Sunday, 3 November 2013

Soho sweet and sour… Expresso Bongo (1959)

A dip into the late fifties by way of comparison with Beat Girl… this film features a teenage Cliff Richard but still manages to carry enough Frith Street grit and Denmark Street guile to evoke the spirit of Soho. Setting all else aside, the film's use of genuine locations literally grounds its potential cheese in the shops, clubs and coffee bars that give Soho its timeless air: facia may come and go but the grind goes on forever... timeless good times.

Lisa Peake and Laurence Harvey
Based on the successful stage play of the same name and initially intended to feature one Tommy Steel taking side-swipes at the industry that birthed and abused him, it eventually featured the hotter, younger Harry Webb from Cheshunt, near Enfield. Just as Harry got a name change to Cliff so does his would be drummer, Bert Rudge, get re-branded as Bongo Herbert in this film: anyone doubting Expresso Bongo’s intent should check the surname…

Cliff Richard
There’s a wonderful cameo from Susan Hampshire playing a golly-gosh deb besotted with Bongo: “go on, say something in Cockney, apples and pears or something…” she pleads, sounding almost like Armstrong and Miller’s cut-glass chavy pilots…  This is the British laughing at themselves and joking about how easily they’re fooled, yet there’s also a harsher edge that ultimately leaves the successful on the slide and those on their uppers on the up.

Johnny extends credit to Kakky
Laurence Harvey uses his considerable skills to create a thoroughly dislike-able agent and serial abusers of goodwill: Johnny Jackson. We see him working his way down a Soho Street palming his best wishes to all whilst delaying his debts and wisecracking his way to nowhere… networking is only a payday away form not-working. He has a soft-spot for old man Kakky (Martin Miller) a former director... is he a vision of Johnny's future?

Sylvia on stage
His long-suffering girlfriend Maise, the sublime Sylvia Syms,  can sing and dance a bit (not enough for Johnny) and we see her do a rather risqué number at a “gentlemen’s club” surrounded by barely dressed chorus girls and the famed frozen semi-naked tableaux that allowed the strip clubs to avoid censure… It was a particularly British form of censure: allowing a view of naked flesh that was only permitted if it was motionless as if that somehow made it less real, less… overt. Only a public-school educated judiciary could work out the logic in that one.

It's "educational" so long as they don't move...
Never-the-less, this scene is still fairly frank for the time with scant coverings for the artistes and Miss Syms in the most revealing of costumes… Maybe the film’s musical status enabled them to treat this all in a jokier context than say the uncut version of Beat Girl?

Anyway, soon enough the action moves to a suspiciously-spacious coffee bar basement where cheap-skate Johnny is taking Maise for some fish and chips. Their evening is cut short though when Johnny hears Bert sing as he "plays" his bongos backed by Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan aka The Shadows (I’ve tried hard but can’t quite get the sound to sync with Cliff’s movements… by “hard”, I mean once…). In spite of Bert’s protestations that he wants to be a drummer (can’t he see The Shadows have already got a decent percussionist?) Johnny insists he can be a pop singer and that's the last we hear of Cliff's bongos...

Bruce, Hank, Jet and Tony... actor Barry Lowe on bongos
Cliff is ridiculously young but what catches the ear is how much reverb young Hank is using on his guitar, they sound a bit more rock n roll than they’re given credit for!

The newly christened Bongo meets Johnny at his parent’s flat and, in spite of motherly indifference and fatherly drunken stupor, a deal is struck and Bongo signs a contract splitting everything 50:50…

Hermione Baddeley, Lawrence Harvey and Cliff
Johnny kicks into gear and begins to hype his new property; jumping a ride on anything he can to increase his profile. He hi-jacks a BBC documentary being made by the actual Gilbert Harding, on Soho youth, to show off Bongo’s singing and then works his way onto the broadcaster's show to shout down the analysis of a pompous psychiatrist (Patrick Cargill) and a wet priest (Reginald Beckwith).

Denmark Street, London's actual "Tin Pan Alley"
Johnny suckers in the boss of Warwick Records, Mr Mayer (Meier Tzelniker), getting Maise to make a call there, pretending to be from HMV and Bongo’s debut single is soon shooting up the charts.

But Johnny’s biggest twist comes in forcing Bongo on the stage alongside Dixie (Yolande Donlan – director  Val Guest’s wife) for her triumphant UK comeback gig at the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road. He’s a smash and it’s not only Johnny that sees a way of hitching a ride on his rising star.

Cliff, speedos and Yolande Donlan
Dixie’s soon being more than motherly with Bongo luring him to her penthouse apartment atop the Dorchester Hotel – cue the shots of Cliff in speedos that were such an influence on a young and impressionable David Hockney.

But Dixie cares about the kid and especially his rotten contract and it’s dog eat jackal over the closing sequences as everyone fights over the spoils. In the end, you’ve pretty much given up hope for anyone in this sordid world but defeat brings out the best in some and a chance emerges for the film’s most likable and long suffering character…

The battle for Bongo
This uneven film interests and irritates in equal measure but has some good characters and dialogue – “I recognise the face but not the flattery” says Dixie to the ingratiating Johnny.  Harvey is good as the over-bearing huckster and has more than a passing resemblance to Jude Law; he went on to major film stardom and had an edge.

Sublime Sylvia
Sylvia Syms also excels in one of her patiently trusting roles: she’s said it herself but she didn’t always have good or lucky marriages in her films of this period. 

Mr Harvey on screen
Cliff is still learning the ropes but passes muster playing someone not unlike himself. More anodyne fare was to follow and here his role is earthed rather more than in Summer Holiday. Odd that his character appears to be pretty much a virgin, there’s no real love interest other than the motherly-predatory Dixie and religion is introduced as a way of selling a better image (a move I would guess he was later very embarrassed by).

"Go on, say something Cockney..."
There are also glimpse and you’ll miss them cameos from Burt Kwok and the aforementioned Susan Hampshire who would play alongside Cliff in Wonderful Life.

But this doesn’t feel like a “Cliff film” but a twisted ode to the dysfunctional pop business filmed in the streets at its very heart. In the end my star of this film would be London and in particular the surrounds of Soho as old as William Blake and alive still with the spirit of mischief.

Martin Miller, Sylvia Syms and Laurence Harvey
Dusty verdict: Worth watching just to street spot but Harvey and Sims make a good couple and you also have the young Shadows rocking in a way that convinced even Neil Young that they were cool! Beat Girl has the edge though if only for John Barry’s incendiary soundtrack, but the Soho scenes work better than the showbiz second half.

You can buy the DVD on Amazon but it's a bit of a collector's item thanks to the enduring appeal of Mr Harry Webb.
That is Wolf Mankowitz carrying the placard down Hanway Street...
Old man Kakky admires the artistes
Gilbert Harding plays himself

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