Having filled the first part of this post with the pick of the American rock’n’roll movies, what of their British equivalents? I think it’s true to say that, when it came to films constructed mainly around the music, British film makers tended to fight shy of committing wholly to rock’n’roll content and played safe with a mixture of non-threatening rockers, skiffle, British jazz scene and hit parade stars. Dramas set against the teenage milieu fared slightly better, as directors sought to underscore the dangers of teen rebellion with some suitably surly performers but, across the board, the films are more valuable for their depiction of the 1950s and early 60s British social scene than for their musical content per se. Indeed, the low budgets on which most were made mean that street shots, full of fascinating period detail – particularly around the Soho area – abound.
Let’s start with the archetypal jukebox musical film – and spin-off from the first ‘teen-oriented’ TV show – Six Five Special from 1958. Though shedding the Blue Peter-esque magazine format and non-musical interludes that the BBC had forced on producer Jack Good, the film was still firmly middle of the road, with two ‘naice’ young girls heading off on the eponymous train to seek a singing career for one of them. Amongst some very mainstream acts encountered on the way are a few British quasi-rockers, including a pre-Carry On Jim Dale in Johnny Burnette mode (Train Kept a’ Rollin’), Scotland’s tarten-trewsed answer to Frankie Lymon, Jackie Dennis (La Di Da), and the King Brothers, whose danceable jiver ‘Six Five Jive’ is made all the more entertaining by their subsequent attempts to distance themselves from that nasty rock’n’roll stuff. Artists with a bit more credibility come in the form of the John Barry Seven (proving that to write brilliant film music you don’t need to be able to sing), Lonnie Donegan, captured at the point between novelty skiffle act for a jazz band and singer of novelty comedy songs in a performance nearer to rockabilly than anything else in the film (Grand Coolie Dam and Jack of Diamonds). For me, though, the highlight are the shots of the crowd dancing to series frontman Don Lang’s performance of ‘Boy Meets Girl’: these obviously aren’t stage school dancers, and they’re jiving in exactly the same way as we do on the rockin’ scene, making a direct link between the British youth scene of the 50s and its contemporary successors.
Perhaps closer to the mark, and reflecting that those that didn’t make the TV big time is 1957’s Rock You Sinners. Less polished in production terms (in other words, the script and acting are clunky to say the least), the acts are more representative of the British rock’n’roll scene with a succession of numbers by Tony Crombie and His Rockets, Art Baxter and His Rockin’ Sinners, Don Sollash and His Rockin’ Horses, and Rory Blackwell and the Blackjacks. There’s lots of footage of London life, including a marvellous shot of one of the leading characters entering the office door to the building on Cambridge Circus that used to house Alkit. It’s been re-issued in recent years, and is well worth obtaining as a classic of its kind.
Then there’s the star vehicles, and you’ve got to give Tommy Steele credit for going from unknown to bio pic in two years! Though he turned his back on the fickle pop scene at an early stage to pursue a broader career, the young Tommy Steele has the credibility of being inspired by exposure to a wide range of authentic rock’n’roll on trips to the States as a merchant seaman in the mid-50s, including seeing Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins live. Though his determination to mix cover versions with a British take on the rock’n’roll sound resulted in some slightly ‘quaint’ lyrics by Lionel Bart, he deserves credit as a genuine first generation British rocker and The Tommy Steele Story of 1957 captures him at the peak of his pop career. Lots of lovely location shots around London, including the interior of the Café de Paris which hasn’t changed much. It’s a shame, though, that the 2i’s café depicted in the film is obviously a stage set rather than the original. The music’s a mixture of the hit parade tunes that Tommy was already recording, a taste for calypso music he’d picked up on his travels, and rockers such as ‘You Gotta Go’, ‘Two Eyes’, ‘Build Up’, ‘Elevator Rock’, ‘Teenage Party’ and ‘Doomsday Rock’. In the concert segment, there’s the obligatory jazz number from Humphrey Lyttleton and skiffle from Nancy Whiskey and Chas McDevitt, but that reflects the scene of the time and, as the latter is a performance of ‘Freight Train’, it’s undeniably reflective of what British youth were listening to.
Skiffle and jazz groups provide the backdrop for the less substantial star vehicle created for budding star and fellow 2i’s graduate Terry Dene in 1958’s The Golden Disc (aka The In-Between Age). Skifflers the Terry Kennedy Group, the Sonny Stewart Skiffle Kings, Les Hobeaux and Nancy Whiskey share the honours with the Phil Seamon Jazz Group and crooner Dennis Lotis in supporting Terry’s handful of numbers. Given Terry’s fall from grace and eventual departure from the pop scene followed his badly-handled National Service conscription in 1958 (which might, unkindly, have at least partly inspired the following year’s comedy ‘Idle on Parade’), it’s still worth catching as a period piece, again, as much for the background detail unspoiled by big budgets as the actual content.
Then there’s the Cliff Richard films. I’ve discounted everything from The Young Ones onwards as, watchable and fun as they are, they were clearly intended to be ‘musicals’ rather than rock’n’roll movies. That leaves Cliff’s performances in Serious Charge and Expresso Bongo, following hot on each other’s heels in 1959. As films, they’re very different, with the first a drama centering on false allegations of improper behaviour levelled at the leader of a youth club (which, when you think of it, is a pretty up-to-date topic) and the second the film adaptation of a musical stage satire on the popular music business, ditching all the songs from the original production. Both feature some great performances from a young Cliff whose stage persona of Elvis-curl lipped surliness works particularly well in Expresso Bongo’s mocking send-up of his own fame. Even the incongruity of his character stage name ‘Bongo Herbert’ pokes fun at the trend, typified by Larry Parnes, of substituting virile monikers for his artists’ real names. An atmospheric recreation of the 2i’s cellar for three numbers in a row for Cliff and the original Drifters/Shadows line-up is spoiled only by the stage-school choreography on the dance floor, and Laurence Harvey spends lots of time collecting outdoor locations shots in the heart of 50s Soho. Both are well worth watching, though you’ll find yourself skipping through the much of the action drama after the first couple of viewings.
And that just leaves room for a couple of youth dramas with a musical backdrop. Though it post-dates the other entries, I’ve got a particular affection for the 1962 Bristol-based Some People. All filmed on location, with some great British bike action at the beginning and nice beat numbers dubbed in by Valerie Mountain and the Eagles – and I found the EP recently, so of course I like it. It’s also the film where Kenneth More, performing for expenses to support a youth film, met his future wife and Carry On star Angela Douglas. Anyway, the classic ‘dynamic drama of youth mad about BEAT living for KICKS’ (so the poster said) has to be 1960’s Beat Girl. It’s got everything: cafés off Charing Cross Road frequented by students from St Martin’s School of Art, Soho strip clubs, a gig in the Chislehurst Caves, several numbers by Adam Faith before he started doing cute pop numbers, the John Barry Seven blasting out the title track in a 2i’s style cellar club, Ollie Reed in wild hopped-up Beatnik mode dancing crazily (thus presaging his later chat show appearances!), kids jiving, a chicken race on British B-roads and even a denouement where our crowd of decent but mixed up kids are terrorised by a gang of brutal Teds. Now that’s a film I can watch all the way through every time.
For an excellent journey through the best of the genre, and some highly entertaining commentary on some of the less accomplished, I can thoroughly recommend Garry Mulholland’s book, ‘Popcorn – Fifty Years of Rock’n’Roll Movies’. Beginning in 1956 with the Girl Can’t Help It, and ending in 2009 with Telstar (and so sandwiching everything else between two slices of pure 50s/60s rock’n’roll), it’s a read that will leave you itching to re-run your favourites and explore some of the others you’ve not encountered. Click the title for a link to Garry’w website.
In setting out to illustrate this article, I was immediately drawn to the aptly titled ‘Retroville’s Old Hollywood Pin Ups Rock n Roll and Vintage’ Page on Facebook, curated by Adam Nicke, a treasure trove of vintage images, neatly arranged in albums. Just don’t go there when you’ve got something else you ought to be doing, as I guarantee it won’t get done as you browse!