Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”

17 Responses to “Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert”

  1. Best enjoyed as a double feature with Absolute Beginners.

  2. It’s rather startling to see a luscious tart like Sylvia Syms umpteen years later as the Queen Mum in The Queen But there she is. She also does a teriffic turn in Mike Hodges’ scandalously overlooked I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.

    Cliff Richards was an amusing, uh inspration for David Hockney. When he saw a headline about a mountain-climbing accident — “Two Boys Cling to Cliff All Night” — he thought it was about a three-way with Cliff Richard. Out of this he created one of his most famous early paintings “We Two Boys Together Clinging” – which of course connects Cliff Richard to Walt Whitman in hagiographic frenzy.

  3. Absolute Beginners got an unfair rap as the film that wrecked Goldcrest and the British film industry, but it’s at least LIVELIER than The Mission, or Revolution.

    Producer Nick Powell blames its failure on the lead casting (the supporting ensemble are an amazing array). “I can’t tell you who-all we nearly cast in the lead, because if I did, I would start to cry.”

    It’s on UK TV this week and am keen to revisit, haven’t seen the whole thing since it came out.

    Love the Hockney stuff!

    I know Mike Hodges slightly and he’s a lovely bloke. I was sympathetic to I’ll Sleep, but couldn’t love it as much as I wanted to. But I’ll try it again sometime as I’m always going back to Mike’s stuff. I should write about him sometime.

  4. Darryl McCarthy Says:

    I remember a news/feature item about the early progress towards the making of Absolute Beginners, when Julien Temple was still searching for his leading lady. To illustrate whe he was looking for, he held up a b&w picture of Brigitte Bardot from the mid-1950s. “That’s the woman I’m looking for,” he declared (or words to that effect). As we all know, the woman he found was rather different. BB now looks like a battered piece of leather luggage, Kensit has found steady work in Soapland; probably both are fairly content.

  5. I remember Derek Jarman saying the leads of Absolute Beginners were “very un-English-looking.” Goldcrest was obviously trying for an international blockbuster. But the material is quintessentially British, and unless you’re familair with at least some of the back story (particularly the race riots) it’s incomprehensible. I especially love the “Quiet Life” number with Ray Davies and Mandy Rice-Davies.

    BTW, are you familiar with Christopher Wicking? He’s one of the credited screenwriters on the film. He also wrote (solo) one of my all-time favorite horror films <i.Screma and Scream Again. He was a teriffic film critic when he was writing for Motion back in the 60’s.

  6. I guess Patsy Kensitt could have been seen as a poor man’s Bardot. Should’ve got WENDY JAMES.
    I asked Michael Reeves’ biographer Ben Halligan why all blonde actresses start being nice to animals once they reach middle age (Bardot, Christie, Susan George) and he suggested “Because they’ve already seen everything men have to offer, and it ISN’T ENOUGH.” I assume he meant emotionally.

  7. Ray Davies should do more movies, or we should MAKE more movies that could use him.
    I know Wicking’s screenwriting work, btu haven’t read his criticism, alas. SCREAM is one of the few really disturbing Brit horrors of its era (it made producer Milton Subotsky uncomfortable — the bit with the guy in hospital!) and was admired by no less a personage than Fritz Lang.
    Wicking still seems to be at it, one of the last of the old Hammer hands still working,

  8. Just looking up Scream and Scream Again. I hadn’t heard that Michael Gothard hung himself back in ’92. He was the British Pierre Clementi.

  9. Yes, poor Gothard suffered from terrible depression and acted only intermittently after the early seventies. He was in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and the TV production of JACK THE RIPPER, which are both unworthy of his talents.

    Depression sucks.

  10. Say, David, you’re going to be much-missed on a_film_by. The place is going to be boring as hell once they finish discussing your exit. Not that I blame you for being offended.

  11. Darryl McCarthy Says:

    Blonde actresses who are kind to animals in middle age? here’s another couple: Tippi Hedren and Alexandra Bastedo (honestly, this is not meant to be ironic). Annette Crosbie is very kind to retired greyhounds these days, but she’s hardly middle aged.

  12. Oh yes, “Tippi” and her lions. They weren’t so kind to Melanie Griffiths as a kid: they tried to eat her. Can’t really blame them though, maybe they’d seen an early draft of SHINING THROUGH (which features Sylvia Syms!)

  13. More fun in here than at “a film by.”

  14. Why thank you!

  15. […] undressing is very mild and half-hearted, certainly less impressive than the same year’s EXPRESSO BONGO, but one number, by “Pascaline”, is a sizzler. Perhaps thinking that the dancer’s […]

  16. Met Tommy Steel and Laurence Harvey back in the early 60’s, and they told me Expresso Bongo was put together by Tommy, with him slated for the lead roll. Tommy was mad at the ‘mumsy’ Tommy Steel Story released a year or so previously and wanted to do something approaching the real scene, even to the point of having an X-rating on it. He wanted to expose the bad guys behind the scene, and warn the new talent coming up what to expect, not to go starry-eyed. Harvey was keen on being part of this and signed up. But somewhere along the line the producers got cold feet and rewrote the script and signed Cliff for the lead instead, as Tommy was on his way out and Cliff was the current heart-throb. Tommy was mad again. He knows how to swear, believe me! Realising he was out of it he headed for Hollywood. Bongo was a good film, per se, but Cliff’s best film was, as Laurence Harvey told me, Serious Charge (I’ve never seen that one). The big problem was things were very different in those days, censureship was exceedingly harsh, hence many good films, if shown today, would not draw the crowds. If Tommy Steele and Laurence Harvey had been able to make the films they wanted to (even Harvey’s own films were toned down far more than he wanted) they would be classics that today’s youth would be queueing to see!

  17. Brilliant, thanks for all that! Wow, Tommy Steele in Expresso Bongo would be almost as mind-blowing as Cliff.

    Serious Charge is a Terence Young movie, which makes it automatically of interest, and means that maybe it’ll get a video release one of these days. The IMDb reviews make it sound fascinating!

    My mate Lawrie knew Harvey back in the fifties, and spoke disapprovingly of LH’s habit of urinating from the windows of moving cars!

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