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That'll Be The Day (1973)


Main image of That'll Be The Day (1973)
35mm, colour, 91 mins
DirectorClaude Whatham
Production CompanyGoodtimes Enterprises
ProducersDavid Puttnam, Sandy Lieberson
ScreenplayRay Connolly
PhotographyPeter Suschitzky

Cast: David Essex (Jim Maclaine); Ringo Starr (Mike); Rosemary Leach (Mrs. Maclaine); James Booth (Mr. Maclaine); Billy Fury (Stormy Tempest); Keith Moon (J. D. Clover); Rosalind Ayres (Jeanette)

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In 1959, two grammar school boys take different paths: one achieves academic success, the other becomes a drifter working in a holiday camp and on fairgrounds, before deciding that his destiny lies in rock 'n' roll.

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That'll Be the Day effectively evokes late 1950s Britain. It focuses on the rites of passage of its shiftless young protagonist rather than on adult manipulators as depicted in earlier pop films such as Expresso Bongo (d. Val Guest, 1959). And it is more effective in its low-key way than its conventional sequel Stardust (d. Michael Apted, 1974).

The film recreates the period with telling details: the radio plays Robert Farnon, and Take Your Pick (ITV, 1955-68) is on television. But change is in the air. The energy of the fairground and rock 'n' roll are contrasted with restraint and conformity, promoted by religion (a religious service is heard on Mrs MacLaine's radio). The contrast between a tamed middle-class and untamed working-class youth is depicted through their respective music, trad jazz and rock 'n' roll (tellingly, the holiday camp judging panel for a jive contest includes a vicar, presumably to ensure decorum). Rock 'n' roll supplies raw energy and suggests no such restraint. With almost continuous rock 'n' roll on the soundtrack, the film was also able to exploit the EMI back catalogue. The soundtrack album sold well and the film soon recovered its modest investment.

The film honestly chronicles Jim's sexual encounters in this pre-pill era. Jim thinks only of himself and instant gratification, and the girls, though willing, associate sex with guilt and shame - twice Jim's partners beg him "you won't tell anyone will you?", and it is surely no coincidence that two of his sexual exploits are interrupted by the moral rejoinder of screaming babies.

Ray Connolly's screenplay cleverly references the early 1960s British New Wave: a fairground beating up recalls Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960), while a dying grandfather evokes Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (d. Tony Richardson, 1962). And external film references abound: The Duke Wore Jeans (d. Gerald Thomas 1958) at the Ritz and a visit to see Horrors of the Black Museum (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1959).

Directed by Claude Whatham, fresh from Granada TV, this is one of the best British films of 1970s. Rosemary Leach was BAFTA nominated (Best Supporting Actress) and David Essex (BAFTA nomination Newcomer) achieved film stardom. The settings (whether domestic, fairground or holiday camp), vividly captured by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, are real and convincing, and the performances are true, conveying a sense of lives as actually lived.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
1. Breaking free (2:30)
2. Women and song (3:01)
3. Dodgy dodgems (1:52)
4. Jim's wedding (2:35)
Production stills
Stardust (1974)
Billy Fury (1959)
Lindsay, Robert (1949-)
Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)
Starr, Ringo (1940-)