[25 September 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You think you know people. Sure, everyone has secrets, but sometimes, the truth - and how it’s revealed - ends up warranting a great deal of brave backwards glancing and inquiry. For those who knew her (and know her now) Freda Kelly was and always has been a relatively private person. She never sought the limelight nor has anything she’s done determine a need for same, at least in her mind. And yet, outside of being your typical working ‘gal,’ the 67-year-old Liverpool native had a ‘clandestine’ past. When she was young, she held one of the most coveted positions in the history of music. From 1963 until 1972, she was the Beatles’ secretary. Yes, you read that right - as a teenager, the group’s manager Brian Epstein hired her to be the Fab Four’s Fan Club liaison, working with the boys and their growing legion of admirers to address everything from simple everyday requests to grander, more culturally important issues.
She was there at the beginning and she was there at the end, but up until last year, no one knew about her celebrated association with what is arguably the most popular and influential rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Even family friend Ryan White didn’t know about her singular status, and he knew “good ol’ Freda” well. Then one day, his uncle, a musician named Billy Kinsley who played alongside The Beatles during their Cavern Club days (he was a member of the Merseybeats), told his nephew about Kelly’s past. Oddly enough, at about the same time, she had been thinking about telling her story to the world as well. White, a filmmaker, decided to ask Kelly is she was willing to discuss her time with The Beatles on camera. Together, they spent nearly 50-plus hours talking the era, the lads, and the lasting impact of her 10 years in their service.
The result is the fascinating documentary Good Ol’ Freda, a wonderful window into the initial stages of Beatlemania and how the band members - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, as well as their families - dealt with the sudden onslaught of fame. Speaking with PopMatters upon the release of this delightful film, both White and Kelly seemed genuinely surprised to part of this new media maelstrom. “I don’t understand it at all,” the friendly, down to earth grandmother said when discussing the ‘mystique’ surrounding her and her work with the Beatles, “It’s all a bit mad.” Indeed for decades, Kelly refused to discuss her tenure with the band. “It was a different time. I went on to different things. I didn’t want to do or say anything about it.” In fact, as the film points out, Kelly gave almost all her memorabilia away back in the mid ‘70s, figuring the fans should have it, not her and barely anyone knew what she did from the ages of 17 to 27.
For his part, White couldn’t believe his luck. “When we talked,” he said, “she made it very clear that she wasn’t going to discuss specific things.” In fact, Kelly made it abundantly clear that she was not going to “dish the dirt” or speak on controversial or highly personal subjects. “Still,” White clarified, “what she had to say could fill volumes. There was just so much there.” Yet, for her part, there was never a desire to write some kind of tell-all book. “There are too many of them out there,” Kelly sighed. “And there is so much that’s not true. That’s just gossip or exaggeration.” Instead, she realized that most everyone who knew her - including a grown daughter and several close friends - had no idea about her own personal past. “I did this for my grandson,” she said. “I wanted him to know who his grandmother was and what she did all those years ago.”
Eventually, White settled on a simple strategy. “I wanted to tell HER story, and the Beatles part in it,” he said. “This is not a documentary on the band.” While he understood that the celebrated combo would be the draw, he also wanted to keep within his subjects restrictions. “Besides,” he added, “Freda is fascinating on her own,” and the director is right. Throughout the film, Kelly’s blasé, almost nonchalant recalling of her days with the most important musical act of the 20th century is infectious. For her, it was a job, and a hard one at that. While it was also fun, it required a great deal of dedication. During the film, she recalls taking home bags of mail from the office, all to make sure that every fan letter was addressed. She also remembers “stalking” the band, so to speak, finding the odd moment here or there to have them sign a photo, snap a picture, or respond to a direct request. “I even rang round their house to get things done,” she offered.
But the most fascinating aspect of Good Ol’ Freda is the stories about her interaction with and lasting link to the Beatles’ families. “It all started with Richard (Ringo),” she said. “His mum didn’t know how to handle the fan mail and reaction and he asked me if I would drop around and help her out.” Thus began a heartwarming relationship which saw Kelly broaden her influence to assist John’s Aunt Mimi (“a very strict person”), the delightful and down to Earth Starkeys, the sensible, salt of the Earth Harrisons (“lovely people”) and Paul’s relative rogue of a stepfather. “I remember, they all introduced me to things I had never experienced before. Wines. Foods. Night life. It was wonderful.” In fact, it’s safe to say that as much as Kelly aided the Beatles, she supported their relatives with equal aplomb - and they her.
She really didn’t mind. “We all grew up together, ” she states, “and we felt like we were in it together.” Indeed, Kelly was younger than most of the band when she was hired by manager Brian Epstein (who she refers to throughout as “Eppie”) and she felt an instant connection with the guys. She was also a fan (“the biggest!!!”) and she could relate to the frustrations they felt, as well as those from everyone on the outside looking in. “I was dedicated to them,” Kelly adds. “We all wanted them to succeed.” But with success came complications, including an eventual need to leave Liverpool. This made a mid-career decision to move all operations to London all the more difficult. As we see in the film, Kelly’s father had become ill just as Epstein and the band decided to reestablish their headquarters in the UK capital. Unable to leave his side, she tendered her resignation. To her surprise, Epstein refused it and instead of joining everyone else in the city, he allowed her to stay back in Liverpool, even offering her his old offices for her own.
Elsewhere, Kelly walks us through the band’s origins, their commercial breakthrough, their trip to America, their various relationships (as well as the unwritten rule about not discussing John’s “marriage”) and the eventual acrimony and break-up. She does so in a calm, considered manner, as if she understands the weight of everything she is saying and how it will affect the future Beatles’ mythology narrative and her place in it. For his part, White also understood the scope of what he had and the limitations. “We had bloody battles over what to leave in and what to take out,” he laughs, though the truth is a bit more daunting. With hours of footage to manage, the director determined that a chronological approach, well organized and focusing only on those stories that seemed to take shape, was warranted.
The result may disappoint fans of the Fab Four looking for some lost insight, hidden meaning, or another piece of post-‘60s superstar sleaze, but Good Ol’ Freda is not that film. In fact, one could easily call it one woman’s story about working alongside the most famous rock band in the world, that’s all. Kelly barely discusses the music, doesn’t lock onto the iconic media moments in the band’s career, and hardly touches on their various personalities and personal idiosyncrasies. Instead, she paints a telling portrait of four young men suddenly handed the entire world, and all of them learning to cope with what that entails. There’s no animosity, no debates over the importance of one member over another. Kelly confines her discussion to her time and what she saw. She’s more interested in the day when George sheepishly stopped by to sign a few things, the pair shared a cup of tea, than she is discussing any rumored romantic involvement with the guys (her practiced answer? “No comment,” with a giggle).
For his part, White knows he’s not making some definitive historic statement. “This is a niche film,” he says, arguing that it’s just a mere segment of the ongoing narrative involving the Beatles. “In fact, I would call this Almost Almost Famous,” he adds, referencing Cameron Crowe’s semi-autographical film about a young man joining a burgeoning rock band as a junior reporter for Rolling Stone. In Kelly’s case, however, there was never a feeling of being subservient or inferior. “There was a real feeling of ‘us vs. the world,’” she said. “These were our guys, and I was going to protect them.” In fact, it was that mothering instinct which kept her quiet all these years. “It was my life too,” she states. “I didn’t feel like opening up my past to people for the sake of some story. It’s not their business”
Yet after losing her son years before, the passage of time helped Kelly change her tune. “I just saw my little grandson running around one day and I thought, ‘I need him to know.’” White agreed. “Once I heard what she had to say, I felt, ‘this is a really compelling story.’ One we haven’t heard before.” In fact, toward the end of the film, when Kelly is leaving her desk and closing up for the day, there’s a melancholy sense that, by telling her tale, the formerly silent player in The Beatles legacy has lost a bit of herself. Indeed, when no one knew who she was, Freda Kelly was her own woman. She had a secret and it was safe. Now, by opening up, she’s become part of the growing mythology revolving around this musical juggernaut, and now belongs to the fans, and to the film about her life.
That doesn’t bother her, though. “I’m still the same Freda,” she says, and the film is an accurate reflection of that. Many in her position would have long since cashed in, taking the remaining memorabilia she still owns (photos, autographs, a complete collection of Fan Club newsletters and literature) and auctioning it off to the highest bidder. But that’s not Freda Kelly. Instead, the movie makes it very clear that, if it wasn’t for her own desire to be heard, no one would have discovered who she was. In the movie, her own daughter sits, gobsmacked, discussing the reveal of her mother’sd past. “We didn’t know,” she argues. Now, thanks to Ryan White and Good Ol’ Freda, we all do… and what a charming and cheery story it is.