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Get Ahead in Showbiz: Expresso Bongo and It's All Happening

  Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard emerged from the mid-to-late nineteen-fifties and took the music scene by storm. But mainly in the United Kingdom, where they cashed in on the rock 'n' roll boom from America which had left the nation's youngsters so hungry for exponents of this new craft that they were happy with the British variety if the American one was not available. Therefore Steele was technically this country's first rock star, not that it was a style he decided to stick with for his whole career, as after the fuss died down he went on to what he really was passionate about, which was musical theatre.

Steele could have starred in the original stage version of Expresso Bongo, the 1959 movie that went some way to launching Richard as a screen idol (though he had made progress in that area with his debut in Serious Charge the year before, playing a juvenile delinquent). Tommy was already a film star thanks to the runaway success of his biopic, starring himself, and titled The Tommy Steele Story (well, obviously) which he had parlayed into a movie career, cashing in as Cliff did before the initial interest faded. But Richard in Expresso Bongo was interesting casting, for it was essentially the actual Tommy Steele story.

The real star of Expresso Bongo was Laurence Harvey, trying out a Yiddish accent to portray a talent scout and would-be impresario who happens upon Richard's Bert Rudge character playing bongos and singing in a club. Renaming him Bongo Herbert, Harvey sets himself up as his agent, despite Bongo being underage to look after his own financial affairs thus making the contract he signs void, not that this stops Harvey from wringing profits from him before his subterfuge catches up with him. Also on board in this Val Guest-directed effort was Yolande Donlan, his wife playing an established star taking her own advantage of this rising talent.

Sylvia Syms was present too as Harvey's girlfriend, cast against type as an airhead stripper and parading in revealing costumes for the day, though not as revealing as some of the extras playing her backup dancers (the Scottish routine must be seen to be believed). But the message was clear: showbusiness was both sleazy and a great place to get exploited, and writer Wolf Mankowitz grubbied up Steele's tale in the transition from stage musical to screen musical, not that Richard at that point was much of an actor, content to pout and pose - and not particularly Tommy Steele-like, either, for Tommy was a lot more wholesome in his image.

Nowhere more wholesome than in It's All Happening, which far from Expresso Bongo and its more adult-oriented matters, despite teen idol Cliff being prominently billed, was a cosier, more benevolent take on the music industry. That's not to say it is all plain sailing for the company executive Steele played here, but the fact that the man in charge of hiring and firing (well, hiring anyway) was the hero of this story and not an actual artiste spoke volumes about where we were supposed to have our sympathies lying. But this particular exec has a secret, no, it's not sordid, though it was a double life.

Steele's shameful subterfuge? He was brought up in an orphanage! And worse than that, he's so grateful to his old home for giving him a grounding in life that he frequently goes back to entertain and give presents to the kids who still stay there. Here we saw the all-round entertainer phase of the star's life well and truly established, which was reflected in the music we heard in It's All Happening, about as far away from the likes of Little Richard or Gene Vincent as it was possible to get, although the oft-cited King of Rock 'n' Roll Elvis Presley was being dragged inexorably into this type of fluff for his own vehicles Stateside.

You can lament that a rebellious form of entertainment will eventually be normalised by the mainstream thanks to their main proponents getting older or simply dying prematurely before they can sell out, but it's a pattern to be traced across the history of culture, and in its way this little item could hold interest in its choice of performers in a manner the most blatant hitmakers just around the corner, The Beatles, would do differently. Make no mistake, the Fabs did not kill off wholesome family entertainment because their hair was collar length and they sported an irreverent sense of humour in press conferences.

No, efforts like It's All Happening endured far into its future, with Cliff in 1973 doing Take Me High, or the Streetdance films of the twenty-first century, it was all material you could safely broadcast on contemporary television to amuse the young and reassure their parents and grandparents they were not watching anything too objectionable. Well, not in this case, and not in 1963, but it could have been different, as the grand finale where Steele holds a benefit concert for the orphans featured The George Mitchell Singers in an extended song and dance number: imagine how this would have been buried had they been under their regular guise of The Black and White Minstrels.

They're more or less The White and White Minstrels here. If you look at Steele's office, the walls are plastered with little posters of big names - Bobby Vee, Mrs Mills, Acker Bilk - who the producers of this could not gain access to, so what we get are some well-kent faces like pianist Russ Conway or Shane Fenton before be became Alvin Stardust a decade later, and a lot more obscure quality of singer; the legendary John Barry may appear as an arranger, but you're more likely to be wondering "Who?" at Marion Ryan (who gets two numbers), Johnny De Little or Dick Kallman. Yet they were all perfectly professional, and the main selling point.

Steele chief among those, with his tip for the toppermost of the poppermost, a sub-Candyman ditty (as in the Sammy Davis Jr hit, not the nineties horror flick) where he is joined by the orphans. Cliff had a hit from Expresso Bongo - A Voice in the Wilderness - and was backed by The Shadows, who enjoyed their own groundbreaking success in instrumentals remembered in a way that Steele's successful records are not, being a step up from skiffle and jokey novelty tunes. It's All Happening was also blessed with the presence of a debuting Janet Henfrey (you'll know her face) who plays a gauche secretary who wants a record deal, and Bernard Bresslaw, who wants to get Steele's trousers off, but not like that, plus Angela Douglas of Carry On Up the Khyber fame was the love interest. If you really want to know what British light entertainment looked and sounded like circa 1963, look no further than Steele's endeavours here.

[Network release It's All Happening on Blu-ray with a trailer and image gallery as extras, plus HOH subtitles. Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018