Cult Movie: Expresso Bongo drums up Cliff Richard with a shot of satire

Laurence Harvey and Cliff Richard in Expresso Bongo

THE seedier side of the music business has provided rich pickings for film-makers down the years. From the fabulously downbeat Flame (1974) , which positioned the poptastic Slade at the very heart of the industry's seamiest side, to Julien Temple's scathing Sex Pistols vehicle The Great Rock And Roll Swindle (1980), there are plenty of memorable movies to savour.

Few, if any, can claim to have nailed the heartless, nasty, greedy nature of the music world with quite the same outlandish verve as Expresso Bongo, however. Released in 1959 and freshly reissued by the BFI as part of their reactivated Flipside series, it's a film that caught an era in British pop like no other. Part social drama, part camp musical and part standard rock and roll movie, it's an odd mix but hugely entertaining.

Based on a successful stage musical from the year before and gifted with a poisonously satirical script from the great Wolf Mankowitz, it's the simple tale of a wiry Soho hustler Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey), a jazz drummer turned music agent who stumbles across a teenage bongo player called Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) in a groovy espresso bar.

Seeing a star in the making, Johnny renames our moody musician Bongo Herbert (yes, you read that right!) and sets about getting him a record contract and making him a star before it all unravels in the usual spiral of greed, guilt and full-blown musical numbers.

It's a deeply silly film at times but there's no denying the pinpoint satirical power of the message that beams out clearly from the start: get involved with sharks and you can expect to get mauled.

Directed with a knowing nod and a wink by the brilliant and hugely versatile Val Guest (he helmed everything from The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 to Cannon and Ball in The Boys In Blue in 1983), this is an adult musical masquerading as a cheap kids exploitation film.

It's got brilliant London vistas that share the screen with camp studio mock-ups of coffee shops and strip joints and every time a character bursts into song on the Soho streets you have to admire the cappuccino-fuelled brilliance of it all.

Cliff Richard may be better remembered for the smouldering role of the Elvis-lite star that is Bongo Herbert – the lines he gets to mumble about “beating my bongos or I'll blow my stack” are hugely memorable after all – but this is Laurence Harvey's film.

With his ruthless impresario character clearly based on legendary London agent Larry Parnes, whose talent pool included such dramatically named acts as Vince Eager, Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde, he races through every scene imparting the kind of hard-bitten wisdom you just know must have inspired the likes of Malcolm McClaren.

1959 would also see the Lithuanian-born Harvey (real name Zvi Mosheh Skikne, fact fans) Oscar nominated for Room At The Top but he deserves equal praise at least for this immense performance.

Sir Cliff acquits himself well as bongo-bashing Herbert. Odd to think The Young Ones was just around the corner.


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