In a 1963 Christmas message recorded for their fans, the Beatles goof around, making jokes and singing Good King Wenceslas, before George Harrison pipes up about an integral member of their operation. "Nobody else has said anything yet about our secretary, Freda Kelly, in Liverpool," he says, after which his bandmates chime in: "Good ol' Freda."
For 50 years, Good ol' Freda has kept quiet about her time with the band, rejecting numerous opportunities to satisfy the hunger for insider Beatle info. But when life circumstances led to a change of heart, she approached a family friend who she knew made documentaries. Los Angeles-based Ryan White was skeptical, and surprised. To him, Kelly was his aunt's friend who was working as a secretary at a law firm. Yes, in Liverpool – but the Beatles?
At first, "I thought maybe Freda worked for the Beatles for a few months or something, cashing in. I had no idea the scope with which she worked for them," says White, 31. "But we began having phone calls across the pond and she would just start telling me stories, and I was sort of immediately blown away."
The result of their collaboration, Good Ol' Freda – shown at this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto, and closing the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver this weekend – is packed with history, including archival photographs, many of which had been sitting in Kelly's attic for decades, tucked behind the Christmas decorations. The film's appeal isn't just its inner-circle vantage point, but the low-key, matter-of-fact Liverpudlian charm of the woman who provides it. "I was just a secretary then, and funny enough I'm still a secretary now," says Kelly in the film. "And who would want to hear a secretary's story?"
Kelly worked for the Beatles for 11 years – she was with the band longer than they were a band – hired by Brian Epstein in 1962 before Beatlemania exploded, and running their fan club even after they disbanded.
She met Epstein and the band because she was a dedicated fan – but not an over-the-top fanatic. Secretary by day, she initially ran the fan club out of her home. Her monthly dispatches for the Beatles mailouts, signed "Tarrah For Now, Freda Kelly," ranged from innocuous updates about George Harrison's dental work to a full-on finger-wagging at fans who had the audacity to judge the band members' private lives.
"She has a killer memory," White says. If Kelly was unsure about even the tiniest detail about something, she would refuse to tell the story. So what audiences do hear, he says, is "absolutely 100-per-cent the truth."
Ever the professional, Kelly, who kept big secrets for the Beatles when she was working for them, refuses to dish dirt – as she has all these years, even when a newspaper reporter tried to bribe her. "I'm not prepared to sell me soul to the devil for a few pounds," she says in the film.
But the stories she does tell are evocative, especially of the band's early days. Kelly talks about going around to Ringo Starr's mother's house to instruct her on how to answer the drummer's fan mail, and of forming a close bond with the woman, who eventually went to bat for Kelly and won her a raise.
There's also a story about the time John Lennon fired her for spending too much time in the Moody Blues' dressing room across the hall before a performance. Kelly, maybe a little tipsy, turned the situation around, and for a moment, she was boss. "I'll tell you what: Get down on your two knees and beg me to come back, then … and he did."
The stories, says White, were so unrehearsed because Kelly had never told them before. Even her daughter was surprised after attending the world premiere at South by Southwest in March. "She came up to me at the afterparty and said that 95 per cent of that film was completely new to her," White recalls.
Kelly's silence on the subject changed when her daughter had a son a few years after the death of Kelly's own son. She wanted her grandson to be proud of her and to know that she wasn't always just, as she puts it, an old lady with grey hair, sitting in the corner.
Says White, "The fact that she can hand him a DVD one day and he'll understand the crazy decade that she had when she was a teenager, that she was very pleased with. … If the film completely bombed and no one ever saw it, I don't think she would care." That does not appear to be a concern. Good Ol' Freda has been picked up by Magnolia for distribution and is expected to have a theatrical release this year.
After Kelly wrapped up the fan club to concentrate on raising her children, she had nothing to do with the Beatles any more. She stayed in touch with her Beatles family, and has mourned many deaths; but mostly they've all gone their separate ways.
"She's a regular secretary in Liverpool and not rich and famous," says White, "and they are the most rich and famous people in the world."
Good Ol' Freda closes DOXA in Vancouver May 12 at 7 p.m. at The Rio and 8:30 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre.