Penny Lane: thoughts in the barbers

Penny Lane – there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello…

I was having a trim today in the Penny Lane barber shop and I thought my hair would have grown another inch before the cut was finished.  Not a complaint: the reason was that the place was invaded by tourists, including a Japanese couple, keen to step inside the famous barber’s, take photos and buy memorabilia.  So the hairdresser had to keep breaking off from my trim.  When the rush had subsided we got to chatting about the sorry state of the old bus shelter in the middle of the roundabout and the strange failure of the authorities to capitalise on tourists’ interest in the Penny Lane area. Amazingly, she said that when she had phoned the City Council to raise these issues, the newly-appointed tourism officer had asked where Penny Lane was!

We both agreed that signs and plaques could be placed in the vicinity to identify the main points of interest from the Beatles’ song for tourists.  But the main problem is the sorry state of the former bus shelter which presents a very poor impression to visitors.

Penny Lane – the barber shaves another customer
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim
Then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain…
Very strange

When Lennon and McCartney lived locally, Penny Lane was the terminus for trams and buses from the city.  In the video for the ‘Penny Lane’ single, released in 1967, there are shots of the old green rear platform number 46 bus with its destination sign that reads ‘Penny Lane’ (although, in reality, the destination is Smithdown Place – but no-one ever calls it that).  Originally the building was used as a tram stop and inspectors’ office, with public toilets added to the rear of the building.  When the building closed as a transport facility in 1990, it was redeveloped as Sgt Peppers cafe, decorated with Beatles photographs, artwork, posters and memorabilia.  In 2006 owner Ray Maatook closed it, saying the limited size of the premises made it uneconomic to operate as a going concern; in addition, the Beatles tours that passed by didn’t stop there because there was nowhere for coaches to park.

A year later Maatook put in a planning application to extend the cafe by adding an upper floor to the former tram stop, and increase the floor space to attract more diners and visitors on the Beatles trail.  The Council rejected the proposal, arguing that an upper extension on what was built as a single storey structure could create a feature out of keeping with the street-scene around Penny Lane.

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway…

So the building has been standing empty and increasingly forlon-looking for four years now.  There were hopeful signs last June when the Daily Post reported on Council plans to create a Penny Lane Beatles quarter to revitalise the area the area.  Specially-made signs would be put up along the two-mile route giving information about the quarter, and there was talk of  a more cafe-orientated district, with widened walkways and a major facelift to an area of derelict land on Penny Lane itself.

The Post reported that the Penny Lane Development Trust had secured £760,000 of Big Lottery funding to refurbish a run-down and disused building on the site,which would feature local art and provide access for coaches visiting Penny Lane.  There were plans for a gift shop and a Beatles museum to bring more music tourists to the area. Meanwhile, Ray Maatook had submitted revised plans for the extension to the building which would be less obtrusive. I wonder whether any of these ideas will come to fruition?

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar
The little children laugh at him behind his back
And the banker never wears a mac
In the pouring rain…
Very strange

Ray Johnson, a manager for Magical Mystery Tour, said last year: ‘Penny Lane is a very ordinary part of Liverpool, but also very important, as it was part of the Beatles’ early career. This is where they got their inspiration to write songs.  It’s changed now, of course – the barber’s is now a modern salon and Martin’s bank became TSB.  It’s one of the most iconic streets in the whole world and every year tourists see a sign, and that’s it.’

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.
He likes to keep his fire engine clean
It’s a clean machine

The fire station isn’t actually on Penny Lane  – or Smithdown Place – but over a mile away at the junction of Mather Avenue and Rose Lane.  A little bit of artistic licence there by Paul McCartney. More artistic licence was shown by the Beatles when they filmed the promo video for ‘Penny Lane’:  although there are some shots of the green 46 bus and a brief overhead view of the ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout’, the street scenes with the Beatles were filmed in  London’s East End and the sequence of John walking alone was filmed on the King’s Road.  The other outdoor scenes were filmed at Knole Park in Sevenoaks.

Bioletti’s barber shop as it was in 1971 – see the comment from Dave Robertson below.  In The Beatles Anthology, Paul says:

‘The  lyrics were all based on real things.  There was a barber called something like Biletti (I think he’s actually still therein Penny Lane) who, like all barbers, had pictures of the haircuts you could choose.  But instead of saying ‘The barber with pictures of haircuts in his windows’ it was changed to: ‘Every head he’s had the pleasure to have known’.  A barber showing photographs – like an exhibition.  It was twisting it to a slightly more artsy angle, more like a play.  Like the nurse who’s selling poppies from a tray for Remembrannce Day.  Then ‘she feels as if she’s in a play’ – which ‘she is anyway’.  These were all trippy little ideas we were trying to get in.

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places.  Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends.  It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well.  I sang in the choir at St. Barnabas Church opposite.  It’s part fact, part nostalgia for a great place – blue suburban skies, as we remember it, and it’s still there.  ‘


20 thoughts on “Penny Lane: thoughts in the barbers

  1. The original barber’s shop was owned and run by Mr. Bioletti. The name is clearly visible on the shop sign in photographs of the period (1970s).

    My one personal connection with Mr Bioletti is that I spent a year, 1970-71, working as a library assistant in Picton Reference Library. One of the senior librarians, a very nice bloke, was Mr Bioletti’s brother.

    I used to get quite starstruck whenever our paths crossed – to be in the presence of the brother of the barber immortalised in ‘Penny Lane’. Just awesome!

    And it’s still a fabulous song

  2. Oh, thanks for that, Dave. It rang a bell in my memory and as you’ll see I found the reference in The Beatles Anthology and an old photo that confirms your story.

  3. This response from Jan Clein, Arundel ward councillor;

    Maatook’s application (to add an extra storey) was approved in September 2009. There was only one objection (from me as it is just outside our Ward boundary & associated parking would be in the side streets in our Ward):

    Response to Consultations – Councillors
    A letter of objection has been received by Councillor Jan Clein stating that:
    (i) it will spoil the character and its associations with the area;
    (ii) there are already too many A3 uses in the area and expanding this one will exacerbate
    the problem;
    (iii) there is no parking associated with the premises and as it is basically on a traffic
    island, it

    Proposal – To erect first floor extension to existing vacant bar/restaurant and former public conveniences at ground floor and use building as extended as a bar/restaurant
    Decision – Approve with Conditions 02-09-2009

    See also

    “Sgt. Pepper’s Bistro, immortalised by the 1967 Beatles hit ‘Strawberry Fields’, is to be revived to become the heart of Liverpool’s proposed Beatles district after Ray Maatook had his application for planning permission approved. He has been granted permission to add a first floor extension to the building, which used to be an old tram ticket office.

    Initial plans for the extension located at Smithdown Place, Allerton, were put on hold for four years as worries were voiced about obscuring nearby St Barnabas Church, taking away from the authentic charm of the area. But the new, re-thought extension will be made to have ‘lightness and transparency that will not obscure the church’, says Steve Chapman, a spokesperson for Maatook.

    The only objection the refurbishment this time around was from Greenbank councillor Jan Clein, who stated that giving the plan the go ahead would “spoil the character and its associations with the area”, and that “there are already too many such uses in the area, and expanding this one will exacerbate the problem”. The objection comes around the same time as Town Hall chiefs are thinking of putting plans in place to reject any new applications for bar and restaurant licenses from the Allerton Road and Lark Lane area.

    The bistro will be opening from around 8am in order to serve breakfast to the local community, and the redevelopers would like to have an outdoor seating area arranged.”

    Ray Maatook really doesn’t have any excuse now for it to left in this state.


  4. Gerry…

    enjoyed the Penny Lane piece…..typical of Liverpool…where’s Penny Lane’ ? Probably some 23yo graduate from Tunbridge Wells employed at great expense by Liverpool’s tourisim agency!
    I lived around the corner from Penny Lane..Greenbank Lane but have lived in N Wales for over 30 years. It was great seeing the shots of my old stomping ground.The football field I played on when I was at Dovedale Road school.Dovedale Towers…where I had my wedding reception. The bank where my mate Will worked etc etc.
    Fantastic blog…a cut above.
    You might like the mountain/environmental blogazine I put out

    thanks for posting and I look forward to delving into your archives!


  5. I seem to recall visiting the area at the top of Penny Lane in the late 80s and there being a bromze statue of the nurse selling poppies. I was in the area last week and looked around for this but no trace. Did I imagine this ?!

    1. I don’t recall there ever being such a statue – though I could have overlooked it. A quick Google found no references to a Penny Lane statue either. Imagine there’s a statue, it’s easy if you try…

  6. The barber was my uncle Harry and I use to live on the second floor above the shop. I still live in the area and can not remember any statue.

    1. It’s still a busy place, what with people like me getting their hair cut while (mainly) Japanese and American tourists hover in the doorway and take photos. There is no statue!

    2. Gordon, I used to be at school (Liverpool Institute) with Steve Bioletti, and often over the years wonder what happened to him. I went to art college and then moved out of the Pool for London. Do you happen to know what Steve did, or where he is now ?
      Paul T.

  7. I had my haircuts there for ‘a tanner’, from ’47 onward when most of the world [bounded by Garston, ‘Downtown’ and Picton Road baths (“Don’t ferget yer cozzie, lar!”)] had a ‘short back and sides’. It never struck me (at 6 years of age) as incongruent that we had just fought a war with a countryfull of gents called Bioletti and similar and here we had one of our own, ‘a la Arthur Askey, “before your very eyes”, as lt were.’Years later, I went to the varsity downtown and there was a barber who wouldn’t give a male customer anything else, ‘anything else’ being decadent. HMMNN. Lovely to see the reflexions though; as for the tourist officer, what a sad state of affairs!

  8. We moved back to Merseyside (Halewood) in 2009 (best thing we ever did) and I still get a thrill passing all the historic Beatles places while Im on the bus into town. The only barber I use is Tony Slavins, firstly for the obvious reason, plus the girls are down to earth. Knowing that while I’m walking around pubs in Woolton and Allerton I am quite literally walking in John and Pauls footsteps sends chills up me, but good chills. Also George lived in Macketts Lane (on the Halewood side) which is our claim to Beatle fame.

    Hope the new bistro takes off and is a success.

  9. I am in the middle of painting Penny Lane. It has the old bank, Biolettis Barber shop, the banker with his motor car (a Morris Traveller) the fireman and his clean Dennis machine as well, in fact all of the lyrics are in the painting with the Beatles dressed in their Sgt Pepper uniforms and loads of other bits and pieces to portray those wonderful lyrics. If you are interested, I can send you a photo of it, you can tell me what you think! You can see the work in progress on my Facebook page Rosie Harper Artist.

  10. Thanks Gerry
    There was an attempt to usurp Biolettis by another barber who set up shop in Penny Lane itself – luckily he fooled no one.
    I remember Old Man Bioletti with less fondness than the others on here – he was hired by the Bluecoat to shave the heads of 150 boarders over 2 nights once a term during the early 60s. If you managed to bribe the prefect on Haircut Duty and were caught out, you would be sent down the following day and Harry took his revenge!

  11. I used to get my coif from Mr. Bioletti in ’46, ‘ 47 & ’48; 6d a shot it was, the “d” being from the old “£ s d”, pounds, shillings and pence whereof there were 240 to a quid. But I write to mention that I’m sure I remember a fire station right there, down a bit from Bioletti’s. In fact, I had assumed they kept it as before on tourist rather than efficacy grounds. I can’t “nip across” any more, stuck here in Caracas but, does anyone recollect that fire station?

  12. My name is Simon Bioletti and I live in Auckland NZ. My grandfather, another Harry, immigrated here in 1900. He was the brother of Leslie (Les) , Harry the barbers father. Les was a barber as was his father who had hair cutting businesses in Bold st and Upper Warwick St. The barber thing lasted five generations starting with Alberto Bioletti an Italian soldier in the Napoleonic wars who was taken prisoner by the British and lived in Wincanton Somerset for 50 years from about 1810 to 1860. Google his name if you want to read an amazing story of survival. I had to wait till my 60’s to pay the Penny Lane Barbers a visit but it was a big thrill.The kiwi Biolettis are pretty proud of the Beatles connection.

    1. Thanks so much, Simon, for this insight into the ancestry of the Penny Lane barber’s. I doubt many Liverpudlians would know that it all started with a 19th century Italian POW who settled in Liverpool and built a successful business.

  13. I remember Bioletti’s. I was taken there by my Dad every couple of weeks for my short back & sides in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Dad – Stan Lunt – was one of customers who had his photo on the wall. They used to put a wood plank across the barbers chair armrests for kids. I felt really grown-up when I was allowed to sit in the chair without the plank. Old man Bioletti – with his floppy bow tie – used to stagger down about 10ish – and use hand clippers – painfully nipping my skin in the process. I can almost feel his trembling hand on the top of my head as I type this.

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