Lennon in Lavenham: John and Yoko create a ‘happening’ in 1969
In early 1969 John Lennon was one of the most famous people on the planet but, he was also developing a reputation, along with his new wife Yoko Ono, for being rather strange. In December 1969 John and Yoko came to Suffolk to make art. This is the story....
With the filming of The Witchfinder General in Lavenham in 1968, the people of this normally quiet West Suffolk town were, not only, used to film crews making the most of their authentic medieval backdrops, but also to cloaked figures making their way along footpaths and across the ancient churchyard.
In December 1969 the film crews and the hooded figures were back, once again sealing off areas of the main street to accommodate the needs of the visionary artist. On this occasion the film wasn’t about witch-hunters it was about… well the subject of the film was anyone’s guess.
The film being shot was called Apotheosis and was a short art film being created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono to make the world aware of peace, love and understanding. Cameras were going to capture John and Yoko rising aloft in a hot air balloon on a cold and frosty morning – and that was it. The viewers were then going to be left to make of it what they will. As it was described at the time, it was a ‘happening’.
What the people of Suffolk were unaware of at the time was that John Lennon had already bade a quiet, not-so-fond farewell to The Beatles. Their final album Abbey Road was released on September 11 1969 and on November 26, John and Yoko entered Abbey Road to record their new Plastic Ono Band single, the strange, experimental What’s the new Mary Jane?
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Apotheosis was part of this new performance art strand that John and Yoko were determined to pursue. Meanwhile, back in London the three remaining Beatles along with producer George Martin were pulling songs together from the abandoned Get Back project and recording Let It Be and George Harrison’s I, Me Mine without John for their swan-song album Let It Be to be released in early 1970.
When John and Yoko booked into The Bull Hotel in Long Melford the affairs of The Beatles appeared to be the last thing on his mind. They had come to Lavenham to rise aloft in a hot-air balloon and marvel at the beauty of Suffolk as it lay covered in snow.
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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.
While John and Yoko enjoyed their ‘bed-in’ for the BBC cameras, workmen were busily constructing a platform in Lavenham’s Market Place where a vast hot-air balloon was filled with 22,000 cubic metres of gas.
Attached to the basket of the hot-air balloon was a film camera which shot 18 minutes of footage of the ascent into the crisp Suffolk sky on Saturday December 5, 1969 and the viewers were then left to draw their own conclusions about what they saw.
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 parents and neighbours try and make sense of what is going on and why.
One eye witness to the avant garde madness being enacted on that snowy morning was local journalist Alan Cocksedge, chief reporter for the EADT in Sudbury. Having been tipped off by a contact in the fire brigade, who had been put on alert because of the potential fire risk, Alan went down to see what exactly was going on.
Unsurprisingly, it was something he never forgot. “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,” he recalled many years later.
Although John declined to be interviewed, Alan found Yoko more approachable. “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.”
No other press knew about it so Alan had an exclusive and it was duly featured on the front cover of the East Anglian Daily Times on Monday.
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. The balloon rises until it enters low-lying cloud, where it stays for several minutes, before emerging out into a brilliant blue sky. And then that’s it.
Well not quite… as with most films nothing is ever what it seems. It would appear that John and Yoko didn’t take that flight into the heavens.
Alan told friends that the pair climbed out of the basket after the photographs were taken to oversee the launch. To shouts of “chicken!” from the gathered crowd, their collaborator and cameraman, Nic Knowland (himself a Suffolk man, originally from Debenham), ensured the shoot was carried out to their requirements.
Once the balloon was safely back down, John and Yoko climbed into their white Rolls Royce and disappeared off into a flurry of snow – leaving this most strange of ‘happenings’ behind them.
The 18 minute film Apotheosis was screened at the Cannes Film Festival later that spring but it never gained the notoriety of 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”, instead it was quietly forgotten except by those people in Lavenham that snowy December morning who came to watch a Beatle make art.