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Expresso Bongo (1959)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Expresso Bongo (1959)
35mm, black and white, Dyaliscope, 111 mins
DirectorVal Guest
Production CompanyConquest Productions
ProducerVal Guest
ScreenplayWolf Mankowitz
PhotographyJohn Wilcox

Cast: Laurence Harvey (Johnny Jackson), Sylvia Syms (Maisie King), Yolande Donlan (Dixie Collins), Cliff Richard (Bongo Herbert), Meier Tzelniker (Mayer), Gilbert Harding (himself)

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An unscrupulous small-time Soho agent exploits a teenage rock'n'roll star, but is rivalled by a mature US singer who attempts to use him to revive her flagging career.

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While most hit 1950s Broadway musicals were filmed, British ones fared much worse. When optioned (rarely), few survived intact. For the film of Expresso Bongo (1959), only two of the seventeen numbers remained, and more 'commercial' songs were added to promote Cliff Richard.

Presenting a time capsule of the exploitative aspects of Britain's 1958 pop music business, Bongo is set in and around Soho's coffee bars, with the agents, A&R managers, gossip writers and press types who feed off the scene, and is based on the rise of Tommy Steele, very current in 1958.

Val Guest, always commercially-minded, is the perfect director to bring this energetic world to life - one senses that the vulgarity of the subject matter is his natural metier. Following the very clever credits, Expresso Bongo opens with a tracking shot (compare Absolute Beginners, d. Julien Temple, 1986) prowling the busy nighttime Soho streets, offering an intoxicating brew of expresso bars, amusement arcades, delis and strip joints.

Laurence Harvey is the hyper-active dynamo in a very strong cast, giving a showy performance full of camp malice. Sylvia Syms is a revelation in an uncharacteristic role as stripper Maisie. And in the club scenes, the almost topless strippers push the boundaries for a 1959 'A' certificate film. 'Bongo' Herbert is clearly talented and, unlike the stage show, the film is as much about the celebration (and marketing) of Bongo's music as a denunciation of it. Richard, seemingly unaware of the satire, gives his best film performance, especially in later scenes as the 'toy boy' of Yolande Donlan's mature, all-knowing Dixie. Moreover, to the perceptive viewer, the struggle between Dixie and Johnny for Bongo's attentions has a clear sexual subtext, emphasised by Maisie's resentment at Johnny spending too much time with Bongo.

Meier Tzelniker and Susan Hampshire reprise their stage roles to great effect (Tzelniker's number 'Nausea' is missing from shorter prints of the film). Hampshire's vacuous debutante, who comes backstage after Bongo's TV appearance, is a hoot: "Isn't he sweet, isn't he pure heaven!" Hampshire went on to co-star with Cliff in Wonderful Life (d. Sidney J. Furie, 1964). Expresso Bongo also has many uncredited appearances by established character players, such as Wilfrid Lawson (as Bongo's drunken dad), who delivers a hilarious, scene-stealing performance. Writer Wolf Mankowitz even makes an appearance as a 'sandwich-board man' to proclaim 'the end is at hand' just before the film concludes.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
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Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)
Young Ones, The (1961)
Baddeley, Hermione (1906-86)
Griffith, Kenneth (1921-2006)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hampshire, Susan (1937-)
Harding, Gilbert (1907-1960)
Harvey, Laurence (1927-1973)
Kwouk, Burt (1930- )
Richard, Cliff (1940-)
Syms, Sylvia (1934-)