When John Lennon brought a lot of hot air to Suffolk
As the Swinging Sixties drew to a close, John Lennon cut himself adrift of The Beatles and, with his new wife Yoko Ono, was free to express himself to his heart’s desire. JONATHAN BARNES reports on how that brought him – and a giant hot-air balloon – to a genteel Suffolk village. And how Yoko would love to come back.
YOKO Ono has a million treasured memories of her late husband, the Beatles legend John Lennon. And while just a handful of those were made during the couple’s visit to Suffolk 41 years ago, she still holds them dear.
“That was truly lovely – what a beautiful town,” she replied to the EADT’s question about her recollections of their trip to Lavenham in December 1969 to shoot their short film, Apotheosis.
And while you can forgive the 77-year-old for upgrading the quintessential English village to a town, Lavenham and the nearby village of Long Melford – where she and John stayed, at The Bull hotel – clearly made an impression on the celebrity couple.
“Both John and I really enjoyed doing the shoot there,” Yoko continued. “I would love to go back there... but it’s not the same for me without John.”
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Those who watched a giant hot-air balloon being inflated with 22,000 cubic metres of gas on the village’s snow-covered Market Place, as one of the world’s most famous pop stars and his mysterious new wife looked on, are unlikely to ever forget it either.
That’s even if the 18-minute short film that emerged – comprised completely of footage from a camera fixed to the side of the launched balloon – proved to be barely watchable. It was thought to be John’s idea, though it had all the hallmarks of Yoko’s style. As for its meaning, its purpose, its message; who knows? Yoko opted not to answer those questions. However, Lennon’s biographer Ray Coleman is undoubtedly correct when he writes of the film: “The onus is on the viewer to interpret.”
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John and Yoko had arrived in snowy Suffolk in high spirits, bristling with ideas and excited by the avant-garde experimentation that had characterised their partnership. They had married nine months earlier and soon afterwards had staged their famous Amsterdam “bed-in” for peace. In September 1969, the Plastic Ono Band made their live debut at the Toronto Festival, with Yoko at John’s side on stage. His single, Cold Turkey – about withdrawing from heroin – was released in October and subsequently banned by the BBC.
The couple had already released three albums of experimental music and worked on a number of home-made films, including Smile, 52 mind-numbing minutes of John pulling faces at the camera and pottering around his Surrey garden; Self-Portrait, a 42-minute study of John’s penis; and Two Virgins, of which one filmography notes “unlistenable music played over an unwatchable movie”.
The Beatles had broken up in all but name (the news would not be confirmed until the following year) and Lennon had just returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace in protest at Britain’s involvement in the Vietnam war. It was time of significant change and new found freedom for the soon-to-be ex-Beatle.
Lavenham Parish Council had been contacted by the Beatles’ production company, Apple, on the evening of Thursday, December 3 – two days ahead of the visit – to ask permission for the shoot. “It makes life interesting,” said parish council chairman Arthur Baker. “The company will be making a donation to the parish.”
The local building company, W A Deacon & Sons, had also been contacted to put up a scaffolding rig in the Market Place. “We didn’t really know what it was all about,” says Roger Deacon, who is now managing director of the firm. “We were asked to put a base up outside the Guildhall. There was white polystrene blowing about all over the place.”
John and Yoko had previously tried to film their “hot-air balloon movie” in Basingstoke, Hampshire, but had rejected the footage and had been recommended Lavenham by friends.
They arrived at The Bull on the Friday evening in their white, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce to be greeted by hotel manager Franco Bartolasi, who had known John from his days working in Liverpool a decade earlier. They had a BBC film crew in tow, shooting what would become the documentary The World of John and Yoko, to be screened that Christmas. The footage shows John and Yoko checking in to The Bull as “Mr and Mrs Smith” and lying in bed together in their room, giggling like teenagers. “Fortunately, I’m in love with you,” Yoko tells John, then 28. “Unfortunately, I’m in love with you too,” replies John.
The local grapevine had started to buzz with news of the visit. Alan Cocksedge, then Sudbury and district reporter for the EADT, had got wind of something unusual about to happen. “I had a tip-off from the local fire brigade that they had been asked to stand by,” says Mr Cocksedge, 68, who covered the patch for the EADT from 1966 to 2002. “I went down there on the Saturday and found it all happening. No other press knew about it so it was something of an exclusive.
“It was thrilling and intriguing for the people of Lavenham. John Lennon was on a different cloud to most people in those days and Yoko was very much a mystic figure. To most people, she was a mysterious lady from a long way away who had stolen a Beatle,”
The excitement was almost enough to melt the snow as the couple made their arrival in Lavenham. Sixteen-year-old Anne Heeks (now Churchard) was working in her family’s grocery store in the Market Place when she became aware of the commotion. “My father came in and told me a white Rolls-Royce had pulled up,” she recalls. “When we saw it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Everyone followed the Beatles and the Stones in those days – I was proud to say I had seen one of them.”
The BBC documentary shows John and Yoko, dressed in monk-like cloaks and hoods, seated on stools in the Market Place as the giant orange balloon is inflated; local youngsters skid about on the snow-capped pavement while their elders try to fathom exactly what is going on and why.
Temperatures were freezing and Anne Churchard, who now runs the grocery store with her brother, remembers the couple going in to a shop on the Market Place to buy extra warm socks. Her father, Clifford Heeks, took photographs of the event, some of which are shown here.
Roger Deacon’s job with his workmates was to secure the balloon for release and lift John and Yoko in and out of the basket.
“They (John and Yoko) were quite chatty really. I spoke to her more than him. She was a quite straightforward, chatty person and she was very interested in the Guildhall. There was always a posse of people around them. It was quite a thing for Lavenham. I was a Beatles fan. I had a Beatle jacket.”
Alan Cocksedge was accompanied by Richard Burn, the local freelance photographer, who pictured John and Yoko in the Market Place and on board the balloon alongside the pilot, Malcolm Brighton. The picture was on the front page of the following Monday’s EADT, although the negatives are no longer thought to be in existence. Mr Burn died some years ago.
John and Yoko didn’t take off on the flight, climbing out of the basket after the photographs to oversee the launch – to shouts of “chicken!” from the gathered crowd – while their collaborator and cameraman, Nic Knowland (himself a Suffolk man, originally from Debenham), ensured the shoot was carried out to their requirements.
Mr Cocksedge may not have been allowed an interview with the Beatle, but he did find out that filling up the balloon with hot air had cost �350 and that Ministry of Defence clearance had to be secured for the flight. And that John nearly caused a major flood at The Bull when his bathtub overflowed.
In the BBC documentary, as the final preparations are made for the balloon to be launched, Yoko’s voice is aired over the pictures. “It’s one thing to write about a strange couple who’s in bed, doing the bed event and all that; write a song about it, for instance; but it’s another thing to really do it and act your life, you know,” she says.
“What we started to do was, instead of writing a play or whatever, we just started really doing it in real life, so the whole world is a theatre actually. I mean the audience, or whatever, and you’re just doing it. The Hilton (where the bed-in was held) was a stage or whatever. It’s a more direct kind of communication.”
Apotheosis – which means elevation or exaltation to the rank of a god – begins with John and Yoko’s obscured faces before the balloon takes flight, with the village and its surrounding countryside opening up beneath it. It rises and rises until it enters cloud, where it stays for several minutes, before emerging out into a brilliant blue sky. And then that’s it.
“I did see the film,” says Roger Deacon, now 66. “They were a bit strange in that period.”
The shoot finished, the couple moved on to their next project, placing giant posters in 11 cities across the world that read: “WAR IS OVER! (If you want it) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” The following month John was back in the studio, recording Instant Karma with uber-producer Phil Spector. Within two years he had left the UK for New York, never to return.
Apotheosis, which was shown at the Cannes film festival the following May, is now barely a footnote in Lennon’s career. It was certainly an oddity. The best thing you could say about it is that it left the people of Lavenham - and Yoko - with some bizarre and brilliant memories (“We always have a laugh about it,” says Roger Deacon. “Not many people can say they’ve had their hands around Yoko Ono!”)
Other than that, it was a lot of hot air.