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Fab flight to past
With his sense of timing immaculate as ever, Sir George Martin had just finished telling a touching story about George Harrison when the doorbell rang.
Harrison, the tale went, had driven from his Henley home to see Sir George, after learning that the legendary Beatles producer was seriously ill.
The two Georges were both then at low ebbs. Sir George was still confined to bed, while the former Beatle had just learnt he was being held personally liable for a film company that had gone bust to the tune of £25m.
Being reunited, however, helped lift their spirits, especially when Harrison invited his old mentor to inspect his "new toy" - a new £634,000 McLaren F1 supercar.
"I stopped feeling quite so sorry for him after that," laughed Sir George. Little did he know that the ring on the doorbell meant a similarly impressive machine had just arrived on his driveway.
When you have produced Sgt Pepper and Revolver and worked with artists from Sir Thomas Beecham to Jeff Beck, you are not going to be easily impressed.
Win a guided tour of Sir George's studios by the man himself. See this week's The Oxford Times
But Sir George's face lit up like a child's as he caught sight of a giant model of a Swordfish being carefully carried into the conservatory of his home, in a hamlet two miles outside Faringdon.
Ever since joining the Naval Air Arm during the Second World War, at the age of 17, Sir George has harboured a huge affection for this strange looking bi-plane, known as the Stringbag (because it looked as though it was being held together by string), which was to play a significant role in the war at sea.
Sir George has written an orchestral piece in its honour, and as a tribute to those he served alongside in the war, which was recorded by the London Chamber Orchestra. He has performed benefit concerts to help to save the Swordfish from extinction. And in the summer he hopes to conduct the piece at Blenheim Palace for the Fly To The Past event to help raise funds for the Swordfish Heritage Trust.
Sir George is the honorary president of the Fly To The Past show, which returns to Blenheim Palace on Sunday, July 22, and is being sponsored by The Oxford Times.
Fly To The Past 2007 will officially get off the ground on Tuesday with a launch party, hosted by Francis Rockliff, the event director.
Mr Rockliff will tell you that it was Sir George who had originally inspired him to first organise Oxfordshire's great festival of flight back in 2000 after meeting him at a memorial service for a mutual friend at the university church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.
The arrival of the mini-aircraft at his home immediately led Sir George at 81 to contemplate ending what would be the briefest of retirements.
"Yes, I would be interested in conducting, if they asked me," he said. "I said I would take a sabbatical this year - my wife said, 'it's about time you took early retirement'. But I am trying to keep myself quiet and private. I've been extraordinarily busy over the last three years."
Much of that time was spent producing a new Beatles album, 38 years after the world's biggest band split up. The surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, had turned to their trusted friend and mentor to create a soundtrack for a multi-million pound Beatles-themed show in Las Vegas.
"It was a hell of a long job. A big job," said Sir George. "The brief was to produce an hour and a half soundtrack of continuous music to accompany a Cirque du Soleil show and I had to use any of the recordings that I made with The Beatles and nothing else. But I had to be inventive and present it differently."
He decided to enlist the help of his son, Giles, a successful record producer, in what the pair recognised would be a hugely controversial project.
"I thought that we would be torn to shreds. I said to Giles, 'I'm glad I'm doing it at this stage of my career because they're going to flay me alive. But I don't give a sod'. Giles replied, 'you're worried. I'm the one who's going to get flayed because I'm the upstart'.
"The Beatles are such an icon now, there is a huge body of opinion that says you must not touch their music. It's sacred. When they heard it was me doing it, they said, 'how could he? He is the keeper of the flame'."
Sir George returned to the Abbey Road Studios, that will forever be associated with his work with the Fab Four. "We spent the first year in a specially constructed studio, which nobody else was allowed to go in. They wanted to keep secret what we were doing. The security was very tight. If someone acquired a copy they could have made an absolute fortune."
The original tapes of The Beatles were brought out of the vaults and Sir George settled down to listen to every take of every song. "We had to do this to find what our tone colours were, and what we had on our pallets in order to start painting again."
When Sir George went back to listen to the Sixties recordings for the first time to produce the best-selling Anthology albums, he found the experience to be "traumatic". Reliving his own past and hearing himself chatting to John Lennon proved more emotional than he had guessed. But then there had been three surviving Beatles. This time there were only two.
"Paul and Ringo came by. Yoko and Olivia Harrison also called in to listen to what we were up to. Their reactions were interesting and sometimes quite different. But they loved it and this gave us confidence. I remember Paul saying, 'it's fantastic. But why don't you go further. Take more risks'."
At the request of George Harrison's widow, Sir George even wrote a new orchestrated score for While My Guitar Gently Weeps, because Olivia was unhappy that the circus wanted to use the demo version of her husband's classic.
The great producer recalled his nerves when she listened to it for the first time. "When you write something special for someone it becomes more important," explained Sir George. "If that person is dead, it becomes even more important. You are walking on hallowed ground. Thankfully, Olivia gave me a big kiss after listening to it, which was wonderful."
At her suggestion the score was sold, to raise £60,000 to go towards the reconstruction of Montserrat, the volcanic island for which Sir George has raised millions.
"One of the astonishing things for me was to find that EMI had not protected The Beatles tapes. They had looked after them very carefully, locking them in a vault. But they were still in their original form. No copies had been made of them. So the first thing we did was to transfer everying on to hard disc and catalogue everything according to key and tempo."
As well as offering vastly improved sound quality, the Love album boldly runs sections of different Beatles songs to create astonishing new pieces of music. "You cannot play about with sounds to a great degree," said Sir George. "Five per cent either side of tempo or pitch is as much as you dare go without sounding like Mickey Mouse."
While millions of us have ensured that Love has become yet another Beatles chart-topper, here in the UK we will never get the chance of enjoying it in the setting for which it was specially created.
Sir George believes the Cirque show is simply too big and complicated to be transferred from Las Vegas, where a whole theatre was built to stage it, with three speakers built into every seat.
His Stringbag Serenade is unlikely to follow Love into the album charts. But it is clear that the piece, which should figure in Fly To The Past is, in its way, equally important to him. It, too, includes an impressive Martin orchestration, only its medleys of songs could hardly be further from Tomorrow Never Knows and Get Back.
"It includes songs that we used to sing in the mess or when we were in the air. Most of them were absolutely filthy but the tunes were good. Like most people, my teenage memories are very precious. I was quite tempted to stay in the Navy at the end of the war. But I'm glad I didn't."
He was trained as an observer and did much of his flying in Barracudas, although the nearest he came to fighting was dropping bombs in the South Atlantic.
"I was frightfully lucky because I was only 13 when the war started. I joined the Air Fleet in 1943 and training took a long time.
"I had been due to join a carrier just off Glasgow to sail to the Far East. We were virtually on our way when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. Everyone was told to turn around and we went back home. That probably saved my life. "
He paused, allowing me to reflect that no George Martin would have meant no Beatles - and a very different world.
Sir George, who moved to Oxfordshire at the very height of Beatlemania, now looks fitter than he has in years.
He tells me that when he sleeps he is now watched over by a small wooden sculpture of the Indian god Ganesh, given to him by George Harrison.
I wonder if he was about to recall his first meeting with Beatle George, who cheekily told the man who had saved the group from obscurity "I don't like your tie".
Instead Sir George reflects on Harrison's death. Sir George remains convinced that the violent attack Harrison suffered at the hands of the intruder who broke into his Henley home had a devastating effect on the former Beatle's health, accelerating the onset of the illness that was to kill him.
"You know I could never have thought when I signed The Beatles in 1962 that I would outlive two of them. It is amazing really," he suddenly said. "I have been working in the recording business for a long time now. I want to end my career on a high. Love will be the last thing I ever do in music."
What could be a more fitting finale than that? Perhaps only the sound of Second World War aircraft at Fly To The Past, while he stands conducting the music he once sang with his own heroes.