Some amazing archival footage aside, there isn’t much more to Good Ol’ Freda than a rather endearing interview with a Liverpudlian grandmother. The subject? The work she once did for her old friends John, Paul, George, and some guy called Richie. “She can’t break the habit,” filmmaker Ryan White tells the Straight in a call from Los Angeles. “At the Q & As she always has to remember to tell the audience that she’s talking about Ringo.”
That, in a nutshell, is how close Freda Kelly was to the Fab Four. A regular at the Cavern Club, which she recalls in the kind of incidental detail that’s giving seizures of joy to Beatles junkies, Kelly was only 17 when the band hired her to act as its secretary. She has steadfastly refused to talk about her experiences ever since. White himself was acquainted with Kelly through his uncle, Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats, and his own aunt even worked for Freda in the fan club, but he had no idea that she enjoyed membership in history’s coolest inner circle. After she turned to White to help tell her story—Kelly’s sole motivation was to leave a record for her grandson—he wondered if she had anything new to add.
“I just assumed that the market was completely saturated already and every story’s been told,” he says. Further, he wondered, “Was her role really that important?” White knew he had a great film once she started to talk, and not just because her role really was that important. An adorable character in her own right, Kelly is also a precious link to the proud postwar community that produced the band. As Beatles press officer Tony Barrow puts it, she’s defined by her “absolute integrity”.
“I do think it’s characteristic of the time and place, this Liverpool trait of loyalty,” Lewis remarks. “Because I’ve grown up around that generation, I see that. I do think she takes it to extreme lengths.” At one point, Kelly recalls firing her entire fan-club staff when she discovered they were mailing counterfeit hair samples. But the big attraction of Good Ol’ Freda—which closes the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Sunday (May 12) at both the Rio and Vancity theatres—is the personal insight it gives us into the boys themselves.
There’s the tale of Richie’s, er, Ringo’s arrival in the band, for instance. “He’d just joined the Beatles, and Freda had to deal with it, and he was a nobody. He had nine letters and he was stressed about it. I think stories like that show that they weren’t always gods—they were boys at one point.” They viewed Kelly as a sister, as did their families, especially when the band moved to London and she became everybody’s liaison. Kelly was particularly close to Ringo’s mum, and George’s dad taught her how to ballroom dance.
She eventually retreated into a family life of her own, retiring with “truckloads” of priceless memorabilia, most of which she gave away. White answers that “Freda doesn’t want handouts” when asked—inevitably, and often—why there’s been no compensation from Apple since then. The strength of character that the Beatles recognized clearly persists to this day. Not long after a single strand of George Harrison’s hair was sold for $3,000 on eBay, White found himself in Kelly’s attic while she opened up her last four boxes of memorabilia.
“And she pulls out this scrapbook, and out falls an envelope with George Harrison’s real hair in it that’s never been unsealed,” White remembers. “And I say, on-camera, ‘Holy shit, Freda, that’s, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars in that envelope!’ And she just looked at me like I was the most disgusting person in the entire world. I just wilted.”