John Lennon's time in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 15:47 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 20 February 2013
As Nowhere Boy, a new film chronicling John Lennon's Liverpool youth, opens nationwide, Amanda Hodges examines the period that The Beatle spent in Berkshire and Kim Francis talks to High Wycombe's Aaron Johnson, who plays the genius in the film
Life is what happens when youre busy making other plans, John Lennon once opined and it was a philosophy that was certainly applicable when The Beatles founding father and his new wife Yoko Ono moved into Tittenhurst Park at Sunningdale in the late summer of 1969.
For years Lennon and first wife Cynthia had been ensconced in Weybridge in the wake of Beatlemania but, by the late Sixties, Lennons increased drug-taking was proving disastrous domestically and once he met conceptual artist Yoko Ono in late 1966 his first marriage rapidly disintegrated. Stagnant in Weybridge, Lennon felt the need to move. Both he and Yoko, newly married in spring 1969, wanted not only a comfortable retreat where they could escape the goldfish bowl of fame but also sought a place large enough to allow their professional partnership to develop. Plans to build their own recording studio became a priority.
Situated near Ascot, Tittenhurst, purchased for 145,000, was a spacious Georgian property that was once owned by Victorian philanthropist Thomas Holloway, founder of Royal Holloway College. Its tranquil position, less than thirty miles from London, offered a rural oasis and its 72 acres of land which included extensive formal gardens seemed to offer a place amply meeting all requirements. Outlying estate buildings were refurbished to provide accommodation for employees or for friends whilst the upstairs section of the house became the couples own private sanctum, lavishly refurbished with Oriental rugs and his and hers bathrooms.
Much of the ground floor was transformed into one elongated white room (later familiar from the Imagine video) lined with French windows overlooking the garden.
The year 1969 was pivotal. With Yoko the caustic, contradictory Lennon was exploring different facets of his artistic persona (like the celebrated bed-in that promoted their mutual campaign for peace) and his immersion in the Beatles was waning. In late August, in what would evolve as the final group photoshoot, the four Beatles assembled at Tittenhurst, making ample use of the propertys stunning location to promote their new Abbey Road album, an assured, inspired work that included the likes of Come Together and George Harrisons Something and which betrayed little of the inner tensions slowly unravelling the group.
A month later all was over for The Beatles, John ending the group at an Apple meeting. I started the band. I disbanded it. Its as simple as that, he declared and whilst many could not believe that an era had ended Lennon himself was enthusiastically embracing the prospect of recording music with Yoko, subsequently doing so successfully in the Plastic Ono Band, recorded at his own Ascot Studios.
Trying to forge a new identity away from the Beatles, Lennon felt it was time to address any lingering issues potentially inhibiting his development. Hed never forgiven his father Freddie for what was perceived as childhood desertion but sentiment pacified his resentment. Briefly reconciled during The Magical Mystery Tour, the last time the two would meet was at Tittenhurst in October 1970 on Lennons 30th birthday. Having recently undergone intensive sessions of what was called primal scream therapy Lennon was unequivocally hostile and no further contact happened, although some partial reparation was made shortly before his fathers death.
Ironically, Lennons contact with his own son Julian was similarly spasmodic, although Julian would now spend many weekends at Tittenhurst, a house of fun as he later recalled it. This was the place, whether rowing on the lake or simply spending leisure time together, that he and his father would try to consolidate a bond made more fragile by their geographical separation.
By autumn 1971, the year of Imagine, things were again on the cusp of change. Expending much effort trying to gain custody of Yokos daughter Kyoko and generally disenchanted with England, the couple travelled to America and, as fate would have it, decided to settle there.
Tittenhurst was sold in 1973 to none other than Ringo Starr who stayed until the Eighties when it passed to its current owner Sheik Zayed bin Sultan-al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi.
There are places I remember all my life,
Though some have changed,
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone and some remain.
Lennons song In My Life reflects upon the locales that shaped his life and, happily, Tittenhurst still stands. Whilst recent rebuilding has altered both house and grounds its connection with Lennon endures, witness to a transitional time when he was bridging the divide between the Beatles and the next chapter of his extraordinary life.
Nowhere Boy from High Wycombe
Kim Francis met Aaron Johnson, the star of the new Lennon bio-pic
Hes just 19 years old but hes already been acting for 13 years and has appeared in numerous productions on stage and screen. Aaron Johnson first came to the attention of cinema-going audiences in last years teen Britcom Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging in which he played love interest Robbie. He now looks set for stratospheric stardom on the release of Nowhere Boy, a film directed by his fiance Sam Taylor-Wood about the formative years of John Lennon.
Originally from High Wycombe, where he attended the Jackie Palmer Stage School, Aaron now lives in London.
Youre originally from High Wycombe. Do you still live there?
No I live in London. Its changed a bit since I was there. Ive been away three or four years. Before living in London I was travelling a lot and working away a lot so Ive been used to doing that. I was quite independent at an early age.
How much did you know about Lennon beforehand?
Not many people know the story [told in the film] so it did start me off wanting to find out more. I read a lot of biographies and focused on earlier stages. It was important to find the Lennon as a young boy who is growing into a young man and to find this vulnerable side: a side that most people dont relate to Lennon. Hes a sort of boisterous and aggressive guy on the outside.
Did you listen to the music from the era to help you get into the role?
I had to listen to a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane. I also watched a lot of footage of Elvis and Buddy on stage because they would have been the inspirations he would have watched. I had to record the songs as well before we started filming. It was a good laugh and a good training ground to get into the feel for the era. And it was brilliant it was a fantastic era for the fact that 1950s Liverpool was the port for where music was coming in to so it was the place to be in the 50s.
The reaction to the film has been immense. It was the closing film of the London Film Festival and there has been a lot of press interest. How are you dealing with the attention?
Its overwhelming. Its part of the job really. I dont really know how to explain it. Thats the only way I can get around it - seeing it as work. Youve got to keep your feet on the ground and stay level headed. All I can say is Im just really proud of it. Some of the things you do might not necessarily come out the way you envisioned them or [reflect] how it was on set but this has been a fantastic journey and a wonderful experience and I think a really great film. Its really great to be a part of something like this.
Nowhere Boy opens in cinemas across the UK on December 26
Images supplied by Pete Nash
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