Cliff Richard At The Movies 1959 -1974
Box set released by EMI in August 1996. Project co-ordinator, compilation, tape and archive research, liner notes, discography, film annotation and art direction (with Peter Lewry).
Nowadays if a pop artist releases a single there is almost always a pop video to accompany it. It is expected. It is required. Some would say it is vital. But in 1958 when Cliff Richard made his first film, the notion of the pop video was decades away, yet the song sequences in all his films were not just renditions of songs, but carefully rehearsed, meticulously choreographed and immaculately executed performances. Even now, years down the line, the songs and dance routines are inextricably linked in the eyes of fans who packed the picture houses to see their idol and hero “singing, dancing and swinging”. They were, without question, the high points of the films, and usually became the performance that seemed to epitomise Cliff in his early years. Today, they are the ones most fondly remembered by the millions who were there at the time, enjoying every cinematic moment when Cliff came to life on the giant screen.
In 1958 Cliff was THE “boy who rocked the world”. Having barnstormed the United Kingdom with his stage shows, giving interviews, cutting records, selling them by the lorryload in unprecedented amounts, appearing several times on national television, and making his debut in motion pictures only months after his first record had climbed to the penultimate spot in the hit parade, young Cliff was, despite being frequently compared to Elvis Presley, the pioneer of British rock’n’roll.
Cliff’s rise from television to cinema screen was almost as meteoric as his rise from obscurity to fame. As Hollywood had done with Elvis, British film makers sensed that Cliff would be a box-office sensation in the right vehicles. In fact it was a British Elvis that Mickey Delamar was looking to cast in a film version of the British play, Serious Charge. It was a tale of juvenile delinquency about a vicar who incurs the wrath of a teen gang leader who tries to frame him for indecent assault. It’s rock ‘n’ roll background and risque subject matter elevated the picture into an intense drama that equalled most of the American rock’n’roll vehicles of the time. The film was made in black-and-white, and in fairness, the plot and the mood of the film suited a monochrome format more so than colour.
The same could be said for Cliff’s second feature, Expresso Bongo. It was probably the best British rock ‘n’ roll movie of the period. Adapted from a stage play that was loosely inspired by Tommy Steele’s rise to fame, it ruthlessly exposed the shady fringe of showbusiness and the seamy jungle of Soho with it’s strip joints, jazz clubs, and get rich quick operators by telling the story of an unscrupulous agent discovering a young singer with a new sound in a coffee bar and then launching him into a national sensation. In fact, Cliff’s character of Bongo Herbert most probably shared some of the events of Cliff’s real life. His appearance, his controversial performing style, and his mesmerising effect on his female fans. We must also remember that the setting for the film was based on the “2i’s” coffee bar where Cliff started his rapid climb to vocal success, and where he and the Drifters performed probably in much the same way as depicted in the movie. Maybe it is the only one of Cliff’s films that could be loosely seen as a glossy, fictionalised version of his own early career.
If Cliff did recognise anything of himself in that film, he made no comment about it. Instead, he widened his appeal with a move from playing supporting roles in harsh rock’n’roll movies to a clean cut leading man in the first of his technicolour vehicles. The Young Ones remained faithful to the old MGM musicals but in addition to the musical score incorporated half a dozen pop songs
to hook the teenage audience. The idea of having a group of young people getting together to save their youth club from being torn down by a rich property developer came from the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes In Arms that starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as the teenage children of retired vaudevillians who put on a show to raise money. Audiences responded by making the film number two at the box office for 1962, and Cliff the most popular film star of that year. And the critics responded with rave reviews calling it the best musical Britain has ever made and the finest screen entertainment produced for a longtime anywhere. The soundtrack for The Young Ones ranked number one on the charts for six weeks, far outselling his previous studio album, 21 TODAY.
In America the film was retitled It’s Wonderful To Be Young by Paramount Pictures, who disastrously re-edited the movie to the point of shooting a new opening sequence using the audio track to replace the familiar Friday Night opening, and consequently, the track became the title cut on the album. Although it was not the only occasion when title changes were made, The Young Ones was the only one to have new footage filmed for both the movie and the trailer.
If The Young Ones was the prototype for the Cliff Richard musical, then Summer Holiday proved to be the archetype. Grossing record box office receipts upon it’s initial release in 1963, the success of the film, the soundtrack album and accompanying singles all ranked number one on the charts probably helping the film industry to convince Cliff that this was the type of film his fans wanted to see him in.
In Summer Holiday, Cliff stars as a London Transport mechanic, who with a group of his colleagues turn a London bus into a hotel, and drive it across Europe to Greece, and on route become entangled with an internationally famous singing star escaping from her ambitious mother dressed as a boy. The film reflected some of the basic characteristics of the next two Cliff Richard musicals – exotic locations, the adventurous occupations of Cliff and his gang, and the pursuit of the female lead which usually concluded with a romantic union of Cliff and his leading lady.
And no matter what Cliff and gang’s occupation, their characters could also sing and dance, which of course, was a major function of all Cliff’s vehicles from the sixties. They were generally important to the storyline in that they advanced the plot and related something about the characters to the audience.
That was particularly true of Wonderful Life which although was deemed disappointing after the financial successes of The Young Ones and Summer Holiday still managed to be ranked number five in the top grossing films of 1964, a remarkable feat considering it was not released nationally until September, and even though the critics responded with good reviews, the film surprisingly remained the worst received of the three with a reported lacklustre box-office performance. Maybe the setting and storyline of Cliff and friends making a movie within a movie did not embody the ideals and attitudes of the younger generation, who by now had altered their musical tastes and preferences at the movie box office through a change in the music scene with Beatlemania and A Hard Day’s Night. Although it’s academic now, we will never know what Wonderful Life may have been had the original story been filmed instead of what resulted. But what we must remember is, by this time, the popularity of the boy-meets-girl musicals were beginning to wane …