George Martin smiles and tops up his glass of wine, the very picture of contentment. We're sitting in a pool of sunlight in the conservatory of his old stone house on a hilltop. You can see Oxfordshire from one window and Wiltshire from the other, and a gardener trundling by with a wheelbarrow. There's a salad and smoked salmon, and a loaf of bread he baked himself this morning. And a flood of memories that keep coming back, delivered with a mixture of fondness and a rather touching humility.
"I remember Burt Bacharach ringing me and saying, 'Look I've got this song from this Michael Caine movie that might work for Cilla Black called Alfie'. And as he was going to be over in London I said, 'Why don't you come and conduct the orchestra?' Poor old Cilla. We put these screens around her, thirty-piece orchestra, completely live, you couldn't make a mistake. She was absolutely petrified. She was only 22. But she had great guts and gradually got better and better. And Burt kept making her do more and more takes so inevitably she started doing down. And I said, 'Burt what are you looking for?' - all this over the intercom, everyone's listening, Cilla, the whole orchestra - and he said, 'that little bit of magic, George'. And I said, 'We've got it, Burt, in Take Three.' I played it back to him and he eventually agreed. And Cilla still tells this story now, very sweetly: how George Martin saved my life!"
Minutes later we're at a Frank Sinatra session for Come Fly With Me, George watching in the control-room "with Frank's date at the time, Lauren Bacall". He remembers Sinatra's explosive reaction when he saw the album cover - an aeroplane sporting a very prominent logo for Trans-World Airlines, indicating Capitol had done a deal with TWA but cut the singer out of it. Frank delivered some colourful Saxon phraseology that the 81-year-old George, ever the gentleman, conveys in a series of asterisks.
It's been some life. And continues to be so.
It was years later, when I looked back at the records that seemed so magical in my childhood, that I realised they had something in common: they were all produced by George Martin. There was Peter Ustinov's Mock Mozart with its ingenious multi-layered vocal gymnastics.
There were the Bernard Cribbins novelty records rammed with cartoon sound-effects of nails popping out of floorboards and legs being sawn off pianos. There were The Goons recordings, brilliant post-war comic invention from Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. And Sellers' glorious Balham - Gateway To The South, and Bangers And Mash where he played the homesick cockney to Sophia Loren's pasta-shovelling Italian wife. And Flanders And Swann, the music-hall duo he saw at a London arts theatre and returned the next night with a mobile studio to capture At The Drop Of A Hat.
There was Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey, the revolutionary Sun Arise by Rolf Harris, and big hits by Millicent Martin and Matt Monroe (one of which, perhaps unwittingly, was played at his funeral - Softly As I Leave You). And of course there was Beyond The Fringe, four university students George had seen at the Cambridge Footlights and transformed into international recording stars.
"Peter Cook was the funniest of the lot but he was so cruel! Someone asked him what his biggest regret was and he said, 'saving David Frost from drowning' - Frost had got into difficulties in a swimming-pool and Peter had dived in and pulled him out. I remember David ringing him once and saying, 'I'm having a dinner party with a few friends, would you like to come?' And Peter said 'when is it?' And David said 'the 26th, about three weeks' time'. And Peter wandered off to look in his diary and eventually returned to the phone. 'Sorry, old boy,' he said, 'I can't make it. I see that I'm watching telvision that night.' But Beyond The Fringe [Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller] were four enormously talented, quite different, people who worked in various combinations and who - together - were far greater than the sum of their parts. In many ways an echo of what came later."
What came later, of course, was The Beatles. There's a famous photograph of their first session at Abbey Road, in the autumn of '62, and you can just imagine the cultural divide that must have crackled between them - Martin the polite, well-spoken 36 year-old with a side-parting and a pressed white shirt who'd pioneered Parlophone's classical label. And four rough-diamond Scousers who'd spent the last six months playing riotous rhythm and blues to drunken sailors and girls with tattoos in the fug of a Hamburg basement.
"We took them out to this restaurant," George remembers, "and the waiter arrived with some mangetout peas. John Lennon took one look and said, 'Can you put that over there away from the food?' We were from very similar backgrounds actually but, because of my Southern Counties accent, they thought I was a bit of a toff. Ringo always used to say, (salutes sarcastically) 'I can see you in the cockpit of a Spitfire, Saaah!' But the reason they took to me was they were all big fans of The Goons."
Countless books and documentaries now explain the crucial contribution of "the fifth Beatle" in the eight short years they worked together. Martin's diplomacy and extraordinary depth of knowledge of both music and production meant he could help realise the wildest imaginings of these brilliant, self-taught composers - from the baroque trumpet on Penny Lane or the harpsichord (in fact a speeded-up piano) on In My Life, to the symphonies and sonic complexity of works like A Day In The Life and Revolution No 9.
But it's even more fascinating to hear his account of them as people, the bearded avuncular figures who've continued to stop by and see him in the 37 years since the group disbanded. Ringo Starr he describes as fit, happy and finally appreciative of his own achievements (when Martin told him how exceptional his drumming was after working on the recent Beatles remix album Love, Ringo responded 'I know!'). He grins at the glorious contradictions in the life of George Harrison (who died in 2001) - Harrison turned up once when Martin was recovering from an ear operation to place a health-giving statue of Ganesha the Hindu Elephant-God at his bedside. After parking his £660,000 scarlet McLaren F1 in the drive.
There's the same soft spot for the eccentricities of Paul McCartney. Every Christmas a priceless top-of-the range Fortnum & Mason hamper arrives at the Martin household, and every year they open it to discover all the meat and fish products have been carefully removed. "Those delicious pates," George smiles, "the smoked salmon, the turkey, the hams - all gone. Nothing much there apart from the cranberry sauce and a few biscuits. But that's Paul," he shrugs. "He is a militant vegetarian."
We wander through the passageways to a living-room crammed with devices for amusing small children (George and his second wife Judy have six grandchildren between them). There's a mountain of board games beneath the grand piano and a trampoline and tree-house out by the tennis court.
And in the hall there's a mirror framed with exquisite, hand-chiselled marquetry, a mosiac of symbols to celebrate every aspect of his life, a gift on the occasion of his knighthood in '96.
Some are indications of his passions - a yacht, a snooker frame, a grapevine. There's palm tree signifying the island of Montserrat where his charity recently finishing building a National Cultural Centre. There's the emblem of the Fleet Air Arm which he joined aged 17 in 1943, flying with a division of Fairy Swordfish but happily avoiding any action. Their aircraft-carrier, bound for Japan, was told it was surplus to requirements: an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. "I was so lucky. Do you remember that sketch that Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller did, The Officer and The Commander? 'The war's not going so well, Perkins. We need a futile gesture. I want you to take a Mozzie and a few bombs - not too many - and nip over to Berlin. And Perkins… don't come back."
At the bottom of the mirror is a coat of arms. A swift-like bird with a small wind instrument appears above three insects - "a Martin with a recorder and three 'beetles' - as ony three were alive at the time" - and below them the inscription Amore Solum Opus Est - "All You Need Is Love".
It's been an astonishing adventure. What do you miss about the past and what do you prefer about the present?
"Well I miss the fact that people don't listen to records anymore. They hear but they don't listen. That's why those comedy records I made like The Goons found an audience. I was the equivalent of radio on record. Now it's all visual. Everyone is addicted to television. And I miss letter-writing. People don't write letters any more. Yoko [Ono] sent me a beautiful cashmere scarf for Christmas and I wrote her a letter back thanking her and she was quite surprised. I think she was expecting an email.
"But there are so many things that are better. The advance of techonlogy and the internet. And I probably wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for modern medicine. I had a big operation in 2003 and the technique for that was only invented in the 1990s.
"My only regrets are that I've done some desperately stupid things with money. I was wrongly advised and signed away my royalties to the Beatles records - about half a penny per title but with The Beatles that would have been an enormous amount. But I've shrugged it off. People think I'm a multi-millionaire and I'm not. But I'm very happy. I've got all the money I need. And I wish my parents could have seen everything I'd achieved. My mother died when I was 22, and my father the year Sergeant Pepper came out so at least he saw some of it.
"But I tend to look at people and think 'are you a good human being?' That's what impresses me most, rather than what they've achieved. We're a bit short on people like that at the moment, who do good things and spread love for each other. We get an awful lot of people who are selfish. I think Margaret Thatcher started it, the greed thing, people just wanting more and more. And we've lost our morals to some extent. And the church has weakened. People don't believe in anything apart from money and success. I know it's easy for me to say as I've had some success, but I really believe family and love are more important than anything. Amore Solum Opus Est, indeed! "
This article was first published in the June 2007 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.