Jeep Jackson (Anthony Newley) is a top singing star who specialises in his own brand of rock-a-boogie that sends the kids wild, and his stage shows are always sold out with cheering fans packed into theatres across the land. Tonight he has just completed a performance and the press are waiting for him in the dressing room, but so is a mystery woman (Anne Aubrey) who claims to the reporters that she and Jackson are engaged, in spite of him having no idea who she is. His agent Herbie (Sid James) ushers everyone out and he settles down in front of the mirror to take care of his makeup, but then he is handed some mail - not fan mail, a letter from the government telling him he has been called up for National Service.
There were a number of comedies made on the subject of conscription into the armed forces made around the fifties when it was still compulsory, and the most famous of those... well, it wasn't this, it was Carry On Sergeant, which appeared slightly before and was a huge hit on its native soil, therefore Idol on Parade could have been viewed as a cash-in on that success. However, it was also cashing in on something else, the drafting of the biggest singing star in the world into the Army, yes, Elvis Presley was that man and this action by the authorities was widely regarded as clipping the King of Rock 'n' Roll's wings, reasoning he would never be the same again now his quiff was no more.
There are still many who believe that, but pop culture can be quick to adapt sometimes and Anthony Newley, a former child star puttering away in British movies, was cast to play a version of Presley transposed to the U.K. Army, so he was not offering up an Elvis impersonation, the songs he performed strictly recognisable as from his home turf. It was then a strange thing happened: actor Newley playing the pop star saw a single and an E.P. released from the soundtrack to this did very well in the hit parade, with the ballad I've Waited So Long getting close to taking the number one position in 1959. This meant Newley was a fully-fledged crooner, and one of the biggest pre-Beatles names in the style.
Soon he was penning his musicals and never looked back - OK, he looked back a lot, but success rarely left him in spite of some eccentric choices, and while a lot of people were well and truly turned off by his demeanour which verged on the smug, many more were impressed by his mastery of a variety of jobs in showbusiness. He had been in David Lean's Oliver Twist as a child, playing the Artful Dodger, and quite often you could observe that roguish persona was one which he never relinquished, though paradoxically he also wished to be taken very seriously for his philosophical ruminations as brought out in his music. For a while there before he settled into the well known name but what has he done lately? stage of his career he was poised on the edge of megastardom.
You can see that here, though Idol on Parade was a middling, modest comedy with easy laughs, Newley managed to at least be halfway convincing as an early rock-and-roller through sheer star wattage, and we sympathised with his humorous plight as he has to knuckle down and put up with the life of a conscript. It wasn't much that any number of young actors could have been offered, but Newley did work up a certain charm about him that was undeniable, and bolstered by a cast of professionals who likewise were not behaving any more inspired than they usually did, but that was enough to carry the plot and generate those laughs. In particular, Lionel Jeffries as Jackson's superior officer got into some very predictable scrapes, losing his dignity in the process, yet that was what the film demanded.
After all, audiences of the day didn't want to see the top brass, and even the brass lower down the ranks, get it all their own way so suffered a degree of humiliation for comic effect, and if anyone was perfect for that role it was Jeffries. His Burton character gets into a curious love triangle with Jackson and his girlfriend Caroline, who was the forward young lady we met at the beginning and happens to be the daughter of the army base's commanding officer to add more story to a film that could never be accused of slowing down, it was regularly throwing up incident for its lead to negotiate. There were musical numbers of course, nothing groundbreaking but the target audience appreciated them, and a sequence where Herbie breaks Jackson out of his barracks to perform a stage show Burton happens to be at, leading to a full on riot in echo of the youth culture scare stories in the press of the era. Funnily enough, the top-billed star was not Newley but ageing American import William Bendix sporting an Irish accent as a sergeant, yet the public knew what they wanted: Tony. Music by Bill Shepherd.