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How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin

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Leslie Woodhead Leslie Woodhead | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009


In August 1962, I made a little film with four unknown kids playing in a Liverpool cellar. I was a very raw recruit to TV, working on a local news programme in Manchester, and I'd been asked to find something to contrast with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. A friend told me to contact a man called Brian Epstein. I thought Epstein was surprisingly dapper for a rock manager, but he led me to a dingy basement in the city centre - "The Cavern Club" Epstein told me. The music roared up to meet me as we felt our way down the stairs - and I got my first sight of The Beatles.

This was not my music. I was - and still am - a modern jazz fan. But the visceral thrill of the not-yet Fab Four punched me in the stomach. I was hooked. In the pub afterwards, Paul McCartney said to me: "It must be dead glamorous working in TV". On the way home, still high on the assault of that music, I had to stop my car and be sick in a ditch.

A few days later, we shot the first ever film with The Beatles, a sweaty lunchtime session in the Cavern. Today, that two-minute scrap of grainy black-and-white film looks like something excavated during World War I. But over almost 50 years since then, that footage has somehow shaped my life as a filmmaker.

In the mid 80s, when I started to make documentaries in the Soviet Union, I began to hear stories - incredible at first - about how the Beatles had changed the USSR. A few Russian fans told me had even seen that little film I made in the Cavern Club. I knew the Fab Four had never been able to play behind the Iron Curtain, denounced as capitalist pollution by the repressive old men in the Kremlin. I heard that fans had been arrested for smuggling Beatles music, and had been kicked out of University for having a Beatles album. The stories piled up as I came back to make documentaries in Russia over the last 20 years.

I heard fantastic tales of how Beatles-starved comrades inscribed bootleg tapes of I Feel Fine into X-ray plates of their Uncle Sergei's lungs - the only vinyl available. I was told how phone boxes across the Soviet Union were vandalised to make pickups for home-made guitars carved from kitchen tables. And serious witnesses - professors, reporters, the Russian Deputy Premier - insisted that the music and spirit of The Beatles had played a more important role in washing away the foundations of totalitarianism than the decades of Cold War propaganda or the threat of nuclear missiles.

I have wanted to make this film for years, and the finished documentary, crammed with bizarre archive and improbable tribute bands, is even wilder and more surprising than I'd anticipated

How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin has been fun to make. But along the way, it also tells the unknown story of a revolution which helped to change a superpower.

How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is on BBC Four on Sunday 6 September at 8pm and Monday 7 September at 10.30pm

Related Links
Leslie Woodhead - official site
How the Beatles rocked the Eastern Bloc - Leslie's article for BBC News

Related Posts
Albert Maysles on Filiming the Beatles
Countdown to Beatles Week
Tweet the Beatles!


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks Leslie for a great programme. As a lifelong Beatles fan this was all pretty new to me. I always think that the Beatles had the power to transform lives, but it seems that back in the USSR they almost became religious icons. Some of the scenes were very moving, and I shed a few tears. (Well some of the covers may have had that effect too.) I'm glad to hear that the fab four could shine some light in a dark place. They had more effect than I ever realised. Martin

  • Comment number 2.

    One of the best documentaries I've seen in a long while. A tribute to the genius of many a Russian and the genius of the Beatles. People who claim that the message the Beatles purveyed to the the West was less impactive are wrong. They changed our whole mentality in the sixties and seventies. They have a song that deals with most eventualities and philosophies that seamlessly bridge the borders between social responsibility (communism) and personal wealth (capitalism). The problem is that the iron curtain has simply transported itself into the western world and between those who have and have not.


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