Idol on Parade Review
One of the undoubted DVD highpoints of last year was Network’s unearthing of The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Here were six episodes from 1960 - restored and remastered - that seemed to prefigure that decade’s entire comic landscape. The humour was alternately hip, absurd, surreal, subversive and knowing. The first episode saw its star, Anthony Newley, quite literally break with convention by leaving behind a standard multi-camera sitcom set-up and heading out into the everyday world. The weekly comedy show was deconstructing itself and transforming into something different. Newley addressed the camera, was filmed on location and captured on celluloid rather than videotape. Though we shouldn’t neglect the massive influence of the Goons’ particular brand of comedy on the sixties, Gurney Slade was only a few short steps away from Monty Python, the Beatles’ movies, even the out-there climax to The Prisoner. Marty Feldman was evidently taking notes, and perhaps so too was Spike Milligan.
Catching up with The Strange World of Gurney Slade in 2011 it was impossible not to give Newley something of a reconsideration. His career has been a strange beast and one that can be looked on in a number of ways, though comedy trailblazer wasn’t always the immediate choice. He’s the man, for example, who would exert a massive influence on David Bowie during his formative years. He’s also the man who co-wrote the lyrics to Goldfinger and had novelty hit records with Strawberry Fair and Pop Goes the Weasel. And he’s the man whose acting work would take in everything from David Lean (playing the Artful Dodger in his version of Oliver Twist) to EastEnders. In fact, his filmography deserves a proper look as it’s an odd one. Initially Newley was predominantly the straight actor, a regular in war pictures and one-time co-star to the likes of Robert Mitchum and John Mills. There were occasional hints of the distinctive comic talent showcased in Gurney Slade (notably the underrated Don’t Ever Leave Me from 1949 when Newley was still a teen), but these were few and far between. In later years the film roles switched almost exclusively to cult items and notorious flops, in titles as divergent as The Small World of Sammy Lee, the 1967 musical version of Doctor Dolittle, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie and Newley’s own (he was writer, director, producer, performer and composer) Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?.
The switch from straight performer to someone more wayward and eccentric in their choices didn’t come about with Gurney Slade, however, but rather occurred a year earlier with Idol on Parade (originally released as Idle on Parade). This 1959 comedy was the film to set Newley on his path as a musical performer, spawning two hit singles and effectively leading the way to his Grammy (for Song of the Year in 1963 thanks to What Kind of Fool Am I?) and Tony nomination (for Best Leading Actor in a Musical thanks to his own Stop the World - I Want to Get Off). Just as importantly, it also paired Newley with writer John Antrobus, one of the key British comic writers if not the best known. The list of his collaborators and credits is immense, taking in many major talents and important series. He worked with Spike Milligan, Johnny Speight, Ray Galton, Frankie Howerd, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Corbett, Eric Sykes and many more besides. His name appears on episodes of The Army Game, Son of Fred and That Was the Week That Was. He also contributed to both the first and the last of the Carry On films and adapted his play The Bed Sitting Room (co-written with Milligan) for the big screen. This is a man who knows his comedy.
Those credits on The Army Game and the first Carry On, ie Carry On Sergeant, are instructive as Idol on Parade also centres itself around National Service. For some reason conscription hasn’t inspired too many films (it figures briefly in The Krays and more prominently in Bill Douglas’ My Childhood, but other examples are few and far between), though that’s not the case when it comes to comedy. Carry On Sergeant was effectively a big screen version of The Army Game, even sharing a number of key cast members, despite being based on an unrelated novel. Its official film spin-off was I Only Arsked!, also released in 1959. A decade later Leslie Thomas’ novel The Virgin Soldiers would be adapted for the big screen, with a sequel following in 1977. Given such numbers (The Army Game did extend to 154 episodes, after all) Idol on Parade needs something to differentiate itself, and that it does: as well as being a National Service comedy, it is also a rock ‘n’ roll musical.
Newley plays ‘Jeep’ Jackson, flying high in the hit parade - “40,000 girls can’t be wrong” - when he gets conscripted into the armed forces. Any suggestions that he may be an English Elvis are entirely intentional (Presley having been drafted in March of 1958, subsequently inspiring Bye Bye Birdie in the US), though spare a thought too for Terry Dene. Dene had a couple of top twenty hits in 1957, appeared on the Six-Five Special and played himself in his own rock ‘n’ roll musical, The Golden Disc. Called up for National Service in 1958 he failed to report owing to contractual duties. When he did arrive at barracks the entire affair was handled badly by the press and, two months later, he left on medical grounds and with his career in tatters. Jeep Jackson is effectively Dene in disguise albeit without the tragedy. He too reports for duty late and causes a kafuffle with both the press and his fellow conscripts. Meanwhile manager Sid James is determined to keep in the public eye (current hit Rock-a-Boogie slips to number eight within weeks of Jackson making it to barracks) even if it means sneaking him out after hours for midnight shows.
In-between the tunes - five in total, two of them hits in the real world - Idol on Parade focuses its attentions on Newley’s relationships with his newfound fellow conscripts and superiors. Lionel Jeffries plays the adjutant who has no time for all of this rock-a-boogie, doesn’t understand ‘the youth’ and even gets into a scrap with a bunch of teddy boys. William Bendix dons a thick Irish accent as the sergeant determined to make Newley’s life as difficult as possible. (Idol on Parade was the first of a trio of British pictures Bendix made during this period, the others being The Rough and the Smooth, directed by Robert Siodmak, and Johnny Nobody.) And then there’s David Lodge, playing the new pal who will eventually fall out with Newley once it becomes clear his intended has an infatuation with the pop star.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Nobody does uptight quite like Jeffries, Lloyd brings some unexpected pathos and Bendix is wonderfully game: a true professional. He gets the top billing, presumably because his status as an American star made him a bigger draw than Newley, though it’s abundantly clear who the real attraction is. Admittedly Idol is nowhere near as clever as Gurney Slade would be (beyond a couple of winks towards Dene’s situations) but it still allows Newley plenty of mileage as a comedy performer. He does have a tendency to mug his way through the musical numbers forever reminding us that we’re watching a comedian play a rock ‘n’ roll star rather than the real deal, but I’m willing to forgive him thanks to the gags elsewhere. Also worth noting are some of the smaller turns, especially Bernie Winters’ delightfully cheeky turn and a wordless, uncredited cameo from Rosamund Greenwood. Oh yes, and the tunes - for all Newley’s mugging - are rather catchy too.
In combination Idol on Parade gives the viewer plenty to be getting on with. It’s episodic to a point, much like the majority of National Service comedies, but with enough variety to prevent things from ever becoming too familiar or too complacent. The director was John Gilling, a man who specialised in the proficient and no-nonsense. He’d earlier made Mother Riley Meets the Vampire one of the few watchable entries in the big screen Old Mother Riley ventures and was equally at home with British noir (The Challenge with Jayne Mansfield) as he was Hammer horror (most notably The Plague of the Zombies). In the case of Idol on Parade he keeps the pace up but never to the detriment of the performers: Newley, Jeffries et al all get their chance to shine. He’s also aided by some terrific CinemaScope photography from Ted Moore (later to shoot the majority of Bond movies between Dr. No and The Man with the Golden Gun) which really brings the London nightlife alive and makes the foggy parade ground seem strangely evocative.
Thanks to the hit singles, Idol on Parade launched a new stage in Newley’s career. He was now a pop star and this prompted Lew Grade to offer him his own television show. I suspect the famous mogul didn’t quite anticipate The Strange World of Gurney Slade and I would argue too that Idol on Parade doesn’t quite anticipate it either. Whilst John Antrobus went onto the likes of The Bed Sitting Room, Milligan’s Q series and the delightfully mad children’s book Help! I Am a Prisoner in a Toothpaste Factory, his work here is mostly straight. Not that this should be considered a problem, especially when the results are as entertaining as this. Indeed, it’s great to sample some more of Newley’s comic work of the period. Perhaps Sony can get around to Idol on Parade’s follow-up, another Antrobus-scripted musical comedy by the name of Jazz Boat, soon enough too…
Idol on Parade is currently available as a MovieMail exclusive. You can order the disc by clicking here. As with the other releases in Sony’s ‘Classic British’ range this is a fairly standard affair. The only addition is the original theatrical trailer, but importantly the presentation is extremely good. The original CinemaScope frame is adhered to and anamorphically enhanced, whilst the print is in mostly decent shape. The occasional bit of moderate damage or wear will make itself known, though such instances are rare. Similarly there are a couple of shots which appear either excessively grainy or suffer from poor contrast, but again these are in the extreme minority. Black and white CinemaScope had a habit of looking terrific, and this particular disc is no exception. The mono soundtrack fares a little worse, though I suspect this may be the result of the film’s original production. Some scenes strike the listener as overly tinny, though this always coincides with those which were, quite blatantly, dubbed in post-production (the scene of Newley pursued by fans at the station, for example). Despite this, dialogue remains clear throughout and the songs come with the production values you would expect from the late fifties.
Lastly, a quick note on the title and the running time. Idol on Parade was initially released in the UK as Idle on Parade (also the name of the film’s big hit single), which is also the title used in the theatrical trailer. The switch to Idol was for the US market and it is this one which appears in the opening credits, but then so too does a BBFC certificate card. Meanwhile the running time comes to just over 81 minutes which, taking into account PAL speed-up, translates into an original duration of almost 85 minutes. I mention this only because different sources provide alternatives: the IMDb (admittedly not the most reliable) gives a run-time of 88 minutes; the BFI’s SIFT database opts for 92 minutes; and the Time Out Film Guide claims 98 minutes. (I was unable to locate an entry on the BBFC website.) If anyone can clarify, please do post a comment below.