Once upon a time, there was great value given to the concept of "loyalty." To be loyal to your employer was noble; even the most humble of folks could be rewarded with great esteem by society for having been faithful and devoted, or at least with a cake and a gold watch at the end of a long career. A loyal person remained steadfast even through hardship or doubt, and the trust they built through this effort was strong. I don't know that loyalty such as this exists anymore, or certainly not as a common cultural characteristic as it once was. To be loyal now is seen as a vulnerability and naiveté, as it is often rewarded with your job eventually outsourced, made redundant, or slashed to part-time in order to remove benefits. Of what value is loyalty now?
A gentle answer comes from an unlikely source: "Good Ol' Freda" (2013), a documentary about Freda Kelly, who served as the secretary for the Beatles and manager Brian Epstein from 1961 to 1972. Kelly had the job millions of young women dreamt of, heading up the Official Beatles Fan Club. She was an essential part of the band's inner circle from pre-fame to post-breakup. To a great degree, loyalty comes into play for explaining why Kelly's story hasn't been told until now, many years past other high-ranking Beatle associates who wrote books or gave tell-all interviews to the still-Beatles-hungry press, and that loyalty shapes the sweet (and sometimes bittersweet) nature of the film.
In 1961, Kelly was a 16-year-old who had finished her schooling and found work in a local typing pool, a typical, if not terribly exciting job for a young working-class girl prior to the later expectations of marriage and children. Life changed the day a friend invited her on her lunch break to the Cavern, a sweaty and rather pungent Liverpool cellar that hosted local rock n' roll acts. That day, as she watched the Beatles perform, she was so charmed by their personalities and excited by their music that she vowed to come back the next day...and then the next, and the next, until she'd seen the Beatles perform almost 200 times, and all of this before they had a single record in the British charts. As she described the atmosphere at the Cavern in those days, the relationship between the Beatles and their rapidly-growing fanbase was collegial, with back-and-forth banter between the band and the "regulars" adding to the fun of the shows. The fans "just knew" the Beatles would be famous one day, but no one could imagine success higher than an appearance at the Liverpool Empire and a single played on the radio.
Kelly's devotion to the Beatles paid off quickly, when another girl who had began a local fan club for the band handed over the reins to Freda, which led to manager Epstein ("Eppie") offering Kelly the job as secretary to the Beatles. Why Epstein chose a teenage fan rather than a more-mature and experienced professional to be in charge of such an exploding venture we can't know for sure (Epstein died of a drug overdose in 1967), but as "Good Ol' Freda" unfolds, we see surely some of what he saw in her that made her so worthy of his trust. In what seems to be notable in the Liverpudlian character, Kelly was enthusiastic yet strongly grounded, able to roll with the punches, and had an unshakeable work ethic that meant whatever it took to get the job done and done right, with integrity, was the sole option.
As Kelly narrates us through her Beatle years, we see she has kept the twinkle in her eye, the shy smile on her lips, and fluttering heart of the true fan. Yet, at the very same time, there is not even the tiniest flash of a brag that she once was envied by so many and was privy to so much. She is still a "regular," and there is something of a slight detachment to her recall, as if she can't quite still believe it happened to her, either. The exciting days of the past seem to be so well-integrated into her personal history that she doesn't seem to long for them or in any way have a need to relive them. What memorabilia is left of her 11 years with the Beatles fits into four file boxes in her attic, the rest long ago given away -- that means for free, people -- to other fans. Even Kelly's own children knew little about her Beatle days.
So why did Freda choose to speak up, 50 years on? Not for money -- she still works today as a secretary, and lives modestly. Not for recognition -- as a member of another Merseybeat band tells, he once spotted Kelly in his audience, introduced her from the stage as the former secretary to the Beatles, and she turned around and walked right out. Not to unload any dirt -- fans who want the barrel scrapings of the Beatles' personal lives are never getting it out of Kelly, although it is absolutely certain she saw and heard a lot. As the years passed, and more and more of the people she worked with in the Beatles circle died (including John Lennon and George Harrison), surely a sense of mortality hit home. When Kelly's first grandchild Niall was born, she decided she would like him to know that his grandmum "had done something pretty cool" a long time ago, and she wanted him to be proud of her.
Director/writer Ryan White and writer Jessica Lawson in "Good Ol' Freda" capture so much in the simple story of a "regular" who started working for four cute and talented local lads...who ended up as the biggest and most beloved band in the world. Kelly is a delightful and engaging subject, and the film flows easily, with great use of period music and photos. It is a must-see for Beatles fans, and would be enjoyable to those less familiar with the Fabs, too.
In addition to all the fun in remembering with Freda and hearing her unique take on the Beatles' story, there are these steady qualities throughout the film that elevate it, and us: the beauty of loyalty and a true heart, and the value of balancing and honoring privacy with the joy of sharing our stories and making connections with our fellow travelers.
Niall, your grandmum is a good 'un, that's for sure.
"Good Ol' Freda" -- Official Trailer