Showbiz in Soho is artificial, gaudy and vulgar, but Laurence Harvey’s slick promoter-con man thinks he can cheat at the pop music game. Cliff Richard is his new discovery, a teen crooner who digs the bongo drums. Wolf Mankowitz’s portrait of talent, glitz, and double-dealing in music and TV showbiz also stars Sylvia Syms as a Soho stripper and Yolande Donlan as a singing star trying to make a comeback. The disc contains director Val Guest’s uncut original version.
Cohen / Kino Lorber
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 111 106 min. / Street Date January 18, 2022 / Available from Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Laurence Harvey, Sylvia Syms, Yolande Donlan, Cliff Richard, Meier Tzelniker, Ambrosine Phillpotts, Eric Pohlmann, Gilbert Harding, Hermione Baddeley, Reginald Beckwith, Avis Bunnage, Sally Geeson, Kenneth Griffith, Burt Kwouk, Wilfrid Lawson, Patricia Lewis, Barry Lowe, Martin Miller, Susan Hampshire, Peter Myers, Lisa Peake, The Shadows.
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Art Director: Tony Masters
Costumes: Beatrice Dawson
Film Editor: Bill Lenny
Music and Lyrics by: Robert Farnon, Val Guest, Norrie Paramor, Bunny Lewis, Paddy Roberts
Musical numbers from original show by: Julian More, Monty Norman, David Heneker
Written by Wolf Mankowitz based on his musical play written with Julian More
Produced and Directed by Val Guest
Twenty years ago this show came to the American Cinematheque as part of a Val Guest retrospective; director Guest and star Yolande Donlan were in attendance. We didn’t know at the time that we were seeing a cut re-issue version that dropped several minutes of musical numbers. The re-instated material makes a big difference — making an unusual show even more unusual: Laurence Harvey sings?
Val Guest had quite a run as a screenwriter and director, making a big splash at Hammer Films with science fiction and gritty movies about gangsters and POW camps. Some of his early pictures also starred Yolande Donlan, a spirited American with some humble early credits (The Devil Bat) who nonetheless could carry substantial roles with style and aplomb. They would soon marry, and stay together for almost 50 years.
Guest had produced his own movies before but in 1959 he took on Expresso Bongo, an adaptation of a stage musical about the pop music industry. The film’s star is Laurence Harvey, who this same year became an international name with Jack Clayton’s dramatic hit Room at the Top. Harvey’s semi-comic character here will be a surprise to viewers accustomed to his humorless, brooding characters in Butterfield 8, The Alamo and The Manchurian Candidate. He’s a ball of manic energy in Expresso Bongo, and his enthusiasm is matched by his co-stars Sylvia Syms and Yolande Donlan.
Adapting his own musical play was Wolf Mankowitz, a flamboyant talent noted for TV work and the sensitive screenplay for Carol Reed’s A Kid for Two Farthings (1955). Mankowitz wrote the play in conjunction with Julian More, and More also wrote its music with David Heneker (Half a Sixpence) and Monty Norman (the James Bond Theme). On stage, the leading part of Johnny went to Paul Scofield, later of A Man for All Seasons. Co-starring were Millicent Martin (Alfie) and James Kenney ( Captain Horatio Hornblower, Cosh Boy).
If the movie Expresso Bongo isn’t that well known in the U.S. today, it’s perhaps due to its satrical view of a specific British show-biz scene. A quasi-backstage musical, it centers on Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey), a slick and unprincipled talent manager who attempts to ride a teen singing sensation into the big time. The show begins with gaudy images of Piccadilly Circus and Soho, where Jackson’s fast-talking skills get him free food and services on every street. This is Soho before ‘Swinging London’, before it was transformed by big money. The district features strip clubs but it also attracts crowds of teenagers looking for somewhere to dance. New entertainers play in arcades and ‘coffee bars’ — juke joint kid hangouts.
Val Guest goes for a busy, nervous tension. The main titles echo The Archers’ I Know Where I’m Going! — credit cards show up on placards and advertising boards, and even in neon. Writer Wolf Mankowitz himself carries a sandwich board bearing the writing and directing credits. The spelling ‘expresso’ is part of the title, but the Italian spelling ‘espresso’ appears on a storefront sign.
Johnny Jackson is not a criminal, just a glib opportunist-con man looking for a fast way to get rich. Johnny keeps his stripper girlfriend Maisie King (Sylvia Syms of Ice Cold in Alex) on a string, dodging her pleas for help to develop her singing voice. Johnny instead prowls for new teen talent to exploit. He finds the perfect client in Bert Rudge (19 year-old teen singer Cliff Richard), a kid who performs at an arcade and enjoys playing bongo drums. Johnny renames him ‘Bongo Herbert,’ and with lies and subterfuge promotes him to record producer Mayer (Meier Tzelniker) as the next big sensation. TV personality Gilbert Harding (himself) is taping Maisie’s show at the Intime Club; Johnny persuades him to bring his TV crew to Bongo’s first gig at a coffee bar. He later extorts money from Harding, claiming that Bongo is a big-time professional. Nobody knows that Johnny’s management contract gives him a whopping 50% of everything Bongo earns.
Bongo Herbert’s fame rises when Johnny leverages the TV coverage to secure him a guest spot on Mayer’s upcoming television special. It’s to promote Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan), a singing star aiming for a comeback. Dixie throws a cocktail reception to play the diva for unimpressed reporters; her publicist Lady Rosemary (Ambrosine Phillpotts of Room at the Top) can’t keep Johnny from crashing the party to promote Bongo. Bongo gets along well with both Maisie and Dixie, both of whom sympathize with his situation. He also begins a relationship with Dixie, who is over twice his age. Johnny’s machinations result in Bongo becoming the hit of the show, dashing Dixie’s career revival hopes. Instead of blaming Bongo, she looks for a way to derail Johnny’s exploitative gravy train.
Expresso Bongo moves very quickly, propelled by busy pre-Beatles pop music. We see skiffle entertainers on the sidewalk but also skilled kids with electric guitars — presumably The Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backup band. A frustrated musician and arranger, Johnny his ticket to the big-time is selling teen talent to the old guard in the record companies. Mayer hates his company’s new music and prefers to listen to opera. The demoralized TV producer Gilbert Harding doesn’t understand anything, and is an easy target for Johnny’s hard-sell onslaught.
Hucksters and con-men in American show-biz stories tend to be lovable, as with Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man. When American films got serious about showbiz media manipulation, as with Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, the general public didn’t embrace them.
Expresso Bongo’s Johnny Jackson is aggressive, abrasive, pushy. Some of Johnny’s double-talk and agitated mannerisms remind us of comedian Phil Silvers, only not nearly as endearing: there’s always a scheme, and somebody is always being used. At one point he’s critized as being ‘spivvy’ — a ‘spiv’ being a sharp street hawker of dubious goods. Johnny’s not explicity labeled as Jewish, as is the record producer Mr. Mayer. American movies generally shied away from serious depictions of such characters, while English films were less timid when examining ethnic issues and community values, even when that impression might be unflattering.
Another very different English musical about the same basic scene is Julien Temple’s flashy, glamorous Absolute Beginners (1986). Mankowitz and Guest’s movie is more like Odets, Lehman and Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success — the characters may be less caustic but the business end of showbiz and fame is equally cutthroat. Johnny Jackson’s amoral attitude toward his associates is really nothing abnormal: Mayer, Dixie, and Johnny are great chums only when success and profit seem assured. But the movie doesn’t comment at all on another more obvious violation of social norms — statutory rape. Bongo and Dixie appear to be pursuing a sex relationship, and he is definitely a minor.
It’s interesting to note that the British censors granted Bongo a Certificate ‘A,’ not the ‘X’ routinely handed out to horror movies and films with extensive violence. The BBFC apparently didn’t blink at the relationship between Bongo and Dixie; I have no idea if the mild nudity at the Intime Club was even an issue in 1959 England.
As is the norm for Wolf Mankowitz, the witty, brittle dialogue reminds us of the pre-Code films of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Johnny both charms and repels a constant parade of colorful characters. Bongo’s music fills the coffee bar of the fussy Leon (Eric Pohlman of 55 Days at Peking), who becomes upset when the kid’s excited fans break his coffee cups. Johnny advises streetwalker Penelope (Hermoine Baddeley of Brighton Rock) that the cops will bother her less if she conducts her business in a car. Appearing on Gilbert Harding’s talk show on juvenile delinquency, Johnny hogs the microphone to promote Bongo. Sharing a panel with the sanctimonious Reverend Tobias (Reginald Beckwith) gives Johnny the notion to hype Bongo with a veneer of sentiment and religion: he has Bongo sing a drippy church song dedicated to his mother. ↑ The scene is played straight, yet it may remind viewers of Paddy Chayefsky, who also began with ethnic working class dramas before moving up to satires on bigger issues.
Numerous incidental characterizations aren’t given on-screen billing. Burt Kwouk of the 007 and Pink Panther franchises has a one-line bit on the Soho sidewalk. Intime club ticket seller Chinese Rose (Lisa Peake of She) shares with Johnny a realistic view of strip clubs. ↓ Bongo’s working-class mum (Avis Bunnage of The L-Shaped Room) is rightly convinced that Johnny is a predator with a racket. Kenneth Griffith (of Circus of Horrors) produces the strip shows. Lady Rosemary’s daughter Cynthia (Susan Hampshire of The Three Lives of Thomasina) is a brainless ninny, and her boyfriend (Peter Myers of The Colditz Story) a clownish twit. Hampshire has only a few seconds on screen, and is hilarious.
The very familiar Martin Miller of Exodus and Peeping Tom plays Kakky, a rattle-brained ex- film director that Johnny indulges with handouts, like a good luck charm. Also un-billed is the great Wilfrid Lawson, from the classic Pygmalion and The Wrong Box. He’s Bongo’s dad, an unregenerate drunk.
Johnny Jackson’s ‘charming rogue’ is still basically a louse. He does seem to love Maisie, although he might exploit her if he could find an angle. Some of his nocturnal prowlings suggest the seedy milieu of Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City. Johnny is not a criminal like Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian but it is not pleasant to see him mistreat Maisie (who loves him anyway) and run his cheap scams on Mayer, Dixie, and Bongo. Johnny would argue that he’s the one who made Bongo Herbert a star, but Dixie and Maisie know that Bongo is being exploited for short-term profit: the boy’s tenure as a teen sensation may be very short-lived. The fictional Bongo doesn’t align with the real Cliff Richard. While he never quite caught on in the U.S., Richard maintained his fame as a British pop music success, selling hundreds of millions of records. He kept his career going for over six decades, and was knighted in 1995.
A Tale of Two Bongos.
Three years after its London premiere Expresso Bongo was reissued in a second, edited version, dropping several brief musical numbers that originated in the stage show. They are not the scenes of Maisie, Dixie and Bongo performing on-stage, but four or five genuine musical numbers, where characters burst out in song. Sylvia Syms and Yolande Donlan put their numbers across well, but we’re really surprised to see Laurence Harvey in full-on happy mode, like Robert Preston or Dan Dailey. Meier Tzelniker’s song ‘Nausea’ expresses his reaction to rock’n’roll music; it plays like a spoof song one might read in Mad Magazine.
It can be argued that these holdovers from the stage play simply don’t work. By 1959, we really expect musicals to have bright color and high-key lighting. We’re given no clue that Expresso is going to trot out conventional songs that fight its own overall naturalistic tone; the first pops on more than 40 minutes into the picture! Val Guest may have thought this himself, as the shorter version bridges the songs with alternate takes and new material that appears to have been filmed during the main shoot.
Interestingly, the original show’s composers and lyricists David Heneker, Monty Norman and Julian More also wrote the very successful English-language version of the French musical Irma La Douce (1956) . . . and their work was tossed out when Billy Wilder produced his feature film version.
We wonder if the original play concludes as does the movie, letting Johnny Jackson partly off the hook for his crimes. After scraping and squirming for advantage for two hours, Johnny accepts his comeuppance with unexpected good grace. His exit scene is given a positive spin. Who knows, maybe he will be more honest with his next discovery or business partner.
Cohen Film Collection’s Blu-ray of Expresso Bongo is an excellent 2K restoration done by the British Film Institute. Only the original full-length 111-minute version is present. An earlier BFI disc limited to Region B has both versions plus a long list of extras. A ‘movie-censorship’ page has a full rundown on the differences between the versions. In addition, a page called ‘Reel Streets’ points out the actual Soho locations where some of Expresso Bongo was filmed. Other street scenes were filmed in a studio.
The Dyaliscope images look fine. Cameraman John Wilcox (Outcast of the Islands, The Last Valley) helps Val Guest pack the frame with busy sidewalk traffic, dancing teenagers and prancing showgirls at the Intime Club.
The uncompressed audio track is in two-channel stereo. The only extra is a trailer, which is actually a Cohen Collection promo, a new edit.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: promo trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 2, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson