Sunday, 23 March 2008

‘A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS’ 

DVD Review of:-
‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ with LAURENCE HARVEY,
CLIFF RICHARD, and SYLVIA SYMS
(September 2005 – Prism Leisure/
DD Home Entertainment Special Edition)

In 1960 there was a record issued on big heavy 78rpm shellac called “Old Payola Roll Blues” by humourist Stan Freberg, sending-up that stroppy new-fangled Rock ‘n’ Roll teen-fad. In its comedy grooves label executive Barney Schlock is setting up a recording-session when it’s pointed out that ‘we don’t have a teenage idol’, he says ‘oh yeah, wait here, I’ll get one’. So, with receding sound-effect footsteps, then street noises, he pulls a random kid in off the sidewalk. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m on my way to High School’ slurs this dumb-&-dumber ‘pretty face & a pompadour’. Good. So ‘say High School when I point at ya’ instructs Barney, he does, and it becomes the vocal-line of the record that will shock Clyde Ankle into brief fame. That – extended to movie-length, is pretty much the plot of ‘Expresso Bongo’. Satire. Yet it’s also close enough to the truth of those lost 1950’s origins of Brit-Pop that it functions as an engaging docu-drama of the times. Laurence Harvey, a year on from his breakthrough success in ‘Room At The Top’ is Johnny Jackson, the manipulative would-be manager out for the main chance. He’s kept financially afloat by his girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms), who wants him to use his snappy patter to promote her own stalled singing career, but who works as a five-shows-a-day Soho stripper in the meantime. There’s a long black-&-white tracking shot opening along Compton Street – past ‘Soho Records’, past the ‘Fun-Fair’ pinball hall, ‘Club 100’, ‘Modern Hairdressers’, ‘La Belle Etoile’, past the Hot-Dog stall perched half-on the pavement and half-on the street, past the ‘Wanna come upstairs, dear?’ seen-better-days tart, and into the Intime Theatre’s ‘Non-Stop Revue’ where Maisie dances. It has all the archive authenticity of a lost world. ‘All those bald heads, it’s like playing to an egg-box’ wise-cracks Maisie in a matter-of-fact way, as her dancers shove the boundaries of a 1959 ‘A’-certificate with just tiny conical ‘pasties’ over their nipples. Just as the ‘historical follies’ she introduces conform to that curious prevailing censorship of the time which only allowed immobile stage-nudity to be viewed (pace 2005’s replication in ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’). Meanwhile, further down the street, Johnny stumbles across Herbert Rudge (Cliff Richard) singing in the ‘Tom Tom’ coffee bar. ‘How much lower can you sink?’ demands the record label rep, ‘Just a little lower’ explains Johnny, ‘it’s down in the cellar’. Back then, everyone knew that’s how it happened. Soho’s ‘Two II’s’ was the real-life O’Connell Street expresso-bar where Pop Stars were routinely discovered. And when he tries to cajole Mr & Mrs Rudge into signing the contract – because his newly renamed ‘Bongo Herbert’ is only eighteen, and hence legally under-age, it’s an incident that exactly mirrors agent Larry Parnes getting Reginald Smith’s parents to sign on the line as he launches ‘Marty Wilde’. ‘Expresso Bongo’ was not Cliff’s first film. That was a juvenile delinquent walk-on part in ‘Serious Charge’ which gifted him a no.1 record with Lionel Bart’s “Living Doll” (a song which Marty Wilde had already rejected). But this was the first film built around him, with the Shadows sharp crisp group-dynamics propelling him on the handful of songs that form the spin-off EP – a four-track extended-play soundtrack mini-album. The plaintive “A Voice In The Wilderness” which Cliff & The Shadows perform beneath plastic palm-trees beside the hissing cappuccino-machine also became a huge chart hit. But as Stan Freberg knew, Pop was a teen-fad few took seriously. The manager of ‘Garrick Records’ who reluctantly release Bongo Herbert’s first hit prefers Italian opera and only resorts to putting out Pop because it sells to gullible teenagers. ‘What’s your feeling about the boy?’ probes Johnny. ‘Nausea, nausea’ he responds. TV’s Gilbert Harding appears fronting a BBC ‘Cosmorama’ investigation into how this curious Beat Generation of gyrating kids ‘get their kicks’. The strangeness and incomprehension could not have been greater if they were confronted by hip-hop. That Harvey scams them both into inadvertently promoting his ‘boy’ is both silly, but close enough to prompt real-life analogies. Andrew Loog Oldham ruthlessly scammed for the Rolling Stones. Actor John Leyton was propelled into the Top Ten as the accidental by-product of being exposed to what Harvey calls the ‘telly-hugging imbeciles’ as Pop Star ‘Johnny St Cyr’ in the BBC-TV play ‘Harper’s West One’. Then, when Gilbert Harding chairs an investigative discussion with a bishop and a psychiatrist to earnestly debate the unsettling social implications of Pop music, it only mirrors Adam Faith’s appearance on ‘Face-To-Face’ which provoked incredulity that a teen idol was actually capable of stringing coherent sentences together. Like ‘Clyde Ankle’, Pop stars were not then held in high esteem. And because back then in the musical-Jurassic era, there was show-biz not Rock, Bongo Herbert plays variety at the Palladium, not a stadium. On the same bill he finds himself supporting fading American musical star Dixie Collins. In true ‘Star-Is-Born’ fashion Dixie’s declining star neatly intersects Bongo’s career up-swing. She takes advantage of the photo-opportunities he affords, and seduces him, while planting seeds of doubt in his mind. Yes, he’s a star – sort of, now. But what happens when he hits twenty? If you want to last, if you want a career in music, you must cross-over to the Mums & Dads market. In the late-1950’s, this was the usual expectation. Anyway, as an angry young Rock ‘n’ Roller in a gold lamè jacket – ‘a chip on your shoulder and an H-bomb in your pants, a sneer, a twitch, and hell in your head’ according to Johnny, Cliff Richard was always more cute eye-candy than he was threatening. And I recall the girlie sighs of infatuation in the cinema as the screen fills with his sleeping profile on Dixies’ balcony sun-lounger. With unintended ironic prescience Johnny’s final cynical scam for him is a contrived religiosity, with Bongo singing a weak “Shrine On The Second Floor” to present a newer cleaner Mum-friendly image. Some years later – with his career becalmed by the rise of freakier music-styles, Cliff found solace in real-life conversion through the intervention of evangelist Billy Graham. By then, ‘Expresso Bongo’ was already a unique period curio. A status that has only become more pronounced over the years since. Every filmic attempt to invent a fictional Pop-music career – from ‘Stardust’ to ‘Spinal Tap’ to ‘Velvet Goldmine’, has stumbled over the fact that no matter how gross the fiction, the reality is multiply more absurd. In that sense ‘Expresso Bongo’ is more accurate, more true than most. If it’s sometimes seen as a shallow opportunistic movie, that’s only because it’s the perfect encapsulation of shallow opportunistic times. Pop stars were disposable, when Dixie exposes his management contract as invalid, and he loses his discovery, Johnny Jackson defiantly declares ‘if I can invent one Bongo Herbert, I can invent another…!’ Sam Phillips said pretty much the same thing when he sold Elvis to RCA. But for me, personal own up time – my mother took me to the local fleapit on the film’s first release. I was probably twelve or thirteen. Back then the show was continuously screened, and having seen it once I hung around as it began again. ‘You want to see him do the first song again?’ she assumed. I didn’t disagree. But my real motivation was to eyeball those enticingly-jiggling near-topless strippers in the ‘Non-Stop Revue’… I wonder what present-day Cliff Richard would think of that true confession…?
REVIEW BY ANDREW DARLINGTON

‘VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS…’
THE ORIGINAL MOVIE: ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ (1959). Director: Val Guest. From the West End musical by Julian More & Wolf Mankowitz. Novelisation by Wolf Mankowitz from Ace Books, 1960, 2/6d. Cast – Laurence Harvey (as Johnny Jackson), Sylvia Syms (as Maisie King), Cliff Richard (Herbert Rudge / Bongo Herbert), Yolande Donlan (Dixie Collins), Hermione Baddeley (Penelope – short-sighted prostitute), Eric Pohlmann (Leon Meyer of ‘Garrick Records’), Avis Bunnage (Mrs Rudge), Wilfred Lawson (Mr Rudge), Patrick Cargill (TV psychiatrist) + Burt Kwouk, Susan Hampshire (as vacuous deb) and Wolf Mankowitz (as sandwich-board man)
THE DVD’s: ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ DVD - September 2005 – Prism Leisure www.prismleisure.com
DD Home Entertainment Special Edition with bonus features ‘Look At Life: Coffee Bars’ short colour feature, Val Guest interview, and Original Theatrical Trailer’
THE COLLECTIBLE VINYL: ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ (EP – Columbia SEG 7971) features ‘Love’, ‘A Voice In The Wilderness’, ‘Shrine On The Second Floor’ + ‘Bongo Blues’ (Shadows instrumental) Reaches no.14 during January 1960
45rpm single ‘A Voice In The Wilderness’ b/w ‘Don’t Be Mad At Me’ (Columbia DB 4398) Reaches no.2 January 1960

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