Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed: How John Lennon's role in a 1960s war film inspired a whole new movie

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new film about a teacher who travels across Spain to meet John Lennon, acting in a war movie there, is based on a true story

David Trueba's film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed takes its title from The Beatles' song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which John Lennon wrote while he was in Almeria, Spain, acting in Richard Lester's How I Won the War in 1966.

Lennon may only have had a minor role playing Musketeer Gripweed in Lester's war comedy, yet his presence in the film was the big story; his image used to sell the movie on posters at the time and on the DVD today. It was during the making of the film that Lennon first came to wear what would become his trademark circular glasses. In his only non-music related acting turn, Lennon played a soldier revealed to have once supported Fascist Oswald Mosley.

Trueba's tale starts with news footage, where it's postulated that following on from The Beatles' sell-out tour of America, Lennon was unhappy with the foursome and was considering acting as a career.

The action then segues into a whimsical tale about English teacher Antonio San Roman (a brilliant performance by Spanish national treasure Javier Cámara), who has his students recite Beatles songs as a learning tool. One amusing early scene sees his pupils each relay one line of “Help!” On hearing that Lennon is filming in Almeria, the Beatles fan drives across Franco's Spain in the hope of meeting him. Remarkably the film is based on a true story.

“I read the story in a paper in 2006,” says Trueba. “They were celebrating 40 years of Lennon being in Almeria, and I read about this teacher who made this trip and asked Lennon to make corrections in his notebook. The teacher used to listen to Radio Luxembourg and write down the lyrics of their songs, as he heard them, however he couldn't get the lyrics from the Revolver album right as they started using more psychedelic words. When they met, the teacher gave him the notebook and Lennon corrected the lyrics and filled in the gaps. He also corrected songs written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison – 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Taxman'.”

Michael Crawford, Lennon and Lester at a press conference for the movie in Hamburg, 1966 Michael Crawford, Lennon and Lester at a press conference for the movie in Hamburg, 1966 The real-life teacher Juan Carrón Gañàn is now 88 years old and still teaching English. “The notebook still exists,” says Trueba. “The funny thing is that Lennon used colours when correcting the lyrics. For 'Yellow Submarine' he used a yellow pen, and if he wrote the word 'green' he would use a green pen. You only have to look at the way he did the corrections and you think this guy must have been funny.” After this meeting, The Beatles included printed sheets of their song lyrics with their following albums.

The climactic scenes take place around the set of How I Won the War, and I ask the 44-year-old at the San Sebastián Film Festival if he got in touch with Lester to discuss the shoot. He responds, “I tried. I was passed on an email from someone I know and I wrote to him. I don't know if he's maybe too old, or tired, I suppose he is tired of talking about this Beatles adventure – he directed two movies with them – and probably everyone is asking him about them, or maybe he didn't get the email.

“I didn't push it too hard because I didn't want to be distracted by the Lennon story or the How I Won the War stuff. I knew a guy who worked on the movie – he told me Lennon hated shooting the movie; he was tired, bored, didn't like Almeria and wondered what he was doing there.”

It turns out that 81-year-old Lester didn't get the email. “I've heard of the director,” Lester informs me from his West Sussex home, “but I hadn't heard about this film before.”

Acting on a whim: Natalia de Molina, Francesc Colomer, Javier Camára and Ramon Fontserè in ‘Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed' Acting on a whim: Natalia de Molina, Francesc Colomer, Javier Camára and Ramon Fontserè in ‘Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed' Lester retired from filmmaking after making the Paul McCartney concert movie Get Back in 1991. Born in 1932 in Philadelphia, he moved across the Atlantic to London in 1953 and began directing television shows. In between making two films starring The Beatles he won the Palme d'Or in 1965 for his sexual comedy The Knack… and How to Get It. An influential director in the 1960s and 1970s, his career also saw him controversially take over the directorial reigns from Richard Donner on Superman II and make three films based on Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.

The Beatles personally chose Lester to make A Hard Day's Night after seeing his Oscar-nominated short film The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). The director says of Lennon's demeanour on his Spanish set, “He wasn't unhappy, he was bored. There is always boredom on set, but when we did the first two films together there were four of them and they could form a defensive manoeuvre against the rest of the world, which was fine. We all accepted that. Here he was on his own and he was treated normally, as every actor would be. Never in the time that I knew John did I have words with him, ever. I had great respect for him because I thought that he was an interesting and serious young man.”

But Lester admits there were some drawbacks in casting him: “I didn't think, and I should have, that if you put someone like John in a straight acting role and you tell everybody that it's a straight acting role they won't believe you. They think sooner or later he'll play the guitar. I think it did John and I a disservice because people were disappointed and they wanted more.”

The film received mixed notices, but Lester says there are no regrets about his decision to cast the Liverpudlian: “He had a certain quality that an ordinary actor would not have given. It was a small part that I think he did extremely well.” As for the film's assertion that Lennon was considering acting as a career, Lester is less convinced: “In Germany, before we even came to Spain, we shot his death scene. I said to him, 'You know John if you really wanted to do this, you could probably be a really decent actor,' and he said, 'Yeah! But it's fucking silly isn't it?' That took care of that.”

There were other issues that came with Lennon's being “more popular than Jesus Christ”, as he once famously described The Beatles. “We were in a small studio just outside Hamburg and we went to cut John's hair off,” recalls Lester. “As they started chopping his hair, about six or seven people were clearing up, and I remember thinking the Germans are so obsessively neat. It never occurred to me that they were getting plastic bags and his hair was being flogged all around Hamburg for 20 years.”

There is a scene in Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed shot in Santa Isabel, the villa where Lennon stayed during the production that inspired him to write “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Lennon said Santa Isabel reminded him of a Salvation Army garden near his childhood home in Liverpool called Strawberry Fields. Lester says, “I never actually went to John's villa. I know that Neil Aspinall was with him. I'm not sure about Cynthia [Lennon]. I think she came out to visit, whether she was there all the time or not, I don't know. Ringo [Starr] came out with Maureen [Cox, Starr's first wife].”

As for the writing of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Lester had no idea about that, nor did he know about the teacher who met with Lennon. It seems that even Lester is learning something new about his production, 47 years after it took place.

'Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed' will be out next year

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us