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Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)


Main image of Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)
35mm, 82 min, black & white
Directed byGerard Bryant
Production CompanyInsignia Films
 Anglo Amalgamated
ProducerHerbert Smith
ScreenplayNorman Hudis
CinematographyPeter Hennessy

Cast: Tommy Steele; Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group; Nancy Whiskey; Humphrey Lyttleton & his Band; Tommy Eytle's Calypso Band; Chris O'Brien's Caribbeans ('The Caribbean' Club Band); The Steelmen; Hilda Fenemore (Mrs Steele); Charles Lamb (Mr Steele)

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Tommy Steele's rise to fame, from humble origins in Bermondsey, South London, to his arrival as Britain's first teenage rock 'n' roll idol.

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The Tommy Steele Story and Rock You Sinners (both released in June 1957) were the first British films to be built around rock'n'roll. Steele was already a national celebrity, and had had a guest spot in a 'B' picture mystery, Kill Me Tomorrow (d. Terence Fisher, 1957). Anglo Amalgamated (then primarily a 'B' movie distributor) pitched to the singer a low budget, black and white documentary with a maximum four-week shoot. An outline came from actor/songwriter Mike Pratt: "how about the story of a young sailor who takes up the guitar and makes it in rock-and-roll?"

The resulting film certainly has the look of a 'B' movie, but it was released as an 'A' film thanks to Steele's fame, whereas Rock You Sinners (cheaper, but with more raw energy) had a patchy release. The Tommy Steele Story proved a money spinner for Anglo Amalgamated and producer Peter Rogers, who both hit box office gold the following year with Carry on Sergeant (d. Gerald Thomas).

The Tommy Steele Story neatly conveys the process of making a pop idol, without the seediness and cynicism that would accompany many later stories. Showbiz agent Kennedy is presented as a benign figure - quite unlike the agent in Expresso Bongo (Val Guest, 1959), a satire on the Steele phenomenon - and apart from promoting records, the film is an exercise in image building. Unlike the young Elvis Presley, Steele appears as an entirely non-threatening, asexual presence. Like Gracie Fields, he is closely identified with his working-class community, and is presented as a thoroughly decent lad who remains loyal to his roots.

The film samples the popular music of early 1957, with most songs written by Steele, Pratt and Lionel Bart. The film features 19 numbers, 14 of them performed by Steele, so fans were not short-changed. An affinity with Afro-Caribbean music is shown when Tommy visits Jamaica, where the locals give their approval for his version of 'Water Water', sung with Chris O'Brien's Caribbeans, and there is more calypso music from Tommy Eytle, a reminder that calypsos were all the rage in 1957.

His next film, The Duke Wore Jeans (d. Gerald Thomas, 1958) - produced on a slightly bigger budget - moved away from rock'n'roll, and Steele was soon overtaken by other rockers such as Cliff Richard, more dangerous and exciting. But back in 1956 Tommy Steele was Britain's first genuine rock'n'roll superstar.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
1. 'Water Water' (3:33)
2. At the 2I's (3:38)
3. The road to stardom (2:47)
Expresso Bongo (1959)
Rock You Sinners (1957)
Young Ones, The (1961)