It sounds like something out a fairytale: a Liverpool teenager, working as a secretary, is invited one lunch time to a tiny basement club called The Cavern.
When she enters the smoky, poorly-lit interior a band is playing on a tiny stage – The Beatles. She'd never heard of them.
The teenager is transfixed. She returns to The Cavern again and again to see the band. By her estimate she sees The Beatles about 200 times. Next, she gets involved in the band's fan club as a volunteer. Months later The Beatles, largely unknown outside Liverpool, hire Brian Epstein as their manager. Epstein is in need of a secretary. Aware that the fan club volunteer works as a secretary, he offers her the job.
She accepts. It's 1962, she's now 17 and will be The Beatles' secretary and also run their fan club right through until the band breaks up in 1970.
This is what happened to Freda Kelly. While there were some news reports at the time about her job being the envy of any 60s teen, few people today know about her. This is because Kelly, who continues to work as a secretary, has largely kept quiet, even to friends, and never capitalised on what she did.
It would likely have remained that way if it wasn't for a stroke of luck involving American film-makers that resulted in the feature documentary Good Ol' Freda.
The film's co-writer and producer Jessica Lawson, born 11 years after The Beatles broke up, says it all came down to director Ryan White's Liverpool links. His uncle, Billy Kinsley, is a Liverpudlian and has known Kelly for years. White had gone back and forth to Liverpool and had met Kelly at social functions, but didn't know her background.
"He always really liked her and knew she was charming and worked as a secretary, but had no idea about her past because she really is that private. She closed that chapter of her life," says Lawson.
Kelly, says Lawson, decided to tell her story after the birth of her grandson, who is now aged 3. Her daughter pointed out that one day that grandson would want to know about his grandmother and The Beatles.
Kelly asked White to make the film because she already knew the American and trusted him. Lawson, who had worked with White on his previous documentary, got involved and found herself having a larger role.
"We were very lucky film-makers in that she chose us really, and it has been a really great experience, even though she still wonders what all the fuss is about," says Lawson.
Much of the film rests on interviews with Kelly, but there are also interviews with her surviving contemporaries, including The Beatles' press officer Tony Barrow and Paul McCartney's stepmother, Angie McCartney. Good Ol' Freda also relies on archival footage and photographs from the time, including brief film of The Beatles, pre Ringo Starr, playing at The Cavern.
"We just tried to find what we could. We did a lot of archival research and luckily there is a lot of articles, footage and photos – there are 650 photos in the film," Lawson says.
As the documentary shows, in many ways Kelly was much more than a secretary. She also worked on the monthly fan magazine The Beatles Book, hung with each of the individual Beatles – she had a crush on each, but says she didn't date any of them – and got to know their families.
McCartney's father taught her to dance and she became very close to Elsie Starkey, Starr's mother. Kelly can also be seen in several scenes in The Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour.
Good Ol' Freda – the title is taken from a 1963 Beatles Christmas single where the Fab Four thank her – also had the blessing of the surviving Beatles, McCartney and Starr. The Beatles rarely give permission for their recorded songs to be played in films or television dramas, but White and Lawson were stunned when they were given permission to use four recordings of Beatles songs of their choosing.
One of the many things that comes across in the documentary is Kelly's warmth, sincerity and her genuine sadness about the deaths of many of the participants in her story.
She also has something that seems so old fashioned today – a respect for privacy and not wanting to detail every aspect of her existence.
Good Ol' Freda is screening now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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