Beatles secretary and fan-wrangler celebrated in irresistible 'Good Ol' Freda'
Talk about a dream job. Freda Kelly was just 17 when she landed a job as personal secretary to The Beatles in 1962. No one had any idea how big the band would become, and Liverpool homegirl Freda rode that colossal wave with them for the next 11 years. But unlike so many others with even the most tenuous claim to having known The Beatles back in the day, Freda never tried to cash in—no rounds of chat shows, no tell-all autobiography. Her unique story has remained untold—until now.
Ryan White's documentary, Good Ol' Freda, is as ebullient, down-to-earth, and irresistible as Freda Kelly herself. "I was just a secretary," she shrugs, with typical lack of pretension. "Who wants to hear the secretary's story?" Now a middle-class matron (still working as a secretary)—with the best memorabilia ever in a box under the eaves in her attic—she decided to share her amazing story so that some day her grandson will know that she'd once done something fun and exciting.
Freda was a typist in a secretarial pool at a Liverpool office on the fateful day some mates took her out to lunch round the corner at the Cavern Club. The cellar location "had a very unique smell" she recalls as "disinfectant and sweat." But it was the band onstage, not the ambience, that kept local kids coming back, and White employs what scant footage exists of John, Paul, George, and Pete Best in action at the Cavern, augmented by tons of great still photos.
Brian Epstein (fondly recalled as "Eppie") managed the NEMS record store and kept an office in the building where his family sold furniture. When he came to the Cavern to see what all the fuss was about, the group was on its way. As their new manager, one of the first things Epstein did was hire Freda as their secretary. Her job was mainly to answer fan mail and to make sure "the boys" produced enough autographs and signed photos to go around.
"I was one of them," Freda says of the fans, and she did her best to accommodate their requests. She couldn't send Paul to a birthday party, for instance, but she could deliver a fan's pillow case to Ringo's mum to see that he slept on it for a couple of nights. Freda's duties soon expanded to running the official Beatles Fan Club, and writing its newsletter. On a 1963 recorded Christmas greeting sent out to Fan Club members, the boys included a special shout-out to "Good ol" Freda!"
As to the group, Freda says Paul was always "nice and friendly," John was "a man of many moods," and "quiet Beatle" George "was never quiet with me." While she picked a new favorite every day, she does not divulge if she ever had a deeper relationship with any of them. "That's personal," she smiles.
A friend says "The Beatles saw her as a sister and their families saw her as a daughter." When Ringo joined up, motherless Freda became especially close to his mum. George's parents, she recalls, "enjoyed the fame more than the other parents." And as that fame grew, and Freda's workload increased from 200 fan letters a week to 2-3,000 a day, she became even more tenacious in guarding their privacy, not putting up with anyone "telling lies about her boys."
White assembles a fabulous collection of vintage still photos and newsreel footage. The soundtrack is full of period music, mostly R&B originals (like "Twist and Shout" and "Please Mr. Postman") later covered by The Beatles. Viewers might wish for more actual Beatles recordings, but that White managed to secure the rights to the four Beatles originals he does use is pretty impressive for a Kickstarter-funded project.
From early days (when no one could imagine more success than playing the Empire Theatre in Liverpool at the bottom of the bill for Little Richard), through worldwide celebrity, marriages, divorces, death, children, movies, the foundation of Apple Corps, and the final divergence of four individuals going their separate ways, Freda has seen it all. Her common sense, good humor, and irrepressible sense of fun make her a most personable tour guide through an extraordinary cultural era.
GOOD OL' FREDA ★★★1/2 (out of four) With Freda Kelly. Written by Jessica Lawson and Ryan White. Directed by Ryan White. A Magnolia release. Rated PG. 86 minutes.
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