The Tommy Steele Quadruple Set Review
Tommy Steele was England's first teen idol and rock'n'roll star, an entertainer who rose to fame with a skiffle group but who...oh, let's have Tommy explain it himself. In 1957, Tommy Steele starred in The Tommy Steele Story, a tale of, "how we lose control...when we do the rock'n'roll!" That might have been true of Jim Morrison but this was but fifties London was still snug in the comfort of the post-war years and unless it was possible to lose control over a couple of bottles of pop, it wasn't happening! Turns out that it's judo that we have to thank for Tommy Steele, who, following a back injury and his listening to a guitarist while recuperating in hospital, takes up the instrument prior to his being discharged. From the old folk tunes, Steele figures out rock'n'roll while lying in a hospital bed. Soon, he's playing to a ward full of pipe-smoking old gents, who take kindly to this bequiffed teenager. Rather more so, in fact, than, as they would have done, covering their ears at the rock'n'roll racket.
For a long-time thereafter, Steele doesn't have much of an audience. A future in rock'n'roll seems unlikely as Steele sings to pots and pans in a ship's galley but a trip to the Caribbean leads to him returning to London to rock'n'roll the coffee shops of this dirty old town. Girls with fashionably short hair find that Tommy Steel And His Guitar, as Steele is billed, is just the thing when Jack Kerouac and free jazz are thousands of miles and an ocean away. But such things matter not a jot when the kids are buzzing like wasps in a jam factory, high on sugar and the sound of Hillbilly Rock, Bermondsey Bounce and Teenage Party!
The Duke Wore Jeans...only because The Prince And The Pauper doesn't sound quite rock'n'roll enough. Where Elvis played Stink Banky or Rolf Crotchwoller or some such in Kissin' Cousins, Tommy Steele got there first with his two roles in The Duke Wore Jeans. As a lovable urchin looking for a couple of days work selling clothes pegs or breaking in a mare, Tommy (Steele) lands up on the farm owned by aristocratic Tony (also Steele). Tony has a sticky problem in that his parents are trying to arrange a marriage to a princess in the distant country of Ritalla but he's already married to a young but untitled woman. Only delaying to sing It’s All Happening and What Do You Do?, Tommy slips out of his dungarees and straw hat and into the bespoke suits of Tony, whereupon it's off to the Caribbean island of Ritalla to talk cheap beef and meet with a princess (June Laverick). The movie miracle of back projection allows Tommy to take in oil fields, modern industry and drive along empty Ritallan roads but beneath the warm Caribbean sun, Tommy receives a frosty reception from the Princess...until he straps on his six-string and plays Happy Guitar! Diplomatic relations bloom! And so does love! Or it would but for a wicked valet and Tommy's secret. He's no more a member of the landed gentry than is Jimmy Corkhill.
"Took a freighter to Spain...met up with a bullfighter!" The rest should be obvious when the film under discussion is Tommy The Toreador. Unlike many an English tourist, he has no need of a residency on the Costa Del Crime, refuses to take up arms on behalf of the revolutionaries nor does he pass out drunk and trouserless outside a bar in Majorca. Instead, Tommy Steele meets with Spanish entrepreneurs Sid James and Bernard Cribbens, who have clearly supped from the waters of the Thames estuary more than they have sangria, who encourage our man to take up sword and red cape and step into the ring against a very angry bull. Tommy falls in love with Amanda (Janet Munro), discovers that James and Cribbens are up to something and that the real bullfighter has taken the rap for a gang of criminals. If he wants to get back to blighty, free the bullfighter and hold on to his cojones long enough to make something good with Amanda, he's got to survive for long enough in the bullfight, all the while singing Little White Bull, Where's The Birdie and Tommy The Toreador. But his bravery outside the ring encourages his promoters to believe that Tommy is the toreador able to handle the best fighting bull in all of Spain. "Now my claim to fame is the crazy name of Tommy...the Toreador!"
It's All Happening! Er...literally! Tommy might have sung It's All Happening while strolling down onto the dairy farm in The Duke Wore Jeans but it was clearly a good enough title to be used at least once more. Here, Tommy Steele is Billy Bowles, a young man who grew up an orphan after his parents are killed in air raid in 1944 but who's now struggling to make it in a record company. Every Saturday he pays a visit to the orphanage where he grew up but while he's watching kids stuff their faces with ham sandwiches, orange squash and Victoria Sponge, his bosses are less-than-quietly tearing their hair out at his apparent lack of effort in the promotion of their stars. With the orphanage running out of money, Tommy comes up with a plan to put on a charity concert starring the kids! But why is Bernard Bresslaw sifting through the records in the orphanage? And why is he so keen on Tommy's trousers?
Of course, you do have to have something of a liking for Tommy Steele to properly enjoy this set but saying as much as akin to saying that it pays to enjoy throwing up, eventually injecting oneself in the penis and giving all one's money away to drug dealers in order to support a heroin addiction. Only that Tommy Steele is a damn sight more entertaining than drug addicts. Gamely throwing himself into movies that Colonel Tom Parker would dismiss as a bit lightweight but always ready with a song, Tommy Steele proved that two-bob-and-sixpence pop musicals were possible long before Cliff Richard boarded a red double decker and confused mainland Europeans by bringing along a Hank Marvin.
Now, I really don't mind Tommy Steele and have fond Christmas memories of his Quincy's Quest but, like Norman Wisdom, he does have a habit of overwhelming the movies in which he stars. When the best fighting bull in all Spain decides to shy away from Tommy, it does look as though its rather in fear of a personality that threatens to engulf it. And if any star needed two roles to accommodate the character of its leading actor, it's Tommy Steele. His adult co-stars do have a habit of looking lost in his presence, not dissimilar to placing a young child mere feet away from a rhinoceros. But it's the children in It's All Happening who fare best. As does Steele with them, him being as big a kid as any of them, cheering them on as they run outside, as they hand out presents and as they line up to sing The Dream Maker. But where kids grow up, Tommy Steele hops about as childishly as ever. If you never tire of the company of children, these have a certain sense of entertainment about them but over six hours of Steele was quite enough. And more than enough for most.
These films are not in bad shape but neither are they outstanding examples of movies on DVD, their better-than-average shape probably due to these fading in popularity over the passing years and Optimum (and those before them) finding that nobody much wanted a print of It's All Happening after Beatlemania. Of these, The Tommy Steele Story (4:3) and The Duke Wore Jeans (4:3) are in black-and-white while Tommy The Toreador and It's All Happening (1.66:1 Anamorphic) are in colours as rich as their budgets could allow. Tommy The Toreador (4:3) looks the best out of the four, the sunny setting doing as much for Steele as Summer Holiday did for Cliff. Although, given the money spent on the rest of the films, it may be more Margate than Marbella. With the prints in fine shape, it was up to Optimum to bring them to DVD with due care and they're done a reasonable job with the films. They do look grainy and do have the odd blemish but they do have a certain sharpness about them. The colours on It's All Happening are probably where it's at its weakest as it generally looks pretty good but compared to all else, it's only a fair DVD.
There are DD2.0 soundtracks on all four discs, all of which appear to be dual-channel mono. As such there's no separation between speakers but the music sounds decent and the dialogue is typically clear. The only problems in the set come with a noticeable amount of background noise in The Tommy Steele Story, which is most pronounced in the hissing that accompanies the music as well as an excessive amount of wow and flutter, so much so that either Optimum sneaked a VHS tape into this preview DVD or I was running short of electricity while watching these films. I did put another 50p into the meter in the hope of keeping the film running but to no avail. This problem is most noticeable on The Duke Wore Jeans and It's All Happening but there are moments when some flutter on the films can be heard on the other two movies in the set. Finally, there are no subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD.