Sir Paul McCartney: Ordinary yet extraordinary

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

Image caption,
Ocean's Kingdom tells the story of an underwater romance

The New York City Ballet's (NYCB) home in the Lincoln Centre on New York's Upper West Side is one of the most majestic theatre spaces I have ever set foot in.

Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1964, to the specification of George Balanchine, the ballet company's inspirational founder, it is a near-perfect example of Manhattan's knack for mixing modernism and art deco to stunning effect.

I am sitting in the theatre's vast first-floor reception area with Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief of the NYCB.

He is the man responsible for commissioning Sir Paul McCartney to write a new ballet for his revered dance company, about which I am interviewing him and ballet in general. The cameras are rolling.

Martins is midway through making an impassioned point explaining why - as Jennifer Homans asserted in her recent book Apollo's Angels - ballet is not dead.

He argues that it is, in fact, thriving due to a commitment to take risks such as collaborating with ballet novices like McCartney.

I'm nodding away and thinking that this will make a good clip for my Review Show piece, when some bloke starts flapping his arms about behind Peter Martins' head before gliding across the shot in mock ballet dancer fashion and ruining the whole thing. Tsch.

Half an hour later...

Stella McCartney has agreed to give me a quick interview for the News at Ten before going backstage to help dress the dancers in the costumes she has designed for them to wear in her dad's new ballet.

She is in full flow and being insightful and open about working with her father for the first time.

Media caption,
BBC arts editor Will Gompertz spots Paul McCartney doing a star jump while he was interviewing master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins

It's good stuff - until it gets ruined by the same joker who sabotaged the Peter Martins interview.

This time he walks into shot, holding his hand and faking pain before revealing, with much glee, a bright red light attached to the end of his thumb.

Stella smiles sweetly. I smile, and the prankster chuckles as he disappears down the corridor quipping merrily away.

To be frank, all this mucking about is not great preparation for my next interview. It is with Sir Paul McCartney, the 69-year-old living legend, and now composer and librettist of his first ballet, Ocean's Kingdom, which opened on Thursday night. (You can watch the interview here.)

Still, I am confident that the jolly saboteur won't hove uninvited into view once again and wreck that particular interview. How could he? He is the interviewee.

Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. McCartney fits into the last category.

Which is not to disparage him or his remarkable achievements, but simply to say that after observing him at work and talking to him afterwards, he is not a man who wants to exude greatness - he wears the accolade because he has no choice.

I suspect in his own eyes he is an ordinary man to whom an extraordinary thing happened.

Global success

He certainly wasn't born into greatness, nor did he have enough time to labour away attempting to achieve greatness before it was thrust upon him shortly after he took up shaving.

When he speaks about being in the Beatles, he does so in such a way as to make it sound like something over which he had little control or influence.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Fashion designer Stella is succesful in her own right

He says he was "very happy and privileged to have been there", as if he was the recipient of a lucky invite as opposed to one of the driving forces behind the band's success.

He presents himself more as one of the lads. He reminisces about how all the pop groups back in the day would play short riffs to one another and exchange ideas. Which I am sure is entirely true, except there are the Beatles, who stormed the world, and then there are the others who didn't.

And yet, listening to him talk, he seems to genuinely think there wasn't a lot of difference between his band and all the others.

It's not false modesty - he knows what he has done and is rightfully proud of it - but an unease about appearing false, being seen as a big-time Charlie, when he is just plain Paul.

Everything about his persona shouts, "I am a normal bloke".

He wears the same jeans, shirt and trainers combo that you'd see down the pub or on the terraces. "Peters" become "Petes", "hellos" are "all right, mate", and a never-ending supply of bonhomie is on tap to put people at their ease.

But however normal McCartney might be, his life is not.

It is not normal - not even for the vast majority of other successful musicians - to get asked to write a ballet for one of the world's most revered dance companies, having never written one before, or shown any real interest in the art form.

It is not normal to receive hundred of requests every week, from across the globe, asking for interviews or comments or endorsements.

It is not normal to start out on a career and find you have reached an unrepeatable peak within the first few years.

New challenges

Most other composers and writers have the benefit and motivation of hoping they still have the possibility of topping what they have previously achieved.

McCartney readily concedes that he has to be "realistic" in such a regard - it ain't going to happen.

Which must be a strange feeling - knowing your best years are way behind you, when you still have the ambition, appetite and energy to want to push on, try something new.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The "Fab Four", as they became known, are the best-selling band of all time

He is sanguine about the situation: "I could have said I've been in the Beatles and that's it. It's about as good as it's going to get. But then it's like 'what are you going to do now', get out of music and do something else? But that didn't appeal to me and I've been lucky enough to be asked to projects like this [Ocean's Kingdom for NYCB]."

He must ask himself why he has been invited to compose for such an illustrious dance company - to follow giants like Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and John Adams in writing a new piece for the NYCB.

Is it because of his previous forays into classical music, or because he is an ex-Beatle?

Maybe it is the latter in the knowledge of the former? It is unlikely the Beatle connection played no part in the decision.

But if you're going to carry a weight, being an ex-Beatle is not a bad one to lug around, especially if your temperament is geared towards an informal jocularity.

I asked him about joke-shop thumb. "Oh," he said, "I always have a few things in my pocket to amuse the grandchildren."

I should imagine that they think he's great.