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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there