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Expresso Bongo

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
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Directed by: 
Val Guest
Laurence Harvey
Sylvia Sims
Yolande Donlan
Cliff Richard
Gilbert Harding
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Val Guest may not have a name that rivals Carol Reed’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s in terms of its public recognition factor, but wherever you look in the history of British cinema from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s, this versatile former theatre actor-turned-screenwriter, producer and director seems to have been deeply involved in production of the most current forms of popular cinema and TV of his day, invariably stamping his own very identifiable take on them. Guest’s pivotal role in the rebirth of Hammer as a studio that is today associated primarily with the Horror film after being asked to helm “The Quatermass Xperiment” – the studio’s first X-rated adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s popular 1950s BBC television drama -- now ensures he will be remembered by posterity as a proponent of a quintessentially British postwar take on science fiction that mixed in elements of Horror. But in truth, Guest had been, and continued to be throughout his career, proficient in a wide category of genres. Working as a staff writer for Gainsborough Pictures (where his office at Islington Studios, the company’s base in Poole Street, was situated next to Alfred Hitchcock’s) Val Guest was at one time primarily associated with the comedy genre thanks to a series of screenwriting collaborations with Marcel Varnel and George Marriott Edgar that saw him writing for some of the decade’s key variety entertainers and comedy actors throughout the 1930s, like comedian Will Hay and the Crazy Gang troupe (which included Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen). His first job as a director came in 1943 and was an Arthur Askey vehicle titled “Miss London Ltd.”; it was followed by a series of musical comedies, light thrillers and romps some also starring Askey as well as the likes of Margaret Rutherford, Frankie Howard and Guest’s second wife, Yolande Donlan.

This flair for broad entertainments made him a natural choice for Hammer when, in 1954, the studio was looking for someone to direct two spin-off films it was producing based on a popular BBC radio comedy series of the day called “Life with the Lyons”. Although Guest went on to direct two straight thrillers immediately after this, Hammer was clearly taking a chance when it decided to ask a director who, till then, had been primarily thought off as a purveyor of musicals and light comedy, the chance to direct its first X-rated horror picture. However, the evocative strain of social documentary realism that Guest was to braid into the science-fiction fantasy narratives of these two ground-breaking 1950s Quatermass films, thanks to location shooting in which he often employed hand-held camera work, offered a whole new direction for Guest’s cinema that he and Hammer were quick to seize upon. There were still thereafter the occasional forays into light entertainment such as the unofficial Joan Simms Carry On comedy “Carry On Admiral”, or the Peter Sellers film “Up the Creek” and its Frankie Howard-starring sequel “Further Up the Creek” (indeedGuest would continue his association with this genre well into the ‘saucy ‘70s’ when he was to be found behind the camera for dismal soft core British sex comedies“Au Pair Girls” and “Confessions of a Window Cleaner”), but Guest’s most memorable work for Hammer from now-on displayed a gritty, harder hitting approach that included the documentary realist flourishes evident in his two Stanley Baker pictures: one a controversial indictment of British wartime atrocities in Burma called “Yesterday’s Enemy”, and the other the Manchester-based crime drama “Hell is a City”. This realism also marks the faux reportage style of his 1961 Cold War era environmentalist nuclear sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Caught Fire”, which was, incidentally, written by Wolf Mankowitz: the creator of the stage musical Expresso Bongo. Back in 1959, the two men had collaborated on this, the musical’s film adaptation, now coming to Blu-ray and DVD as part of the BFI's Flipside series. 

“Expresso Bongo” the movie was, like its source, a sprightly satire on the burgeoning Soho rock ‘n’ roll scene of the period in which Guest cast Cliff Richard -- a deracinated British teenage Elvis who was, during the late 1950s, still in the process of re-moulding himself from rebel rocker into a household variety name. The film now looks rather incongruous when viewed wedged into the Guest filmography between the tough drama of “Yesterday’s Enemy” and “Hell is a City”, but given his obvious penchant in the ‘30s and ‘40s for light musical comedies, combined with a recent preference for filmmaking techniques that had helped many later films of his achieve the impression of being documentary records of their era, capable of evoking particular times or places associated with the material, Guest was the ideal man for the task of authentically translating from stage to screen Mankowitz’s acid tongued musical theatre deconstruction of the newly emergent London-based pop industry and its discontents. A documentarian tendency had been discernible in Val Guest’s work from as far back as 1949, when he both wrote and directed the low-budget crime picture-cum-revue showcase“Murder at the Windmill” (“Mystery at the Burlesque” in the US) and becomes pertinent once again when we take stock of the complexity of Expresso Bongo’s relationship to the British rock and roll scene of the late 1950s. (“Murder at the Windmill” is valuable today not so much for its dramatic qualities, as for the historical record it provides of the performers and variety acts who once appeared on the stage at the legendary Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street: a venue that was still famous at the time for a particular sort of nude tableaux vivants that would remain much in evidence well into the 1960s.)

The film opens with a title sequence that weaves the film’s credits into a fairground bustle which exhibits the district of Soho captured in its 1950s heyday, where shooting galleries, pinball machines, strip clubs and coffee bars with jazz cellars line a crowded neon-soaked warren of byways between Frith Street and Charing Cross, shot virtually guerrilla-style by Guest and his crew. The production apparently had to pay a prostitute from the area the estimated earnings she'd loose while the crew used her upper storey flat to shoot some overhead sequences from her upstairs window, according to Guest’s recollections on the commentary track. As Andrew Roberts mentions in his essay printed in the booklet that accompanies this new BFI dual format edition: ‘”Expresso Bongo” now appears as one of the few films that truly captured the zeitgeist of Macmillan-era consumerism’. It does so by recreating the energy at the epicentre of Britain’s Tin Pan Alley.    

As a filmed piece of musical theatre however, the movie appears at best a curiously lukewarm affair, since it takes fully half the picture for the first musical number proper (that isn’t either a cabaret or band performance) to occur on screen; neither is it hugely successful if one tries to view it in the context of it being a contemporary example of the British rock and roll pictures then being produced elsewhere at around this same period, because, again, most of the musical numbers in the 1959 version can’t really be counted as authentic rock ‘n’ roll … indeed,  the film is barely convincing even when taken merely as a straight-forward vehicle for its callow teen idol, Cliff Richard. The nineteen-year-old Cliff performs a number of times -- but only his first number, Love, performed with his young beat band The Drifters (later renamed The Shadows so as to avoid confusion with their American vocal group namesake) provides an outlet for Cliff’s gyrating ‘boy-next-door’ persona, or The Shadows’ characteristic electric twang. The film is clearly the first stage in the softening up of the Cliff image, which was following the same trajectory by this point that is set out for the character he plays in the film, namely to exploit the teen market in order to get a foot in the door, before switching to lighter variety fare that has a much broader appeal.

However, the movie does capture something of the general spirit, vibrancy and excitement of London’s popular culture during the '50s, even though the original stage musical had set out largely to ridicule it. The film has, for this reason, developed a following amongst older viewers who still fondly remember the beginnings of this era,  since it accurately documents the locale and its denizens thanks to Guest’s careful attention to detail in a mise-en-scene that sees the film throughout utilising believable contemporary Soho locations. Despite one of the main purposes of the original 1958 West End stage property having been to excoriate the shady business practices of the industry, the alleged talentlessness of the pretty boy musical acts it foisted upon the musical culture of the day, and the vacuity of the screaming teen audiences the entire Rock and Roll phenomena had been cynically manufactured to cater for while divesting it of its newly earned cash, the film is nowhere near as sardonic as its source: for instance, the original stage play paints the young rock star Bongo Herbert, who is the character played by Cliff in the film, as a talentless idiot, but the mere fact of Guest casting Cliff Richard immediately puts this version on a more authentic footing, since Cliff is clearly no actor and is merely essaying a hesitant version of himself as both performer and as off-stage persona. His inadequacy as an actor at this point (the ambitious star would be better by the time he came to shoot his more famous colour musicals later in the 60s) only adds to the simplicity and sympathetic nature of the screen Bongo, as we witness the naive boy’s life utterly transformed by his ascendancy.

Guest is clearly more concerned than Mankowitz with facilitating an accurate portrait of the music industry circa the 1950s -- the people inhabiting it, the media that disseminates it and the audience that consumes it -- than he is with judging the inadequacies of the rock phenomenon. The film’s main focus is on ex-jazz drummer Johnny Jackson and his relentless efforts to make it big. This new rock fad is just the latest outlet for the wheeler-dealing and scheming dreamt up by Johnny in his seedy Soho flat’s cramped kitchenette. Cast as a self-styled impresario and promoter, the character, as brilliantly played by Laurence Harvey (already familiar to 1950s audiences as Joe Lampton in “Room at the Top”) is a sharp-suited Soho shyster with a rakishly applied Trilby who sets out to mould an indifferent youngster called Burt Rudge into a quivering, brilliantined rock idol he re-christens Bongo Herbert. Jackson is clearly modelled on the like of Larry Parnes: wily promotors who in the 1950s took ordinary but ambitious teenage boys like Reg Patterson and Ron Wycherley and rebranded them as figures of teenage sexual allure going by names such as Marty Wilde and Billy Fury, etc., putting them on a meagre weekly wage and keeping them occupied with a brutal schedule on the variety circuit as, behind the scenes, they hovered up most of their unwitting charges’ royalties. Tommy Steele was the first real British Rock star of this era but in 1959 Cliff Richard had become the latest in a long line of such discoveries, many of which had first been picked up when playing their spots at the famous 2i’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street – ground zero for British rock ‘n’ roll.

Thus Burt is spied playing his bongos in just such an establishment, which Jackson visits with his cabaret stripper and aspiring singer girlfriend Maisie King (Sylvia Syms). Jackson signs Burt up with a contract that is later proved invalid because the boy is underage (Cliff had to be accompanied by his mother when being cast in the film, for the same reason), but before this comes to light as a plot point the movie feels like a pitch perfect satire that skewers all levels of the British rock scene, from the stodgy, suited record boss (played by Meier Tzelniker) in his heavy oak offices, who hates pop music but who is nevertheless fooled by Jackson into signing Bongo; to the TV discussion panel (hosted by real-life  What’s My Line  TV personality Gilbert Harding) in which a psychiatrist  and a C of E reverend pontificate to great comic effect  on the new youth rock movement, as Jackson attempts to subvert the event to promote Bongo’s latest 45. The first two-thirds of the film simply document, through gentle observational comedy and Mankowitz’s always sharp dialogue, each stage of Jackson’s promotional campaign to get Bongo’s platter into the charts, first by setting up a stage in the cellar of the Tom Tom Club coffee bar (with the promise of a free coffee for each new customer) as a performance space to get Bongo noticed, and then by wrangling a BBC crew into making a documentary about the  fictitious ‘scene’ associated with the place, which is really just a means of providing free publicity for the venue and for Bongo! Through Maisie, whose saucy backstreet stage show has been cleaned up for a Palladium-type TV extravaganza (the Soho location is always a handy excuse for a few strip scenes), Jackson is able to get Bongo his big TV break after (ironic this, given Cliff’s real-life persona) persuading the aspirant star to ‘go religious’ as an image gimmick!  The way in which the careers of the fictional Bongo and the actor playing him frequently intersect provides some interesting ponder points: for instance, in the film we see Bongo’s single The Shrine on the Second Floor edging its way up the hit parade after Jackson’s promotional efforts; but the balled was later released as the A side of Cliff’s Expresso Bongo EP off the back of the film’s commercial success, where after it proved equally as successful for Cliff as it had been for Bongo in the film!

In the last third of the movie the scope of the narrative widens to consider the effect of this new wave of teenage rock and roll on the wider entertainment industry, and the focus shifts from Jackson to the effect of such a change of lifestyle on young Bongo, having gone from the poor working-class backstreets of Hoxton to a showbiz world of swank hotels. The teen idols of the day were really just being groomed to eventually become all-round entertainers (a film career was one avenue of escape -- and one that was being exploited by Cliff Richard in the 1960s, and even more so by Adam Faith) -- and how this new phenomenon impacts on the traditional performers of the day is examined with the introduction of fading American musical star Dixie Collins, played by Guest’s glamorous second wife Yolande Donlan. After guesting on her live comeback show for British TV, the humble and completely inexperienced Bongo is seduced by the older Collins, who promptly discovers how he is being exploited by Jackson (Jackson, like Elvis’s manager the Colonel, is on a 50/50 split percentage contract) and that Jackson has no legal hold over him because Bongo was too young to sign up at the time.

Eventually Jackson is cast aside, his cash cow act now taken away from him for good, and he ends up back on the streets of Soho hustling more deals while Bongo is swept up by Dixie’s American promoters who want him to tour the states, but without the now surplus-to-requirements baggage of Dixie Collins herself in attendance. For Dixie finds her own career is now on the skids too, since TV and pop music have replaced the old-school variety performance at which she’d once excelled; something she only realises when she spirits Bongo back to the London Dorchester Hotel after her show, and the autograph hunters waiting at the door turn out only to be there to see him, not her! This last section provides some degree of camp, with Donlan appearing in a series of costumes that become increasingly outrageous, including a completely transparent skirt, while young Cliff is pictured wearing skimpy striped trunks at one point as he’s snogged by his female benefactor during a sunbathing session on the rooftop of the penthouse suite Dixie holes him up in to keep him out of the clutches of Jackson. On the commentary Yolande Donlan ponders if she might have been the last woman Cliff Richard ever kissed!     

There are two alternative versions of the film, both of which are included on this BFI dual format 2-disc. The original 1959 release features all the songs written by David Heneker and Monty Norman for the stage musical that were also shot for the film, while the 1962 re-issue cuts most of these numbers to lend more emphasis to Cliff Richard’s pop material. The latter version was for many years the only one available, and so it is this one that features the commentary track included here, recorded back in 2005 with Val Guest and Yolande Donlan discussing the making of the film with the well informed Marcus Hearne always on hand to provide clarification and to raise points for discussion. A trailer and a gallery of stills and press materials are included, and an accompanying booklet features essays and biographical information, as well as full credits for all films included on the discs. The BFI have also added two short movies to the release: a 1954 documentary on the Youth Club which tells us a lot about the fear of juvenile delinquency prevalent in the 1950s; and Michael Winner’s very first film“The Square”. Shot with a £1000 loan in 1957, the film is probably included for its own record of a vanished 1950s London, and it even includes a sequence with an impromptu performance by a Skiffle group led by influential folk musician Rory McEwen.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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