Expresso Bongo: BFI Flipside Review
London, the late 1950s. Music agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) is struggling to make ends meet and to support him and his stripper girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms). Then he discovers young singer Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) and sees a star in the making, but not before he's rechristened him Bongo Herbert...
Expresso Bongo was originally a stage musical from 1958 (book by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More, music by David Henerker and Monty Norman) which, just a few years after rock'n'roll had arrived, took satirical aim at a music industry which saw great profit in promoting their young stars to a primarily teenaged audience. The casting of the stage show is interesting: Paul Scofield played Johnny, but as his profile as an actor was then far higher on stage than on film (he'd only made two by that time, though the first, That Lady had won him the BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer) Laurence Harvey, who had made a breakthrough in Room at the Top, played the role in the film, made the following year. The stage version was a success - the BBC broadcast scenes from the play direct from the London stage in December 1958 - and was voted by Variety as Best British Musical of the Year. One of the musicals it beat was My Fair Lady. That's a judgement posterity might reverse, given that the latter is far more often revived than the former. One reason may be that Expresso Bongo dealt with things that were current – though the music industry has hardly become less venal as time has passed, and pretty boys singing fluff has not ceased to be a perennial genre – while My Fair Lady was an adaptation of a Shaw play and a period piece and any social comment was well disguised. Now of course Expresso Bongo is itself a period piece, verging on a historical one. It's now also a time capsule, due to its location shooting. That's the real Soho of 1959, caught on camera.
The film departs from the stage show in some respects (and even more in the shorter version, reissued in 1962 to capitalise on Cliff Richard's fame, of which more below). The opening credits appear in the Soho streets as neon signs, theatre hoardings, a jukebox...and finally Wolf Mankowitz making an uncredited cameo as a sandwich-board man with his credit on the front and producer/director Val Guest's on the back. Expresso Bongo is quite a genre-fluid piece. It's certainly a comedy, with Mankowitz's cynical dialogue by turns, sharp enough at times to sever an artery. There are musical numbers, but they're diegetic ones. One is "Look But Don't Touch", performed by Maisie and a stripper chorus with one bare breast each, the nipple covered on the advice of the British Board of Film Censors. In another we see Herbert Rudge performing with a backing band of teenagers, the original lineup of the Shadows. It's all of forty-five minutes before the film becomes a musical in the usual sense with one of two numbers retained from the stage show, "Nausea", performed by Harvey and Meier Tzelniker in long travelling shots as they walk down the Soho streets. We then get two other songs in the space of twelve minutes. Tzelniker was one of two actors to have appeared in the play, the other being Susan Hampshire in an uncredited role with a brayingly overdone uppercrust accent as Cynthia. It's an hour before third-billed Yolande Donlan, as film star Dixie Collins returning to London, ultra-glamorous in Balmain dresses, appears. Bongo soon takes up with her and this plotline dominates the second half of the film, with Johnny and Maisie, far more prominent in the first half, somewhat moving into the background. That's a pity as Harvey, Lithuanian-born and South African-raised, gives the film quite a bit of its energy. Harvey based his on-screen accent on Mankowitz's. Syms, who had costarred in Ice Cold in Alex the year before, is not the first actress you'd expect to turn up playing a stripper, but she does give the role a touching vulnerability, even if the script and film does sideline her – and in the more-often-seen shorter reissue version (of which more later) her big number got cut out.
Cliff Richard, who gets an "introducing" credit after the main title, had been a star since his first single "Move It" the previous year. He really was eighteen, Bongo's age, when he made Expresso Bongo, and it slightly dates the film in that someone that age was still a minor in the UK at the time, which becomes a plot point. This was Richard's second film: he'd appeared in Serious Charge the same year, singing three songs. One of the ones he performs here is "The Shrine on the Second Floor", which becomes fascinating in retrospect, given Richard's later conversion to Christianity...and given his avowed celibacy, he's also referred to as "virgin" at one point. If Cliff appearing in a film which includes strippers and prostitutes among its characters seems odd, the far more wholesome Cliff persona (and far more family-friendly films) would appear a couple of years later, with The Young Ones and would continue into the Seventies. Further down the cast you'll find playing himself Gilbert Harding, then best known as an irascible panellist on the BBC show What's My Line?. The following September – two months before his sudden death from an asthma attack - he was interviewed by John Freeman on Face to Face and broke down in tears when talking about the death of his mother, the thing he is best-known for nowadays. You can also see a young Burt Kwouk near the start of the film.
More than fifty years on, Expresso Bongo, while a little structurally messy, stands up well, though it's now a historical piece, and gives a good sense of the London showbiz scene of the time. Mankowitz's script takes a lot of the credit, but Val Guest has to as well, making which could have been quite stagey in other hands into something very cinematic. Thanks to him and John Wilcox's cinematography, Soho on the cusp of a new decade and before the capital began to swing, looks great in black and white Scope.
Expresso Bongo was a success at the box office and picked up BAFTA nominations for Laurence Harvey and Wolf Mankowitz, both losing to I'm All Right Jack. The film was reissued in 1962 in a reedited version to capitalise on Cliff Richard's fame, and I'll say more about that in a moment. While the original version has been shown on television, previous VHS and DVD releases have been of the reissue version, so this is the first commercial availability of the full film since its original release.
Expresso Bongo is number 31 in the BFI's Flipside line, and is a dual-format release, with the Blu-ray encoded for Region B and the DVD for Region 2. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. Cut for an A certificate originally, Expresso Bongo is now a 12. From the extras, The Square is a U. Youth Club, being a documentary, has been exempted from certification, though the only thing that might possibly be contentious nowadays is the sight of young people smoking.
The Blu-ray has two versions of the film: the original version (111:16) and the reissue (105:56). The latter removes five songs: "Nausea" (referred to above), "Worry Go Lucky Me" (performed by Sylvia Syms), "I've Never Had it So Good" (Harvey). "Nothing is For Nothing" (Tzelniker and Harvey), "You Can't Fool You" (Yolande Donlan). This was intended to emphasise the contribution of Cliff Richard, by 1962 an even bigger star than he was in 1959, as all his numbers are left in. Two of these missing songs were replaced by scenes not in the original version. At 53:35 (Blu-ray timing in the short version), "You've Never Had it So Good", Johnny's song just as Bongo becomes a star, is replaced by a short montage of his song "Voice in the Wilderness" climbing the charts and Bongo mobbed by fans and signing autographs at a record shop. The second addition is at 84:18, just after Mayer says "Nothing is for nothing", there's an alternate take of Johnny's line "This I already noticed, Mr Mayer" which is before the song begins in the longer version. The shot in the reissue version continues with Johnny going out of the office door, which dissolves into the next scene, Dixie's party. Both versions begin with the 1959 BBFC A certificate. The DVD does not include the reissue cut, but has the two short alternate scenes as a separate item, running two minutes.
Expresso Bongo was shot in black and white 35mm in the French-made anamorphic process Dyaliscope. The Blu-ray transfer is in the correct 2.35:1 ratio and was scanned from the original camera negative in 2K resolution. Shot in a mixture of Shepperton Studios interiors and Soho exteriors, the film is less contrasty than other black and white films of the same vintage, so fewer deep blacks and more greys. That said, it looks as it should, with the transfer sharp, the greyscale as it should be and the grain natural and filmlike. The alternative material in the shorter version came from a 35mm finegrain element: the difference is noticeable.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. I spotted a couple of minor errors: "review" for "revue" and "Miss" anachronistically becoming "Ms" at one point. Usefully, they occasionally shift to the top of the frame when they would otherwise obscure something near the bottom. The subtitles are included on both versions of the feature but not on the extras.
The DVD does not include the reissue version, so it does not include the audio commentary recorded in 2005 and released on the Carlton DVD of that year. Marcus Hearn moderates and talks to Val Guest and Yolande Donlan, both then alive but now passed away. (Guest died in 2006, Donlan in 2014.) Guest was by then ninety-three, but apart from some understandable memory lapses is pretty sharp and Donlan plays her part, even if Hearn does boggle at some of the dresses she wears onscreen. There's an obvious rapport between Guest and Donlan, which is to be expected given that they had been married for more than fifty years at this point. The commentary is hampered a little by the fact that the full version was unavailable at the time, so time is spent with Hearn querying scenes in the shooting script that aren't in this version, especially the "Nausea" song.
The remaining extras are on both the Blu-ray and the DVD. These begin with the trailer (2:59) which starts with the instant nostalgia-fix for those of a certain age, "'U' trailer advertising an 'A' film". It no doubt dates from the film's original release as part of "Nausea" features in it. A self-navigating stills gallery (4:28), featuring stills, posters, lobby cards and both the UK and US pressbooks. The pressbooks are available as a downloadable PDF on the DVD but not the Blu-ray.
Youth Club (17:18) is a 1954 short film made, it seems, for overseas consumption – the Central Office of Information expressly vetoed any UK release. At this distance it's hard to see why, with a view of contemporary youth clubs that even in the mid-50s might have seemed too clean-cut. A youth club was somewhere that the young of the day could hang out and play billiards rather than (Heaven forfend) playing pinball at the local amusement arcade. There's trad jazz rather than rock'n'roll on the soundtrack and no direct sound other than narration.
The Square (15:51), from 1957, is one of two films Michael Winner made with a £2000 loan from his father in an effort to break into the film business. The other one was This is Belgium, though the budget only extended as far as shooting in East Grinstead. The Square was never released, Winner having refused a deal which would have had his name taken off the credits. The film was considered lost, but Winner's own 35mm print survived and was donated to the BFI National Archive after his death. It's far more gentle and less brash than many of the films Winner went on to make, dealing with an elderly King's Cross resident (A.E. Matthews) having to move out of his house so that it can be pulled down. The local residents put on a party for his departure. This includes a skiffle band, maybe a nod by Winner at current trends, but I doubt the character's preferred choice of music. (That said, I don't think the word "square" is meant to have a double meaning.) The tiny budget does show: it was clearly shot without direct sound as the relatively little dialogue obviously postdubbed and about half the running time being given over to the man's voiceover reminisces. Both short films are presented in a ratio of 1.37:1.
The booklet runs to twenty-eight pages and begins with a detailed essay by Andrew Roberts, discussing both the stage play and the film and the differences between them. Also included are the original Monthly Film Bulletin review by Brenda Davies from the January 1960 issue, a three-page profile of Val Guest by Steve Chibnall, film credits, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.