This Cultural Life: Paul McCartney, review: we may be saturated by McCartney – but that's really no bad thing

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Paul McCartney was interviewed on Radio 4 - Grace Guppy/PA
Paul McCartney was interviewed on Radio 4 - Grace Guppy/PA

Have we reached "peak McCartney"? It’s a valid question. The former Beatle is everywhere right now. He is number two in the album charts with a remastered version of Let It Be, he has recently appeared in a six-part documentary series with producer Rick Rubin, the much-anticipated Peter Jackson series – The Beatles: Get Back – is released next month, and Macca is soon to be in our bookshops with a two-volume hardback tome about his lyrics. The man who wrote Got to Get You Into My Life in 1966 seems to be taking his own song title extremely literally some 55 years later.

I must admit that I am culpable. As a Beatles fan, I’ve absorbed much of this McCartney content. Sir Paul has even infiltrated my mealtimes. When he recently told Jessie Ware’s Table Manners food podcast that his favourite snack is a Marmite and humous bagel, it sounded too good not to try. It’s now my go-to lunch.

But I did wonder what Sir Paul could possibly say that hasn’t been said before when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life last night to talk about his cultural influences and inspirations. The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.

Despite his ubiquity, Sir Paul has a knack of drawing you in. He was always seen as the genial Beatle and – even if that characteristic didn’t always hold true – there’s a perennial affability to him. Safe, mellow and nostalgic, his leisurely Liverpool cadence was the aural equivalent of a mug of Horlicks. Then there was presenter John Wilson, who did a fantastic job at sticking to the brief. When the world’s most successful living songwriter is sitting opposite you, it would be easy to veer off on tangents. Not Wilson. He wanted cultural influences. Nothing more.

So we learnt about how McCartney’s father Jim was a spotlight operator at the Hippodrome. He’d absorb music hall tunes from the likes of Marie Lloyd before nipping home in the interval to play the songs to the family on the piano. These songs would be trotted out at McCartney New Year gatherings where a young Paul would pick them up. The nugget goes a long way to explaining the vaudeville element he brought to the Beatles on songs such as When I’m Sixty-Four and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. McCartney talked about writing plays with John Lennon as a teenager and how his mother Mary, who died with he was 14, came to him in a dream to tell him that all would be fine. The resulting song was Let It Be.

Although he’s associated with Beatlemania and pop, the show revealed McCartney’s love of high culture. And this was where it was at its most interesting. Influenced by his English teacher Alan Durband in the 1950s, the teenage McCartney got into Chaucer and Shakespeare. Durband, who was taught at Cambridge by famed critic F. R. Leavis, gave McCartney “a respect for great literature”. The Beatle talked about composers Philip Glass and Carl Davis and about knowing the poet Allen Ginsberg (“I’m dropping names like it’s going out of style here,” he said). At one point he talked about French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry and his 1897 play Ubu Cocu. McCartney then added that Ubu Cocu is “his lesser known [work]. He’s known for [1896 play] Ubu Roi.” “Right, yeah,” replied Wilson, which is precisely the answer I’d reach for if someone extremely famous talked to me about the French writer who invented pataphysics. And this is from the man who wrote the Frog Chorus. But, perhaps, this is why Paul McCartney is Paul McCartney: he has an alchemic knack of absorbing all sorts of influences and translating them into pure pop that anyone – you or I – can understand.

He got a touch tetchy when Wilson suggested it was he who broke up the Beatles in 1970. “Stop right there,” he said, grit spreading through the Horlicks. In comments that have already been widely reported, McCartney spelled out what all Beatles fans know: that it was Lennon who’d already broken the band up months before.

So, yes, we may have reached peak McCartney. From bookshops to the pop charts to our TV screens to – yes – my lunch, he’s everywhere. But as this show demonstrated, that’s no bad thing.

The Cultural Life is available on BBC Sounds

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