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Leslie Woodhead

How the Beatles rocked the Kremlin

Leslie Woodhead

Beatrice Biggio (BB): One of your most well-known documentaries is about the tragedy of the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans, can you tell us how that work came about?

Leslie Woodhead (LW): About that time, I also started taking photographs, I don’t know why but it always intrigued me, those two passions, photography and jazz, had always run through my life. And finally, in 2005, I had the good fortune to put them together in a film about a jazz photographer whose work was washed away during hurricane Katrina, so I made a film about him, with him, about his attempt to rebuild his archive of wonderful jazz photographs that go right back to the 1940’s in New Orleans, and now where he lives in Los Angeles. And I’m now doing a book with him, so that’s fantastically lucky to be able to put all those things together, it really is, I never forget how lucky I am.

BB: Let’s come to the documentary you presented here at the Trieste Film Festival. In 1962 you were there, at the Cavern, recording. How did that…

Entrance to the Cavern Club, LiverpoolLW: How did that happen? Pretty much by accident, I was very young, just beginning my career in television at the original TV company in Manchester, we were making tiny little films about all those contrasting things going on in our region, and one of them was about music. We made a film with a traditional brass band over in Yorkshire, and looked for the most contrasting thing we could find, and somebody told me about these kids in Liverpool who were starting to make noise, they hadn’t made any records yet but I rang up a man called Brian Epstein and he said I should go and see them, and it was extraordinary, we did a tiny little film with them in a lunchtime session in the Cavern Club, and then they conquered the world. It was an extraordinary thing to watch actually, how quickly that happened.

BB: So you actually talked to them that night, did you think they had any idea on what was to come?

LW: Yes, I talked to them. No, I mean they had all the arrogance you would expect them to have. I remember Paul McCartney saying “We‘ve written all this songs but nobody wants to hear them”, so they were doing, you know, covers of American r&b songs mostly, almost nothing of their own, it was not my kind of music but it was absolutely astonishing, it really, really grabbed my stomach, it was so exciting. When we filmed that at lunchtime it was virtually Ringo’s first ever gig with the band, because they were surrounded in the audience by people saying “We want Pete, we want Pete!”, their former drummer, so they were really still just becoming the Beatles at that time. And nobody could’ve guessed what was about to happen to the Beatles, it’s an amazing story, which I watched with fascination, obviously over the years that I followed them. They came back to our TV studios in Manchester a number of times over the middle years of the sixties, even though it was just to say hi!, but then they floated off into the Universe (laugh).

The Beatles, at the Cavern Club, with their former drummer Pete Best

BB: In the film there are many characters, many people you talk to, and they all say that they did make a difference, they did rock, they rocked the Empire. So, why was that? Why the Beatles and not the Rolling Stones for example?

LW: Because, it’s a really interesting question, its not like there were no Rolling Stones fans in the Soviet Union, of course there were. But there was something about the Beatles that went way beyond just being rock’ n ’roll music. The Russian kids loved melody first of all, they were mad about it, maybe even sentimental melody. So the kind of songs that the Beatles were doing, that Paul particularly was writing, Michelle, Yesterday, those kind of songs, just, as one of my soviet rock friends put it “melted our hearts”. They didn’t even really understand the lyrics, so it was the feel of the music, the joy that it expressed and the freedom that seemed to be coming off it that made the difference, and melted the hearts of millions and millions of soviet kids. And as somebody explained in the film which we screened last night, the timing was absolutely perfect, they arrived in the Soviet Union at precisely the moment when life was getting very boring indeed for the kids.

Beatles Matrioska

Mr. Brezhnev had just come to power, there was less freedom, there was more state control, there was no joy and sex in this as somebody said, and here was this charismatic, exciting, sort of dangerous band, dangerous in the sense that they made fun of authority, which is something that the communist leadership was always very uneasy about, they knew that they were threatened but they didn’t quite know how, and being laughed at was a big, big problem, they didn’t quite know how to deal with that. Millions of kids found that they could laugh at their leaders, or at least just forget about them and get on with their own lives, in their own way, in their own apartments, and move away from any thought of being part of building socialism. And gradually, in a country where culture has always had a fantastic impact on promoting change, I mean for two hundreds years artists, musicians, play-writes, poets, have changed the way things are in that part of the world. They fitted right into that.

BB: You’ve been interested in Eastern countries all your life. Your life as a spy, can you tell us something about that.

LW: In the 1950’s, mine was the last generation of kids in Britain that had to do compulsory military service, and I was recruited into the R.A.F., Royal Air Force, and taught Russian in order to become a very low level eavesdropper spy in Berlin before the wall went up, listening to soviet pilots flying in and out of East Germany, and writing it down on long pads of paper. Very, very boring, I felt like a trainspotter, but for a year, that’s what I did. And nothing of that was an important part, was fascinating about what was going on in that part of the world.

How the Beatles Rocked the KremlinBB: Did you actually realize what you were doing? Did you think it was a spy job, or something else?

LW: I don’t know what it was, it was just a job, very dull, very routine. It was only when I made a film about all of that, a few years ago, that I began to understand the bigger picture of what we were doing, and how it fitted into the cold war, ‘cause nobody ever told us, and we weren’t encouraged to ask. We were just told to keep on scribbling down these seemingly meaningless messages from pilots, about, you know, the most routine part of their flights. What I didn’t know was those who were able to put all of this stuff together could build the picture of troop movements, of whether there was a risk that the Soviet there was about to come crashing into Western Europe. We were a tiny, tiny part of building up that picture.

BB: You also shot in Iran at a very particular time. How did you feel when you were doing that?

LW: It was very scary…

BB: What do you think about the situation now?

LW: It’s horrendous now, but there was a brief moment, when we did that film, I can’t remember which year it was, where there was a small opening up of possibilities in Iran. It was a remarkably odd moment, ‘cause we were able to interview a number of the young students who had held the American hostages in the embassy, as well as interviewing the hostages themselves. It was possible to do that there, it was very, very edgy. I mean, it was very easy to get into the wrong place at the wrong time, I know my passport was taken away for some crazy belief that somehow, a photograph had been taken, might have a security building in the background and all of that.

Leslie Woodhead

But it was possible to do it, and we also got from the amazing archive of what happened in 1979 as the Iranian revolution began. It remains one of the very few, or just about the only thing that has been done about that with the collaboration of those who were the hostage takers, because quite soon after that it became absolutely impossible. And now it’s very frightening indeed, and I suspect that, although it may take a while, it’s coming to a conclusion that revolution, there are so many kids, I mean, even we filmed I think, half the population was under the age of 15, everybody spoke privately about how absolutely sick they were of the religious Police and on the restrains that were being put to their lives. We moved on another 10yrs since then, and people are even more fed up so eventually something will burst I think, but they’re a very tough regime, they’re not going to give way easily.

BB: What about your ongoing project on Ethiopia, is that still going on, are you doing something about that?

LW: No, I’ve done enough on that, I mean we’ve been looking at that, I’ve done six films with the same group of nomadic cattle herders in the corner of Ethiopia, and we’ve been talking about… There is now a real problem for them, because the big river along which they feed their lives and grow their crops is about to be dammed in a big way, north of them, and it’s not clear whether they are going to be able to survive that, and they solely depend on that. And I’d like to do a film about that, but it’s going to be very difficult, because the authorities are determined, and probably need to do the dam to provide electricity for millions and millions of very poor Ethiopians, but it’s an open question whether the people we have filmed there since 1974 can carry on being there, and living those lives, their lives have been changing rapidly anyway, a big change over the years that I’ve been filming them, they may change even more, I think, now.


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