How my date with a Beatle was nearly wrecked by screaming teenagers

How my date with a Beatle was nearly wrecked by screaming teenage girls: Her Oscar-winning fame brought her glittering celebrity… but as HAYLEY MILLS reveals in a new memoir, she also had crippling shyness and such low self-esteem she became bulimic

Much to my embarrassment — but also secret delight — it was thanks to my mother that I dated a Beatle at 17.

The occasion was a big charity night for the Red Cross and I had been invited — with my parents, of course — to go down to the house of actor Richard Todd (of The Dam Busters fame) in Henley, Oxfordshire, where he was hosting a reception party.

It was one of those old-fashioned charity events where film stars and celebrities turn up to attend a premiere or a first night and raise money for a good cause. 

On this occasion my mother decided that her daughter needed an escort — and that my escort should be George Harrison.

I nearly choked on my tea when she said she’d fix it. ‘What?! Are you serious?’ I gasped. ‘You can’t just call George Harrison up out of the blue and say: “Hey, George, do you wanna take my daughter out!”‘

My mother marched to her desk and picked up the phone. The reason George was on her mind was because we’d met him a few days before at a charity event. 

To my acute embarrassment, she’d asked for his phone number — and he’d actually given it to her.

Beatles star George Harrison with actress Hayley Mills at premiere of Charade film at the Regal theatre in March 1964

Now my mother seemed to be dialling in slow motion. I could see she was clearly speaking to someone; then, before I could gauge what was happening, the receiver was put down again and my mother looked up at me with a wry smile. 

The die was cast — George Harrison was going to come to our house in Richmond on Friday evening to drive me to Henley.

I was in shock. In fact, the whole house was. The anticipation leading up to that night was unbearable: Christmases, birthdays, weddings — they don’t even come close. It was 1964, and I was going on a date with George Harrison!

Here’s what I wrote in my private journal: ‘As soon as I walked down the stairs and saw him standing there in the hall with his black corduroy coat and hands thrust deep into the pockets and all that shining hair, my carefully cultivated calm vanished, my knees started to tremble.

‘George and I tore off together in his black E-Type Jaguar. The rain was pouring down and, when my heart had finally settled more or less into its proper place, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t seem to mind that I’d been foisted on him by my very determined mother.

‘He reminded me of a little foal peering out from under a bear skin rug. His smile is rather wicked but in the most innocent sort of way; when he laughs it’s as if there’s a tiny leprechaun sitting on his shoulder who pulls one side of his mouth up.

‘After a while we were driven in a black limousine to the cinema. There was a huge crowd of fans waiting there. When he saw them, poor George went slightly green and cowed-looking’ (Pictured: Fans during a concert at Wembley in 1964)

‘It was wonderful, just the two of us sitting there in the red leather warmth, zooming down the wet, black roads, staring past the three windscreen wipers fighting with a wall of rain. 

‘I wished we could just get lost and never have to go to the event, but keep on driving into the night.

‘When we arrived at Richard Todd’s house, I got nervous all over again. Inside, it was packed with large men, and women with sloping shoulders. 

‘As soon as they saw George, they all rushed at us and plied us with plates of food which neither of us wanted to eat.

‘After a while we were driven in a black limousine to the cinema. There was a huge crowd of fans waiting there. When he saw them, poor George went slightly green and cowed-looking.

‘In all the chaos, someone managed to open the door and he sprang into a snake-pit of shrieking, scratching, maniacal girls. One of them nearly took my eye out with a jabbing Biro pen . . .’

Somehow we managed to fight our way into the cinema, clinging to our clothes for fear they’d be torn off our backs.

‘I’ve never witnessed anything like that, before or since. As a child star of popular Disney films, I was also a well-known face, yet I’d coped far less well than George with my own level of fame’ (Pictured: Hayley Mills in a promotional shot for the film Pollyanna)

But as soon as we sat down, we were surrounded — people were leaning on our heads, their sharp elbows and grumbling stomachs in our faces. 

George was marvellous, signing autographs and smiling at everybody, however pushy. One woman actually knelt in my lap to get at him!

The film we were due to see was Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. 

But we didn’t get a chance to watch much of it, because people kept crawling on their hands and knees up the aisle, with autograph books in their teeth, to reach George.

We decided to try to sneak out before the end. But there was more screaming, fighting and stabbing pens. George jumped into the car and some fool slammed the door shut, leaving me stuck outside. 

I saw his face looking back at me helplessly as the car sped off, girls still chasing and banging on the windows.

I was banned from playing Lolita role

Poster of Hayley Mills in Pollyanna film

When I was 14, I was offered the starring role in the film Lolita. For the director Stanley Kubrick to make such a leap — from Pollyanna to Lolita — is somewhat mysterious, but I knew I could do it.

Like me, Lolita was teetering on the brink of womanhood; like me she was aware for the first time that men were noticing her. 

And James Mason, who was going to play Humbert, the older man obsessed with her, was a friend of my parents, so I already knew and liked him.

I was allowed to read the script, and desperately wanted to do it. But my opinion wasn’t even sought.

Naturally, my parents weren’t thrilled with the idea; more importantly, neither was Walt Disney, who made it very clear that being a ‘Disney star’ meant being family-friendly. 

So Lolita was politely turned down — and with it went my opportunity to work with one of the masters of 20th-century cinema. It was a bitter disappointment.

I’ve never witnessed anything like that, before or since. As a child star of popular Disney films, I was also a well-known face, yet I’d coped far less well than George with my own level of fame.

For a long time, I was barely aware of it. True, hundreds of fan letters started pouring in after my first Disney film, Pollyanna, was released when I was 14.

My mother made me reply to every one. 

But if there was a buzz around my name, I had no inkling of it, incarcerated as I was in a Surrey boarding school.

As for holidays, they were spent on my parents’ farm in Sussex. Hollywood was light years away.

Then two things happened. My second Disney film, The Parent Trap, was released in 1962, and became an instant smash hit. 

More importantly for me, my boarding school — fed up with my irregular comings and goings — kicked me out at the age of 15.

This gave me an uncomfortable feeling of being dispensable. On top of that I was becoming increasingly disconnected from kids my own age.

As I needed something to do when I wasn’t filming, my parents — actor John Mills and playwright Mary Hayley Bell — decided to send me to a Swiss finishing school. 

Many years later, it would be the perfect answer for Princess Diana after she failed all her O-levels, but at least she’d taken them. The same could not be said of me.

What I desperately needed was a large dose of normality. I didn’t get it: the girls at the finishing school were much older, so I made no friends and struggled with an ever-increasing sense of isolation.

Not only did I become rather introverted, I also became a complete hypochondriac, secretly convinced that the real reason my parents had sent me there was because I had lung cancer or TB.

Dogged by the fear I was dying, and unable to resist all the cheese fondues, fresh cakes and Swiss chocolate — I began piling on the pounds. By the time I turned 16, I’d blown up like a balloon.

Then suddenly it was over and I was on the train back to London, officially ‘finished’. When I clambered down on to the platform at Waterloo, my parents walked straight past me, not recognising this fat girl with a face like a big bun.

As soon as I got home, I went on a diet. I had just one month to prepare for my role in the Disney film Summer Magic, and a lot to lose. And so began the long battle with my weight; going on one punishing diet after another, then succumbing to the unbearable temptation of the local bakery.

I hated my fat face, my voice and my spots, and I was terribly worried Walt Disney would be disappointed in me. My confidence collapsed; I simply didn’t know who I was any more.

What I remember most about filming Summer Magic, with Burl Ives, was being dogged by crippling shyness. It was unpredictable, like a hideous creature lurking in the deep.

Striking without warning, it would wrap its tentacles around me and drag me down into the darkness. 

Then, inexplicably, I’d be released and suddenly find myself back among the living, thrashing about and gasping for air.

Two years on, little had changed. At 17, I was given a part in a lush romantic thriller, which Walt Disney felt was the right kind of story for me at this point.

The Moon-Spinners was to be shot in Crete, but first I was sent to Athens for a few days of publicity with my very good-looking co-star Peter McEnery.

Actress Hayley Mills at the TV Choice Awards in London in 2019

On the first night, Peter and I ran panting up a hill to see the Acropolis, bathed in the light of a full moon. I sat down next to him but the monster from the deep —an attack of paranoia — rendered me virtually silent.

For the next three days, Peter and I were driven around to be photographed among the classical ruins, and I was incapacitated with shyness. We posed and smiled but remained strangers. It was agony.

When filming began, I was still battling with the bulge which, added to my spots, made it hard to live up to the Disney ethos. 

All through the shoot, I’d hear a voice shout ‘Cut!’ — then the make-up artist would paint over my spots and add some brown pancake to slim down my cheeks. I looked like I had a beard.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with a hopeless, obsessive crush on Peter. And the final scene — which I was both longing for and dreading — was fast approaching: my first ‘screen kiss’.

On the day of the shoot, I started to sweat. And when the moment came for Peter to plant a kiss upon my lips . . . well, the Niagara Falls in my ears and the diesel engine in my heart were so loud that I couldn’t hear him speak his lines, and I forgot to close my eyes.

I looked like I was waiting for a bus, or wondering what to have for lunch.

Back home in 1964, I found myself all but friendless. At the same time, it seemed like the whole world was changing, with everyone transformed by the rising tide of youth culture. Everyone, it seemed, except me.

The sexual revolution had yet to storm my Bastille, yet I kept getting mad crushes on people, weaving romantic fantasies inside my head and doing nothing about them.

I started to think the only way I could control all these urges was to become a nun. So I began seriously thinking about taking my vows. 

But when I discovered that the flowing black habit had been replaced by short skirts, thick grey woollen stockings and heavy brogues, I’m ashamed to admit the idea suddenly lost its appeal.

By the time I was 19 I had decided it was time to leave Disney. I agreed to star in a film with my father, based on a story written by my mother.

But I got a shock when I read the opening description of my character: ‘She is 16, curious, waif-like . . .’

Tragic Judy Garland inspired me to leave Disney  

I embarked on my final picture for Disney in 1965. It was called That Darn Cat! and marked the end of a huge chapter in my life.

Disney wanted to renew my contract but I felt torn. On the one hand, I was aching to spread my wings. 

But I was also frightened at the idea of leaving my surrogate family — which is what Disney had become.

That Darn Cat! began shooting that October. Around that time, I went to a Hollywood party full of glamorous people such as Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Tuesday Weld — and noticed a girl, about my age, standing uncertainly on the edge of the crowd. 

It was a very hot day, but she was wearing a pink woollen coat buttoned right up to her neck.

I caught her eye and she walked rather tentatively towards me. ‘Hi, I’m Francesca. My mum is Zsa Zsa Gabor.’ She gestured at an overdone-up woman holding a very grumpy little dog in her arms.

Francesca was a year younger than me. She looked ordinary, and in contrast to her preening mother she seemed very sweet.

‘Aren’t you a bit hot in that coat?’ I asked.

‘I don’t want to take it off because of my weight,’ she said. My heart went out to her — she must have been sweltering.

She told me her father was the hotel mogul Conrad Hilton, but said she never saw him. Basically, he’d disowned her.

Her mother had lots of boyfriends, who all tried to bribe Francesca with expensive presents in the hope she’d encourage her mum to marry them. 

But Zsa Zsa, who was nine times a bride, never stayed married to any of them for long.

When she was older, her father’s generosity extended only to getting her a job as a receptionist at one of his hotels. When he died, worth billions, he left her only $100,000.

Francesca was a Hollywood casualty. She ended up homeless, sleeping in her car, and died aged 67. 

Getting to know her made a deep impression on me. So did going to a show by Judy Garland, in which she had trouble remembering the lyrics to Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. 

When I went backstage to meet her afterwards, she seemed very frail, wired and damaged.

Like me, Judy had signed a long-term movie contract as a child of 13. But she had eventually become trapped by Hollywood and its many questionable values. 

Is that what I wanted? Did I want to risk becoming yet another casualty? Thanks to my encounters with Judy and Francesca, I realised I had to leave Disney.

Oh s**t! By no stretch of the imagination did I look ‘waif-like’. So I embarked on my latest crazy regime: nothing but hard-boiled eggs and white wine. I lost five pounds, then ate two Mars bars.

The only way I could see to deal with the problem was to throw up after every meal, which I proceeded to do with alarming regularity. With this hateful habit came all the feelings of failure, self-loathing and depression that inevitably follow.

I know now, of course, that the reason behind my bulimia was low self-esteem. Not being able to accept who I was; not feeling happy in my own skin. 

To this common problem, I added my own special layer of fear. It was more than just a desire to be thin (especially on camera). 

There was also the fear that I was growing up — which I felt no one wanted me to do. If I stayed small and thin and looked like a child, I thought, maybe people would be more prepared to accept me.

After all, they didn’t want the new chubby and introverted Hayley; they wanted the charming and appealing child star.

Before long I stopped having periods and the glands in my throat became infected. More than ever, I was convinced my success had been undeserved.

When The Beatles broke up in 1970, something clicked inside me; I immediately understood how they felt. They were trying to grow up, to live their own lives, to discover themselves as individuals.

I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to do the same.

I thought back to my date all those years earlier with George. After getting separated from him, I’d got a lift back with someone else to Richard Todd’s house, where I found him sitting in a big winged chair in front of a fire. Within minutes, the whole room was drawn to him.

I don’t think it was simply because he was a Beatle. George had a certain something, which not many people have: a mixture of great poise and composure, a sweetness and an ordinariness. 

He was unaffected, completely his own man, but there was also a certain reserve about him, too.

We stayed for quite a while. It was the early hours before we headed off and were once again closeted in that luxuriously upholstered Jaguar. 

The drive home was much more relaxed. We’d survived the evening and I think it had created a subtle bond.

On the way back, we passed a sign for Excel Bowling. He said: ‘Hey! Let’s go bowling, Hayley!’ And we both bellowed with laughter again, because it was impossible for him to do anything normal — not least because it was 3.30 in the morning.

For a long time afterwards, I remembered the conversations we had, and I’d cringe at all the asinine remarks I felt I’d made from sheer nerves. Yet my date with George was one of the high points of my troubled teens.

When we got back to my home, Daddy was still awake, waiting for his daughter to be returned. He answered the door and suggested we have scrambled eggs, so we all trooped down to the kitchen.

I’d never seen my father cook scrambled eggs before in my entire life. It was surreal. Then George suddenly leapt to his feet, saying he was sorry to rush off but Ringo was packing up their home and they were moving to another place together at 4.30 that morning — with a police escort.

I remember thinking what a terrible price The Beatles had to pay for their success.

Many years later, I bumped into George at Chelsea Flower Show, and we had a good laugh about our mad night together.

One of the thrills of his life, he confessed, was having scrambled eggs cooked for him by the actor John Mills at four o’clock in the morning.

Adapted by Corinna Honan from Forever Young by Hayley Mills, to be published on September 2 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20. © 2021 Hayley Mills. To order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Offer valid until August 28, p&p is free on orders over £20. 

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