Making ‘Storyville: How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin’

Back in the early 1960s, director Leslie Woodhead made a film about the Beatles before they were inciting fainting masses. Having completed How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, a Beatles doc for the BBC's 'Storyville' strand, Woodhead reflects on how filmmaking has changed since he first caught the Fab Four on camera, and the evolution of his project.
September 3, 2009

In August 1962, I made a little film about four unknown kids playing guitars in a Liverpool cellar. Looking at that film now for my documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, I’m startled by how the energies of the fledgling Fab Four punch through the primitive film technologies of the early ’60s.

I was a very raw recruit at Granada TV in Manchester, but I still recall the struggles of the film crew to record a two-minute song in the gloomy Cavern Club. The camera, an American Auricon, sat like a lead brick, anchored to a rosewood tripod and powered by a bulky car battery. The slow black and white film stock recorded sound on a magnetic track striped on the negative, and required hair-frying lights to capture an image. The master shot was a jerky zoom in and out on a kid called Lennon. Extra visuals were grabbed with a clockwork Bolex. In the pub after the shooting, Paul McCartney said to me: ‘It must be dead glamorous working in TV’.

Twenty-five years later, when I started making documentaries in the Soviet Union, people began to tell me about the extraordinary impact of the Beatles behind the Iron Curtain. As I knew they had been banned as ‘capitalist pollution’ and were never able to play in the Evil Empire, it seemed like a fantasy. But making a series of films in the ’80s and ’90s, more and more people I met insisted that the Beatles had played a crucial role in undermining the Soviet system. Serious journalists and Putin’s Deputy Premier, Sergei Ivanov, joined the chorus of bearded Fab-fans.

I relished the range of 21st century documentary tools – Digibeta cameras, Z1 Mini DVs, radio mics and all the liberations unimaginable when I made that first film with the Beatles. Making the new film also made me aware of how generations of Soviet kids had subverted the official banning of the Beatles – you could lose your education or your job for having a moptop LP. Selling one could land you in jail. So illicit tapes from Radio Luxemburg were inscribed on the only vinyl available, X ray plates of Uncle Sergei’s lungs. Phone boxes were raided to harvest pickups for homemade guitars – and along the way, the Beatles generation changed the Soviet Union. I even met some people who had seen that little film I made in the Cavern, long ago.

Storyville: How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin was produced by Blakeway (a Ten Alps company) and airs on September 6 at 8pm and September 7 at 10.30pm on BBC4.

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