of the four British pop superstars. A hotel bellboy pointed them to rooms 401, 402, 403 and 404–by this time, the boys’ security were already nowhere to be found—and just as they were about to approach one of the specified doors, out came John who waved at them, and then appeared Paul who said these magic words: “Okay girls, if you promise to be quiet, I will let you in two at a time.”

This and Elizalde’s recollections somehow give reason for this latest retelling of the Beatles snubs Imelda story: when the world has been made to believe the band was nothing but distressed during their time in the Philippines, and that Pinoys are nothing but Beatle-haters who terrorized the band until they were out of Philippine territory. What “When The Beatles didn’t meet Imelda” wants to say is that there’s more to the story we’ve been fed. That there was already some infighting among the Beatles tour management at that time, which might have caused invitations to not reach proper channels, and refusals to attend lunches not made clear to those who needed to hear them. 

And yes, that there were instances of quiet and pure connections, happy and pleasant moments. And there were those two shows where 80,000 Filipinos displayed astounding adoration for this singing group they’ve been looking forward to meeting since hearing “I Saw Her Standing There” on the transistor radio back in 1964. 

The Beatles’ time in Manila is not only the story of the band, Imelda, and a host of privileged, powerful people. It is the story, too, of probinsyano fans who saved up money for bus tickets, of a lady student who lost the heel of her shoe trying to get a glimpse of the band, the girls who skipped school to be at the airport, and Betty Ponce and her sister having that brief magical moment with the boys in one of their rooms at the Manila Hotel.

Asked if there was an attempt to talk to the Marcoses for their side of the story, Guerrero says yes—but the reply that got to him was that they were too busy campaigning. In any case, for the writer and presenter of “When The Beatles didn’t meet Imelda,” this story is not about the Marcoses. For him, the point of the documentary is really about gaining greater understanding of the country and its people thru the 1966 incident, rather than making it about the apparent protagonists.

“People will be charmed with the sincerity and the goodwill of the fans, their love for the band and their wanting to welcome them now as they did then,” says Guerrero. “The impression is given that the whole country rioted against The Beatles in 1966 but that’s clearly not the case—there was no mass riot or whatever. [There was] affection, which hasn’t gone away [but] just got lost in the noise.” 

[To access “When The Beatles didn’t meet Imelda,” click on this link.]