As a 17-year-old Freda Kelly was the envy of thousands of teenage girls: she was secretary to the Fab Four and ran their fan club. Now, in a new documentary about her role, she has finally decided to open up
These days, Freda Kelly leads an uncomplicated life. Every morning, she drives from her home in the Wirral to a legal firm in Birkenhead, where she is secretary to one of the senior partners. She starts her working day at 9am, dealing with legal files, setting up appointments, liaising with mental health tribunals and typing up letters at a steady speed of 50wpm. On her desk, the stapler is labelled with her name in case anyone should be tempted to claim it as their own. She has been working here for 21 years.
Of late, Freda, 68, has found herself at the centre of some unexpected attention. She finds this baffling. "I mean," she says with a slight shake of the head, "who wants to hear the secretary's story?"
In the case of this particular secretary, hundreds of thousands of people around the world would be a conservative estimate. Because Freda Kelly isn't just any old secretary. For a period of 11 years from 1962, she was, in fact, secretary to the Beatles. This month, she is the subject of a new documentary, Good Ol' Freda, in which she gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the 20th century's most famous band. Despite the acres of print and miles of footage that have been devoted to telling the "true" story of the Beatles, Kelly has never before spoken out. And yet during the time she worked for them, from the age of 17, she became part of their inner circle and was a first-hand witness to their astonishing rise to fame. Her duties included working for Beatles manager Brian Epstein and managing the fan club. At the height of the band's success, a newspaper headline referred to her as: "The Most Coveted Girl in the World". She is one of the few employees to have stuck with the band for the entire time they were together. Today, she is one of the few to survive.
As the Beatles's former press officer Tony Barrow says in the film: "Freda is one of the few 'backroom boys' who's never got the recognition she deserves for all the hard work she put in on behalf of the Fab Four." A Liverpool girl herself, Kelly understood the band's backgrounds. Their families lived within walking distance of her house. George Harrison used to drive her home. According to Paul McCartney's stepmother, Angie: "The Beatles saw her as a sister and [their] families saw her as a daughter."
As the years have passed, she has had six or seven offers to write a book, but says it didn't feel right to sell her memories for money. Kelly accumulated a considerable stash of memorabilia along the way, but after the Beatles split up in 1970 she gave most of it away to fans. "In hindsight," she says, "I'd probably be a millionaire."
Today, only four storage boxes remain in her attic, each one stuffed full of the Beatles fanzines she wrote. She has also kept the telegrams each of the band members sent her on her wedding day and a curling envelope containing a lock of George Harrison's hair. "I'm not obsessed with money – I only need enough to live on," Kelly says when we meet on a drizzly Friday in Birkenhead. She has conscientiously arranged to see me during her lunch hour so that her working day is not disturbed and has booked a private room in the office to talk uninterrupted. We sit facing each other across an MDF desk. There is a phone intended for conference calls on one side, a plastic cup of chilled water on the other. The carpet is the generic grey of suburban offices the country over. "Half the staff here don't even know," Kelly admits. "You don't go around talking about it do you? I wouldn't stop a woman at the bus stop and say 'Hello, I used to work for the Beatles'.
"I never wanted to write a book. There are so many books out there already. Also, I always thought they would want the juice, the argument bit, and I don't believe in that." Because she still feels a loyalty to the band? Kelly nods.
In an age of tell-all celebrity, with its seemingly limitless appetite for gossip and fame by association, this loyalty is a rare and unfashionable thing. But Kelly, a twinkly-eyed woman with purple-painted nails and highlighted bobbed hair, is intensely private and discreet. At one point, she confesses to having had crushes on each of the Fab Four. Did the crush ever turn into anything more serious? "Pass." She gives a naughty grin. "We were all teenagers – use your imagination."
In the end, Kelly was persuaded to tell her story by her daughter, Rachel. "My daughter said: 'Your memory box is going now – do it before the dementia sets in.'" Kelly chuckles. "I wanted to make a little film for my grandson, Niall, to know what his granny did in her youth. He's three. I want him to be proud."
So she got in touch with the American film-maker Ryan White, whose uncle happened to be Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats and a contemporary of the Beatles. White had grown up surrounded by people involved with the Liverpool music scene and counted Kelly as a friend but had no idea of her past.
"The people in that scene, it just doesn't come up a lot," White explained in an interview in September. "It's just so normal to all of them… My mind was completely blown when I found out the scope of her tenure, the importance of her job."
When White realised what he had on his hands, he persuaded Kelly to sign up for a full-length documentary feature and set about raising $50,000 through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to pay for a three-week shoot in Liverpool. The film had its premiere earlier this year at the South by South West (SXSW) film festival in Austin, Texas. As the final credits rolled, Kelly received a five-minute standing ovation.
The title Good Ol' Freda is taken from the Beatles' 1963 Christmas record, which they made for their fan club. On the disc, Harrison gives thanks to "Freda Kelly in Liverpool". The three other Beatles shout: "Good ol' Freda!" and this recording is played over the opening credits of the film.
White also achieved the near-impossible and got clearance to use four original Beatles songs for the soundtrack – no mean feat, given that approval was required from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. "I'm not easily impressed," says Kelly, "but when the director told me over Skype that we'd got four songs, I got a big lump in my throat. I thought: 'They still remember.'"
Freda Kelly's father never wanted her to take the job in the first place. Freda's mother had died of cancer when she was just 18 months old and he was understandably protective. "All my family had jobs with pensions but when you're a teenager you don't care about pensions," she says now. "He said to me: 'You're not taking that job. There's no security in that job.'"
Kelly had left school at 16 and trained as a typist. She had a steady secretarial job with a firm in the city. It was a colleague who first suggested she go to the Cavern club one lunchtime, where the Beatles were playing. As soon as she heard them, Kelly was smitten.
"It wasn't just what they were playing, it was everything about them," she says now. "The way they were on stage. No one wore leather in those days but they did. On stage, they would always lark about between themselves. You would watch them play the goat and you would want to be part of the action. You would just look up at them and say, 'Play this song' and they would or they'd say 'No, we don't want to play that one, we'll play something else.' I don't think they had a running order."
She started hanging out more and more at the Cavern, with its distinctive smell of "disinfectant, sweat and rotten fruit" from the fruit market opposite. It was a smell that would linger when she went back to the office so that if she were late, she could not pretend she'd been anywhere else. Kelly became friendly with the band members, including original drummer Pete Best (he was replaced by Starr in 1962). Sometimes, in the evenings, one of them would drive her home and they'd sit outside talking too loudly in the middle of the night until Kelly's irate father came downstairs in his dressing-gown and sent the young man in question packing.
The Beatles played at the Cavern 294 times. Freda estimates she was there for 190 performances. Everyone got used to seeing her face. When Brian Epstein, who ran the NEMS record store in Liverpool, announced his intention to manage the Beatles, he approached Kelly to become his secretary. He kitted out a storeroom on the first floor of the NEMS store with a desk and typewriter. Kelly's father said the job wouldn't last a year. "So I said: 'Give me the year and when I'm 18, I will knuckle under'," she recalls. "And that year turned into 10." Kelly had an inkling that the Beatles were going to make it – "I just had this faith. I knew they were going to be famous one day" – but she didn't know quite how famous.
One of her primary responsibilities was to manage the Beatles fanclub – the main source of information about the band. At first, she gave out her home address and personally replied to the letters. But then the band released Love Me Do, which reached No 17 in 1962 (Kelly secretly preferred the B-side, PS I Love You). Their second single, Please Please Me, followed a year later and went to No 1. Soon the postman was turning up on Kelly's doorstep with 800 letters a day. Her father wasn't best pleased. She changed the fan club address so that the letters were delivered to the office.
As a fan herself, Kelly went to extraordinary lengths to meet the demands of other girls like her. With Beatlemania gripping the country, she found herself inundated with increasingly bizarre requests. One girl sent a pillowcase that she wanted Ringo to sleep on for a night. Kelly took it to Starr's mother, Elsie, and made her promise to get him to do it. Another fan turned up unannounced on Kelly's doorstep.
"I had her staying for two weeks in my house," says Kelly. "I fed her. I think she'd run away from home. I used to bring her into work with me, then she got a bit heavy."
Kelly even used to collect hair clippings from the Beatles' barbers and store them in bags in the office so that each time a fan wrote in asking for a lock of hair, she could oblige.
"Somebody said I used to go to their houses and rob their shirts," she says, laughing. "I didn't steal them but if a shirt was ripped and they didn't want it, I'd go round there and take it. I'd always say to Louise Harrison [George's mother] 'Can I have that?' and I'd just cut the shirts up and send them out."
The band members were in and out of the office most days and Kelly would get them to sign autographs every time. She kept a stack of autograph books sent in by fans in a cupboard behind her desk.
"Paul, you could always rely on. He was the good one. George was very thoughtful – he would always say 'What have you got in your cupboard for me to sign?' Ritchie [Ringo, real name Richard] was always laughing. He was Mr Happy. John was a man of many moods. People think John Lennon was a big, hard man. He had his moments but there was a caring side to him."
By her own admission, Kelly was something of "an innocent" when she started working for the Beatles. "I was Miss Gullible. I was an Irish Catholic who went straight from the Girl Guides into the music business. I didn't know anything about anything."
It was Lennon who explained to her that her boss Epstein was gay – at the time, homosexuality was still illegal. "I remember saying to John: 'I can't make him out. There's something about him.' And he started laughing. He explained it to me in really simple terms. He said: 'Put it this way, if you and he were the last people on a desert island, you'd be safe.'"
For Kelly, seeing the lads every day and becoming friends with them meant that their fame crept up on her without her noticing. "You get so used to them," she explains. "It's great they're No 1, it's great they're on telly, you were really pleased but it wasn't like this huge thing."
The first time it truly hit her was when she was invited to attend the 1964 civic reception in Liverpool. The Beatles had been spending a lot of time in London and had returned to their home city for the northern premiere of their film A Hard Day's Night. A crowd of 200,000 turned up to see them appear on the balcony of the town hall. "When I looked out of the window and saw all these people, I thought: 'Oh my God, they really are famous.'"
As their celebrity grew, so did their fanbase. Lennon had been married since 1962 to a girl he met while a student at Liverpool College of Art. Although Cynthia Lennon's existence was known of by the other members of the band, Brian Epstein insisted that the marriage and her later pregnancy (her son Julian was born in 1963) remained a secret so as not to alienate female fans. Although generous and loyal, Epstein was renowned for a ferocious temper. No one wanted to upset him. Kelly found it "really hard because a friend of mine was going out with John Lennon at the time and I couldn't say anything. Another girl I knew who was a big John Lennon fan, she said to me, 'I know he's married and he's got a baby daughter'. I looked away and I said: 'He hasn't got a baby daughter' because at least that was true. I just knew you didn't say things."
In 1965, a year after the release of the Magical Mystery Tour film (Freda was an extra: she recalls with horror being forced to wear her worst mini-dress for the duration of the two-week shoot for continuity reasons), Epstein moved the nucleus of the Beatles operation to London. Freda's father did not want her to go. But when she tried to hand in her resignation, Epstein refused to accept it and insisted that she stay in Liverpool, travelling down to London to the offices in Monmouth Street a few days a month. She continued running the fanclub and writing the newsletter.
As a young woman working in a male-dominated industry, Kelly knew she would never rise beyond a certain level. The men who started alongside her soon became "assistants" to Epstein. Kelly remained his secretary.
"The only thing with being a woman that annoyed me was that the police didn't believe I worked for the Beatles." As a result, Kelly often found herself battling to get through vast crowds of people to deliver the band's wage slips at a venue they were performing at. "I did try. I'd say: 'Hello, I've got the contracts'. They thought I was a fan trying to get to things. So I always had to go to a phone box and call someone to say: 'I'm outside. Can you get me in?'"
Towards the end of the 1960s, the closeness that had once been at the heart of the Beatles' charm was starting to unravel. Epstein died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1967. This, says Kelly, was "devastating" and led to a vacuum at the heart of the band. McCartney and Lennon tried to hold things together, but increasingly each member wanted to pursue their own solo projects. From 1968, Lennon's affair with the conceptual artist Yoko Ono caused further tensions – Ono's tendency to sit in on recording sessions and offer suggestions violated a tacit agreement the band had made not to allow wives or girlfriends into the studio.
Was Kelly aware of the growing unease? She nods. "That's when I knew I'd had enough of it all." She began getting letters from fans asking about the Beatles' private lives and wrote a newsletter pleading with them to stop "because I've always been quite private myself".
There was an urban legend at the time that McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced by a lookalike. Kelly received so many enquiries about this that the phone started ringing off the hook. "It really got to me," she says now. "I remember I rang Mr McCartney [Paul's father], who I called Uncle Jim, and I had to ask 'When are you seeing him next, when is Paul home?' and he was like: 'He was here last night!'"
The breakup of the Beatles was publicly acknowledged by McCartney in a 1969 interview. Kelly, who by this stage had a husband and was expecting her first child, was relieved. She felt ready to move on with her life: marriage and motherhood. But although she stopped working for the band officially in 1970, she continued to reply to fans' letters for another three years every night at home after dinner, until each one had been answered.
"You can't just close a fanclub overnight," she says.
Looking back, Kelly finds it strange to think of herself as one of the few survivors of that era. John Lennon was shot dead at the age of 40 in New York in December 1980. A friend rang Kelly from America to let her know.
"I was just stunned and that day I just didn't know what to do." Her husband advised her to leave the house but the press tracked her down. "I just wanted to be on my own… I couldn't even speak. I just need to –" She breaks off. "When something like that happens, I cope with it but I go into myself."
Lennon had often confided in her that he thought he would die young. "The first thing that came into my mind [when he died] was that he used to say: 'I won't be here when I'm 40. I won't make 40'," she says. "I just wonder what he'd be like today."
When Harrison died in 2001 of lung cancer, Kelly knew it had been on the cards, but his loss still came as a shock. Now there are only two surviving Beatles. Ringo Starr recorded a short message of support for the film, played over the end credits, but Kelly hasn't spoken to him or McCartney for years. She went to see Starr in concert in Liverpool a few years back but was too shy to go backstage.
What would she say if she met them now? Kelly smiles, eyes shining. It is suddenly easy to see the sweet, excitable 17-year-old she once was. She glances towards the door, hair swinging to one side, as if imagining one of the Beatles walking in from the car park.
"I can't see me going hysterical or fainting," she says, turning back to me. "Hopefully I'd say: 'Do you want a cup of tea?'"
Good Ol' Freda will be shown on More4 on 10 December, 9pm. It is also available to buy on DVD from 4 December at amazon.co.uk