Cliff Richard: a clean teen?

Like Elvis, the British singing star Cliff Richard made his film debut in a relatively minor role. Serious Charge (also known as A Touch of Hell, directed by Terence Young, 1959) is a drama about a vicar falsely accused of ‘interfering’ with a teenage boy. The trailers and publicity emphasized the film’s ‘adult’ themes, but they also made much of Cliff’s brief appearances, playing the accuser’s cute younger brother: he sings three songs (shown only in part), including ‘Living Doll’, which became the year’s top-selling single. Cliff provokes some wild dancing in the church youth club, to the consternation of the vicar, and there is some teddy boy clothing on show; but Serious Charge is not exactly a JD film, or indeed a teen musical either.

Later the same year, Cliff had a somewhat larger role in Expresso Bongo (produced and directed by Val Guest). Here, he plays a singer called Bert Rudge who is ‘discovered’ by a music talent agent performing in a Soho coffee bar. The agent secures a contract, re-names him ‘Bongo Herbert’ and transforms him into a teen idol; although he is eventually out-manoeuvered by more powerful players within the music business. While much of the publicity for the film placed him centre stage, Expresso Bongo is not primarily a vehicle for Cliff (although he does appear in a shapely pair of swimming trunks in one scene). The film does enact his character’s rise to fame, much in the manner of The Tommy Steele Story, although this is not ‘Cliff’s story’, and he sings only three songs.

The central character here is actually the talent agent (Johnny, played by Laurence Harvey): like Glenda in Loving You, we see him determinedly building the buzz of media interest, not least through television. ‘Bongo’ gradually becomes uncomfortable with the way he is being manipulated: like Deke in Loving You, he complains that he is just something Johnny sells, ‘like rat poison or fish and chips’. In many respects, the film is a good example of the ‘imperial’ teen musical: like The Girl Can’t Help It, it largely takes an adult point of view. Johnny and the other adults make the running, while Bongo is merely the innocent victim. By comparison with Loving You, however, it gives much less status and credence to the young performer’s music.

As K.J. Donnelly notes, the sequence of music in the film effectively prefigures Cliff’s subsequent career. His first song, ‘Love’, is delivered to a young audience in the coffee bar, and its wild beat is matched by some fast editing: notably, it is sung in an American accent. The second, ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ (which was the major hit) is a slow ballad that is sung primarily to please older listeners, particularly a record label manager and the host of a TV show whom Johnny is keen to impress. Finally, under the tutelage of a rather washed-up older American star, Cliff is seen performing a gospel-style song dedicated to his mother, ‘The Shrine on the Second Floor’, on a traditional stage variety show, accompanied by a choir. Both these latter songs are much more mainstream ‘Tin Pan Alley’ material, and the editing and visual composition are significantly more sedate and conventional. Through this sequence of songs, Bongo Herbert effectively makes the transition from youth culture to mainstream ‘show business’ – a transition that was replicated through the films and records that Cliff himself made in the following few years. Although he was initially hailed as Britain’s answer to Elvis, any vague aura of youth cultural rebellion that might have been apparent at the outset was quickly dispelled as Cliff’s career progressed; and for the ensuing decades, he has been synonymous with wholesome, all-round family entertainment – and accordingly derided by almost all rock critics.

I’d like to spend a little more time here on Cliff’s two subsequent films, The Young Ones (Sidney J. Furie, 1961) and Summer Holiday (Peter Yates, 1962). Both are starring vehicles in the manner of the Elvis movies, and both feature significantly more music than the two films discussed above (the latter has no fewer than 18 musical sections). However, there are some significant differences between these and the Elvis movies. Both these films are traditional musicals, in which the characters spontaneously burst into song and leap into complex dance sequences; the lyrics of the songs frequently serve to advance the narrative, as opposed to being club or concert performances, as in the Elvis movies. While a few of the songs might be described as rock-and-roll, many of them are much more mainstream musical fare: conventional pop ballads or swinging stage songs accompanied by big bands and strings, and in one case even a waltz. There is also a good deal of jolly incidental music. By contrast, while the Elvis films do include ballads, most of the music would be described as rock-and-roll, doo-wop or rhythm and blues.

Cliff’s screen persona is also rather different from the ‘Elvis’ of the films I’ve considered. ‘Cliff’ is not a troubled adolescent from a difficult background; he is not inarticulate, surly, or resistant to authority; and he is not even vaguely at risk of falling into juvenile delinquency. While he is given some marginal love interest, he is consistently chaste (there are no Elvis-style clinches); and although he does occasionally appear with his shirt off, he is presented as dreamily good-looking rather than ‘sexy’. (I’ll leave aside the potential for ‘queer readings’ of Cliff’s allegedly androgynous appeal, although some critics have managed to find some.)

In all these respects, these films are much more conventional family entertainment than the Elvis movies; and the star persona they promote is more wholesome and less potentially dangerous. In many respects, these movies (along with Wonderful Life, which followed them in 1964) epitomize Hebdige’s notion of ‘youth as fun’: they create a wholly optimistic ‘youthtopia’ that is full of energy and free of care, and almost devoid of serious risk. It’s hardly surprising that this safe, anodyne view of youth was very popular with mainstream adult critics, even if the films were derided by some of the more upmarket, specialist publications.

The Young Ones focuses on the attempts of a group of youngsters to save their London youth club from the clutches of a millionaire property developer. Cliff plays Nicky, who tends to be the leader of the group, and is also a talented singer; but he also happens to be the son of the property developer, Hamilton Black (played by Robert Morley). In seeking money to buy back their lease, the young people decide to put on a show in a disused theatre, although their efforts are repeatedly obstructed and outsmarted by Black. The group publicises the event through pirate broadcasts, in which Nicky performs a love song as ‘The Mystery Singer’. As the show approaches, some members attempt to kidnap Hamilton Black, but Nicky comes to his father’s aid; and his father eventually decides that the show must go on.

On the basis of this brief summary, the film might appear to be about inter-generational conflict, although this is defused in several ways. Hamilton Black is comically posh and pompous. He views young people in general with disdain, referring to them as ‘a crowd of untidy adolescents, milling around in their leather jackets brandishing bicycle chains’. He claims that he will not visit the club because he does not want to be ‘coshed’ by ‘thugs’ and ‘hoodlums’. Yet the clean-cut, wholesome members of the club could not be further from this juvenile delinquent stereotype (even if some of them do attempt to kidnap him). Nicky’s conflict with his father might (at a stretch) be seen in Oedipal terms; but Hamilton Black comes to regard it as a necessary training exercise that will teach his son to assert his independence and maturity. The end of the film brings about a generational reconciliation: father and son agree that they are ‘on the same side’ and appear on stage together, while an implausible solution is found to create a new youth club in the middle of Hamilton Black’s office development.

The Young Ones re-works several elements drawn from traditional Hollywood musicals. It begins with an elaborate overture, in which the characters prepare and assemble for their Friday night dance; and as they agree to come together to fight for the club, there is an extended ensemble dance routine whose style resembles West Side Story or Guys and Dolls (the choreography in both these films was by the American Herbert Ross). The central narrative of ‘putting on the show right here’ is very familiar from Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, and was apparently borrowed specifically from the 1939 film Babes in Arms, featuring the young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The young performers’ rehearsals are captured in a long stage-bound sequence of show business staples, including vaudeville comedy, silent film slapstick, can-can and lederhosen dancing, and even country house mystery. This is all accompanied by the song ‘What D’You Know, You’ve Got a Show’; and while the music hall clichés are painfully familiar, there is no sense of irony here whatsoever. In the show itself, Cliff croons a ballad as ‘The Mystery Singer’ to the restrained adoration of his girl fans (needless to say, he is eventually given a recording contract); and he then goes on to perform a rather more exciting Elvis-like rocker, ‘We Say Yeah!’, accompanied by his backing band the Shadows, all dressed in shiny maroon suits. However, this brief incursion of a vaguely dangerous youth culture is curtailed as the finale brings back ‘You’ve Got a Show’, with Nicky and his father (along with Nicky’s sensible girlfriend) singing and dancing together centre stage.

As Stephen Glynn suggests, The Young Ones embodies many of the familiar utopian values of Hollywood musicals: there is a sense of community, energy and even abundance, all conveyed without a hint of cynicism or manipulation. The group of young people effortlessly overcomes class differences; and Cliff’s appeal as ‘The Mystery Singer’ seems to draw in older ladies and young girls, as well as (more implausibly) sunglasses-wearing hipsters. The young people are unfailingly enthusiastic and optimistic; and aside from occasional outbursts of ‘zany’ humour, they are distinctly anodyne and safe. The boyish Cliff is uncomfortable with the overt sexuality of a singer who (with her unscrupulous publicist) tries to muscle in on the show: he prefers his chaste, unthreatening girlfriend Susan, even if there seems to be little sexual spark between them. In the title song, sung by Cliff to Susan and a group of children against the curious backdrop of a kind of leisure park (complete with water-skiers), youth is defined as a passing stage on the way towards stable maturity and family life: ‘we won’t be young ones very long…’ he croons, ‘one day when the years have flown, then we’ll teach the young ones of our own’.

Summer Holiday marks a further step towards wholesome family entertainment, and to the style of Hollywood musicals. Here Cliff appears as Don, the leader of group of young bus mechanics who drive a London bus on an adventure-filled journey across Europe, ending up in Athens. They pick up a group of British girls along the way, as well as a young woman who turns out to be an American singer on the run from the pressures of fame. Like The Young Ones, this was no small-budget ‘exploitation’ film, but a high profile technicolour production, which was energetically marketed and achieved considerable box office success (as well as a hit soundtrack album).

Here again, there are elements of generational conflict between the runaway singer, Barbara, and her manipulative mother and agent: they initially give chase to Barbara, although they eventually come to recognize the potential for publicity, claiming that she has been kidnapped. (As in the figure of the music agent in The Young Ones, there are weak vestiges of the more cynical view of the music business that dominates Expresso Bongo.) Yet here too, the young people themselves are entirely anodyne. They are clean-cut and polite, and relentlessly enthusiastic and optimistic.

Queer readings are certainly possible, although not wholly convincing: Cliff/Don has a brief topless moment as he exits from the shower, and he wears a particularly fetching string T-shirt in one of his final numbers; and some critics have made much of the fact that Barbara initially disguises herself as a boy, although needless to say she eventually gets together with Don, and their impending marriage is announced in the final scene. (Both of them claim they want to be independent – Cliff’s famous song ‘Bachelor Boy’ is one of the hit numbers – but of course this is little more than a conventional rom-com device.) Elsewhere, the gender roles are entirely unreconstructed, even for 1962: the British girls they pick up seem content to prepare the food and do the washing up, and while there is some suggestion of coupling up with the boys, their relationships remain entirely chaste. As in The Young Ones, kisses are frequently interrupted before they happen, and even the climactic kiss between Don and Barbara is shown in long shot.

The music itself is largely mainstream pop, and there are even fewer elements of rock-and-roll than in The Young Ones (although the Shadows do feature briefly in a basement nightclub scene). In one notable sequence, the group ends up in an Austrian beer garden, where there is an extended waltz routine; and for good measure, there is also a ‘let’s put on the show right here’ moment when the group mounts an impromptu performance (along with a group of mime artists they have picked up) in order to avert the threat of being held in a French jail. Along with a fairly offensive sequence in which Don appears to be drawn into marrying a Slavic peasant woman, the film is not exactly free of ethnic or national stereotypes either – although mention should be made of the closing appearance of the Shadows as a bouzouki band, which makes it all worthwhile. While Summer Holiday might be read as a travelogue, and even as an early reflection of the emergence of the tourism industry, it can hardly be said to broaden the mind.


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