As any pub-quiz geek knows, Cliff Richard’s first movie role was Curley Thompson in Serious Charge (1959). But unless they really fancy an argument with the quizmaster that they’re unlikely to win, they’ll always write down that the answer is Bert Rudge in Expresso Bongo because Curley was very much a cameo and he hardly had a line. So here’s a 19-year old Cliff when he was a pop sensation (complete with The Shadows) alongside Laurence Harvey and no less that Sylvia Sims, in the film adaptation of the previous year’s West End hit (although none of the aforementioned were actually in the stage show).
Johnny Jackson (Harvey) is a sleazy agent looking for some musical talent he can make a quick buck from. While taking his stripper girlfriend Maisie (Sims) to an espresso bar, he comes across Bert the Barista (Richards) jamming with The Shadows on his bongos . But Johnny isn’t interested in Bert’s bongos (which aren’t very impressive, it has to be said); it’s Bert’s voice he rates. To be fair his voice was certainly better than his acting but Bert just wants to, like drum, maaan (or possibly cat). But Johnny changes Bert’s name to Bongo Herbert (which probably wasn’t quite as funny in 1959) and after a few amusing entanglements with record companies, he’s soon attracting attention from the public as well as the not-quite-over-the-hill singer, Dixie (Yolande). Dixie thinks Bongo is getting a raw deal and she’s going to put things right.
While there is a great deal of interest in Expresso Bongo, one can’t honestly say it’s still particularly entertaining. The strip club scenes are remarkably risqué for a 1959 movie with only an A-certificate and Sylvia Sims as a stripper is quite a surprise only a year after Ice Cold in Alex (1958). There’s also an interesting twist as Johnny cynically attempts to get Bongo accepted by the establishment with some religious-type song about his mother. Bearing in mind Cliff’s later career, this seems like life imitating art (or something). But it’s not until the 45-minute mark that someone bursts into song in the middle of a conversation that we’re reminded that this is actually supposed to be a musical. Unfortunately, not a very good one, as the songs are completely forgettable. In fact, even Cliff’s properly staged songs with The Shadows are a bit ropey, which might explain why the then-very-hot Cliff’s EP from the movie failed to go top 10.
So today the best we can say about the movie is that the opening credits are great and that the strippers’ historical review (featuring Sylvia Sims in a mortar board) has to be seen to be believed. “Get you Brutus”, indeed. Oh, and there’s a nice (but short) turn from Wilfrid Lawson as Burt’s Dad. Other than that, this is strictly for historical pop interest. Did we mention Cliff’s acting is dreadful?
Special Features: Shorter cut with fewer songs / gallery / Youth Club: A documentary about juvenile delinquency / illustrated booklet.
EXPRESSO BONGO (1959) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: VAL GUEST / SCREENPLAY: WOLF MANKOWITZ / STARRING: LAURENCE HARVEY, CLIFF RICHARD, SYLVIA SIMS, YOLANDE DONLAN, ERIC POHLMANN, HERMIONE BADDELEY, GILBERT HARDING, WILFRID LAWSON, SUSAN HAMPSHIRE, THE SHADOWS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW