After 50 years of albums, greatest hit compilations, interviews, one-hour specials, commemorative books, a video game, a musical, a Cirque du Soleil incarnation, five documentaries, 10 promotional films and over a dozen fictionalized films, it’s hard to say anything about the Beatles that hasn’t been said before—for all intents and purposes, the Fab Four well has run dry. Or so we thought.
In what must surely be one of the last spasms of Beatlemania, director Ryan White has successfully managed to tell a story about the band that’s never been heard before—that of their faithful secretary, Freda Kelly. Kelly, nicknamed jovially “Good Ol’ Freda,” was all of 17 years old when she landed the job of her dreams. It was a post she would hold until the band gloriously dissolved, 11 years later. An intensely private person, Kelly largely kept her experience—and the things she saw during her time with the Beatles—to herself for four decades, never revealing her enviable past to friends, coworkers, or even family members. It’s a feat impossible to imagine in our age of perpetual overshare.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, I spoke with Kelly and Ryan in New York. Kelly was kind but reserved, and like a true administrative professional, reticent to reveal any incriminating information. I took the conversation as an opportunity to debunk three of the greatest Beatles conspiracy theories. Kelly seemed only slightly amused.
Ryan, how’d you first hear about Freda’s story? My uncle is Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats, so I grew up going back and forth to Liverpool my whole life, and Freda’s a good friend of his. So I’ve known Freda for quite some time. But she really is very private, and I didn’t know she was the Beatles’ secretary—it just never came up. But Kathy, our producer, and Freda discussed the idea of whether they wanted to do this and they approached me a few years ago.
You describe her as a “steel trap” of information. As a documentary filmmaker, is it hard to work with a subject like that? She is a steel trap. There are certain places you don’t go with her and there’s no point to even trying. You can try right now—I’ll watch you struggle. She’d never told these stories in 40 years so she had to reach a comfort level. She’s in control; she’ll go certain places and won’t go certain places. And I don’t want to go places she doesn’t want to go. We had a conversation before we even began shooting where Freda said, “You know, I’m not going to talk about drugs and all that stuff. It’s been well-told and most of it is exaggerated or else untruths, and I’m not going to acknowledge it or respond to it in this film.” And I said, I’m not interested in making a film that involves those types of things. I’d rather tell a personal story.
Freda, why did you decide to tell this story after 40 years? I had no intention of telling it at all until my grandson came long. That gave me a final push to do something, because I wanted him to know what I’d done in my youth. My son was only a baby and my daughter wasn’t born when I was doing it, and I didn’t really speak about it much.
Didn’t you play Beatles tracks for them when they were growing up? Not really. My son listened to it a little bit, but he was more into modern stuff. When I left I didn’t listen to it because I was into new stuff. I was listening to Steely Dan, and the Eagles, and Average White Band. I’d play Beatles in the car, on my own, but not in the house. Now I’m listening to Michael Bublé, the Killers, Snow Patrol, a Liverpool group called the Zutons—that was the last CD I bought. Amy Winehouse. And I love Coldplay.
In all your years of responding to fan mail, what was the craziest request? In the beginning it was just autographs, and then it was hair, and then it was pieces of clothing, and then it was nail cuttings (which they didn’t get). And then they sent things in. The weirdest thing was a live spider, a big one. I have no idea why. I can’t even remember the letter, I just remember opening the box and seeing this big brown thing move. We have the Tropical School of Medicine in Liverpool, and it went straight there. No offense to some of the fans, but I was never a lunatic fan. I was quite reserved.
How do you follow up a gig as the secretary to the Beatles? For four and a half years I stayed home and brought my daughter up. I also answered fan mail that was left. That took me about three years because there were still sacks of mail after I left. I couldn’t leave it in the office so I brought it all home and I gradually answered them. Three one night; five on a Saturday. I did get through it all.
You answered every piece of mail? We found a few bits in the loft. I have six letters left from late 1972 on the postmark.
Now, despite the fact that few bands have been as well documented as the Beatles, there remain some persistent and fantastic conspiracy theories about the band. Do you want to dispel some of them right here? Well, give me one. Try me.
The most famous one of course is the “Paul Is Dead” theory, which suggests that Paul McCartney died in his Aston Martin one night in 1966 and that he was replaced by a look-alike named William Campbell who’s been impersonating McCartney ever since. They say that the cover of Abbey Road is a depiction of a funeral procession with John in white as the priest, Ringo in black as the undertaker, George in denim as the gravedigger and McCartney, shoeless, as the corpse. Can you attest that the Paul McCartney we know today is the very same Paul McCartney who first launched the Beatles? [Laughs] It’s the same Paul—come on! But it was a nightmare with the phones when that was going on. I was ringing his dad and people were banging on his door and it was like, How do we convince these kids that this is just a wind-up created by some lunatic? Eventually it got through. Trying to convince some of them, you just gave up, you just let them believe it. Lucky enough, whoever started it didn’t convince me. I didn’t fall for it. I’d seen him the night before [the alleged accident]. I was like, Hello? When did they bury him?
Alright, well there’s another theory that the Beatles were prophesying racial warfare—that “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was a call to bear arms in the looming revolution. And in fact, Charles Manson was heavily inspired by the Beatles and the messages the apocalyptic message of their album and motivated to commit killings. [Rolls her eyes] Oh, come on.
OK, well what about the theory that the Beatles had made a pact with the devil and dedicated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to occultist Alistair Crowley? [Groans] I’ve never even heard of that one.
You’re trying to tell me that there isn’t anything crazy about the Beatles at all? There isn’t anything crazy…sorry!