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EXPRESSO BONGO [1959 / 2016] [BFI Flipside Series] [Blu-ray + DVD]
on 5 May 2016
EXPRESSO BONGO [1959 / 2016] [BFI Flipside Series] [Blu-ray + DVD] Val Guest’s 1959 British Best Classic! Johnny Had It So Good . . . Or Lost It So Fast!
When Soho hustler Johnny Jackson [Laurence Harvey], a drummer-turned-music agent, discovers teen bongo player Bert Rudge [Cliff Richard] in an espresso bar, he renames him Bongo Herbert, and secures him a record deal and a TV appearance. Soon, Johnny Jackson is riding the coat-tails of Bert Rudge's stardom. Val Guest's sharp, witty satire of the music industry was adapted from the successful West End musical by Wolf Mankowitz. This fully remastered release includes the original, full-length theatrical version, as well as the shorter 1962 re-issue cut.
Cast: Laurence Harvey, Sylvia Syms, Yolande Donlan, Cliff Richard, Meier Tzelniker, Ambrosine Phillpotts, Eric Pohlmann, Gilbert Harding, Hermione Baddeley, Reginald Beckwith, Paula Barry (uncredited), Avis Bunnage (uncredited), Rita Burke (uncredited), Susan Burnet (uncredited), Esma Cannon (uncredited), Jill Carson (uncredited), Patty Dalton (uncredited), Rodney Dines (uncredited), Roy Everson (uncredited), Kenneth Griffith (uncredited), Susan Hampshire (uncredited), Victor Harrington (uncredited), Katherine Keeton (uncredited), Burt Kwouk (uncredited), Copeland Lawrence (uncredited), Wilfrid Lawson (uncredited), Patricia Lewis (uncredited), Barry Lowe (uncredited), Wolf Mankowitz (uncredited), Jack McNaughton (uncredited), Martin Miller (uncredited), Pamela Morris (uncredited), Peter Myers (uncredited), Maureen O'Connor (uncredited), Norma Parnell (uncredited), Lisa Peake (uncredited), Christine Phillips (uncredited), Sylvia Steele (uncredited), Jet Harris (Bass Guitarist) (uncredited), Hank B. Marvin (Lead Guitarist) (uncredited), Tony Meehan (Drummer) (uncredited) and Bruce Welch (Rhythm Guitarist) (uncredited)
Director: Val Guest
Producers: Jon Penington and Val Guest
Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More (play)
Composers: Robert Farnon, Val Guest, Norrie Paramour, Bunny Lewis and Paddy Roberts
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Video Resolution: 1080p [Black-and-White]
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 and 1.33:1
Audio: English: 2.0 LPCM Audio Stereo and English: 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Running Time: 111 minutes and 106 minutes
Region: Blu-ray: Region B/2 and DVD: PAL
Number of discs: 2
Studio: Britannia Films / British Film Institute
Andrew’s Blu-ray Review: ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’  is an adaptation of Wolf Mankowitz and Julian Moore’s 1958 satirical showbiz musical centred on the London’s Soho’s thriving coffee bars and an agent who thinks he has found a musical star. Wolf Mankowitz’s crackling script is bristling with energy and abrasive period flavour, whilst Val Guest skilfully directs, capturing the fads and fashions of the late 1950s. Laurence Harvey does a terrific job as the impeccably smarmy would-be impresario, and 19-year-old Cliff Richard is credible in the first half of the film as the bongo-thumping boy pushed to stardom, but he subsequently struggles when the role requires him to portray a more wayward rock star.
Johnny Jackson [Laurence Harvey] is a fast-talking opportunist talent agent hoping to get rich quick through a rookie rocker, Bert Rudge [Cliff Richard], he spots in a Soho skiffle and coffee bar. Johnny Jackson gives Bert Rudge the stage name “Bongo Herbert,” and puts him on the fast track to teenage stardom by persuading his record company and radio connections to come and see Bongo Herbert perform at the Tom Tom expresso bar.
Bongo Herbert’s first single, “Voice in the Wilderness,” is a smash hit, but Johnny Jackson then decides that a little image adjustment might make him a bigger draw, so Bongo Herbert’s follow-up single is a sugary, religious tune, “The Shrine on the Second Floor.” The new image hardly fits with Bongo Herbert’s newfound fondness for strippers and love-starved American variety star Dixie Collins [Yolande Donlan]. Johnny Jackson thinks he has a meal ticket for life, but when record company exec Gus Mayer [Meier Tzelniker] discovers that Bongo Herbert’s agent is earning fifty-percent commission he demands that Bongo Herbert is exclusively signed to his record company. Finally, Dixie Collins decides to outwit Johnny Jackson when she discovers that Bongo Herbert is really a minor, making his contract null and void. As a result, Bongo Herbert breaks his contract with Johnny Jackson and heads to America under contract to Gus Mayer.
But with the esteemed brilliant actor Laurence Harvey sadly playing the ragtag role of a small-time theatrical agent who takes a Soho bongo drummer in hand and runs him into a so-so Elvis Presley before being double-crossed by him, it does have, at least, the distinction of that actor's present prestige and the advantage of a certain flashy colour and flickering pathos that he gives to the role. Hunching his coat across his shoulders, slitting his eyes cannily and poking a cigarette deftly into the area in front of his face, he probes through the film in avid fashion, like some tinhorn, questing and shamelessly conniving for an honest, and therefore gullible, man Bongo Herbert. ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ has it all in one package, with joint operators, semi-nude babes in burlesque dives, phonograph record impresarios, vaudeville managers and all in the name of the game. The only thing I felt very uncomfortable with was the Laurence Harvey over the top vaudeville embarrassing false Jewish accent that I did not feel he needed to do and I suspect if the film was made today the PC brigade would wade in and not allow it to be performed.
However, ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ is very amusing, in a wry and abrasive sort of way, and the picture of life in London’s Soho flesh pots that Val Guest gives us is languidly obscene and sometimes over the top which I really enjoyed. Taking his fable from a story and musical play by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest has flipped the sordid details in our faces as if he were chunking rotten fruit against a wall. Sylvia Syms is pretty but vapid as a gullible burlesque queen, and Meier Tzelniker plays a record publisher in the old style of Jewish caricature. The film is also crowded with strippers, streetwalkers, delicatessen buffs, and there is even a little music in it.
While most hit 1950s Broadway musicals were filmed, British ones fared much worse. When some of them were rarely optioned, few survived intact. For the film ‘EXPRESSO BONGO,’ only two of the seventeen numbers remained and more “commercial” songs were added to promote Cliff Richard. Presenting this film is like a time capsule of the exploitative aspects of Britain's 1958 pop music business scene, Bongo Herbert is set in and around Soho's coffee bars, with the agents, A&R managers, gossip writers and press types who feed off the scene, and is based on the rise of Tommy Steele, very current in 1958. Cliff Richard, seemingly unaware of the satire, gives his best film performance, especially in later scenes as the “toy boy” of Yolande Donlan's mature, all-knowing Dixie Collins. Moreover, to the perceptive viewer, the struggle between Dixie Collins and Johnny Jackson for Bongo Herbert's attentions has a clear sexual subtext, emphasised by Maisie King's resentment at Johnny Jackson spending too much time with Bongo Herbert.
Meier Tzelniker and Susan Hampshire reprise their stage roles to great effect, but Meier Tzelniker's number “Nausea” is missing from shorter prints of the film. Susan Hampshire's vacuous debutante, who comes backstage after Bongo Herbert's TV appearance, is a hoot: "Isn't he sweet, isn't he pure heaven!" Susan Hampshire went on to co-star with Cliff Richard in ‘Wonderful Life’ that was directed by Sidney J. Furie, in 1964. ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ also has many uncredited appearances by established character players, such as Wilfrid Lawson (as Bongo Herbert's drunken dad), who delivers a hilarious, scene-stealing performance. Writer Wolf Mankowitz even makes an appearance as a “sandwich-board man” to proclaim “The End Is At Hand” just before the film concludes.
Blu-ray Video Quality – ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’  has been brought to you via the British Film Institute, with two versions of the film and has been presented with a new 1080p HD Master made from a 2K scan from the original 35mm camera negative, that has been on loan to the BFI from Cohen Media in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks totally fantastic. The Black-and-White film is correctly framed with no major problems of dirt, scratches, or flickering effects. Though with its age, there are some scenes that look a bit worse than others, mostly at the end reels sections, but it is not distracting at all. As for the 1962 alternate film version, the alternate scenes were taken again from a 35mm fine grain negative held at the BFI archives and inserted into the 2K mastered original version. The alternate scenes have also been remastered and hard to tell where the film changes without looking extremely carefully. But once again the British Film Institute has done a very professional and wonderful job, so well done and top marks as usual. Playback Region B/2: This will not play on most Blu-ray players sold in North America, Central America, South America, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Learn more about Blu-ray region specifications.
Blu-ray Audio Quality – ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’  has been brought to you via the British Film Institute, has been scanned from the original 35mm optical track on loan to the BFI from the Cohen Media. The audio is listed as a 2.0 LPCM Audio Stereo track, but I didn’t even notice any Stereo separation in the track so it is essentially mono. Regardless of this situation the LPCM audio sounds really quite good with the music sounding really clear and the dialogue sounding also very clean. There are no problems of hissing or cracks in the audio, which again has been remastered from the optical track negative. So once again here is another excellent top marks in the audio department of the British Film Institute.
Blu-ray Special Features and Extras:
Newly remastered in 2K and presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition.
Blu-ray and DVD Full-length ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ 1959 Theatrical of the 111 minutes premiere release of the original longer version of the film.
Special Feature: ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’  [1080p] [2.35:1] This is the Exclusive Blu-ray 1962 re-issue of the 106 minutes shorter version of the film, with alternative cut which removed a number of songs.
Audio Commentary: Commentary for ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ 1962 re-issue version featuring Marcus Hearn [Film Historian], Yolande Donlan [Actress] and Val Guest [Producer/Director]: This was recorded in December 2005 for the DVD release of the ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ 1962 re-issue version. Marcus Hearn moderates this audio commentary featuring as guests’ are wife Yolande Donlan who has a quick “Hello There” and director/producer Val Guest who also says a quick “Hello.” Marcus Hearn informs us they are going to be talking about the making of the film, and the stage play the film was based on. In addition throughout the audio commentary Marcus Hearn also informs us that he will be referring about the original shooting script and pointing out scenes that were altered and deleted. It is also pointed out while doing this audio commentary was that ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ was 46 years old since being released in the cinema. Val Guest talks about the problems he had in shooting the film in Soho in London, but the police were very helpful. Val Guest also mentions before shooting the film he did a walkabout the streets of Soho to view the best places to shoot the film. Yolande Donlan talks about here time in London in the 1950s and what a brilliant time she had and was in fact a big star and especially mixing with all the other big theatre stars that were around at the time and dining at all the swanky restaurants. Val Guest tells the character of Johnny Jackson was based on a real person called Johnny Kennedy who was the manager for Tommy Steele and that Johnny Kennedy eventually moved to Palm Springs and was a neighbour to Val and Yolande. Val Guest also informs is about how Laurence Harvey perfected his accent and we are told it was from mimicking Wolf Mankowitz. We also get informed how Val Guest and Yolande Donlan first met, which happened when Sir Lawrence Olivier brought over Yolande to appear in one of his plays in London and at the same time Val Guest was shooting the film ‘Just William’s Luck’  that Malcolm Balcon was in and begged Val to go and see the play and eventually went and over a 5 year period of asking Yolande to marry Val, eventually gave in and were finally married. One nice of bit of information we hear is that Val Guest and Yolande Donlan were invited to Lapland for their Midnight Film Festival and were both flown over from Los Angeles and to Val’s surprise, they showed five of his films and of course one of them was ‘EXPRESSO BONGO.’ We are now getting to the end of the film and all three comment that they feel the film holds up very well and I agree with that comment 100%, and especially showing what life was like in seedy parts of London in the 1950s era and is also definitely a satire on exploiting vulnerable young people in the music industry in the 1950s. But like the people in the audio commentary, and we all agree it is a totally entertaining film and especially seeing in glorious 1080p Black-and-White and so ends another fascinating audio commentary, but the only thing that detracted from the film is that a lot of the time they all went off in a tangent on talking about other Val Guest films he directed and the films that Yolande Donlan appeared in Val Guest films and reminiscing on what was his best films he directed, but despite this, it was still a very enjoyable and entertaining audio commentary and well worth a listen, despite not doing the audio commentary for the 1959 film. Although Val Guest was 94 and Yolande Donlan was 89 at the time of recording, their memories are quite strong. Val Guest died a few months later in 2006 at the age of 94 while his wife Yolande Donlan died in 2014 also at the age of 94.
Special Feature: Expresso Bongo Image Gallery  [1080p] [4:28] Here you get to view a really nice selection of stunning Black-and-White and Colour promotional material including Stills; Theatrical Posters; US Lobby Cards; UK Press Book and US Press Book and is presented as a slide show. Stills and Pisters appear courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive’s Special Collection. Press Books and US Lobby Cards appear courtesy of The Steve Chibnall Archive Collection. Professor Steve Chibnall is also owner of The Steve Chibnall Archive Collection, a private collection of tens of thousands of pieces of British film and popular culture memorabilia which postgraduate students in the Cinema and Television History Research Centre may draw upon in their research.
Theatrical Trailer  [1080p] [2.35:1] [2:59] This is the Original Theatrical Trailer for the film EXPRESSO BONGO.’ Even though it is shown in the 1080p encoded image, sadly the print is not very clean, but despite this, it is still a brilliant presentation. But you will certainly get a great laugh with the over the top enthusiastic announcer, that was typical with British Rock ‘n’ Roll musical film trailers of that period.
Special Feature: ‘YOUTH CLUB’  [408i] [1.33:1] [17:19] This Black-and-White COI [Central Office of Information] documentary, that is narrated by Frank Duncan, is about dealing with juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and was directed by Norman Prouting for Verity Films Limited. ‘YOUTH CLUB’ tells a lot about post-war Britain. The Second World War was finally over, but the nation had been deeply scarred by the constant bombing from Germany and in turn financially weakened the United Kingdom’s economy by years of expensive overseas struggles. The British population abruptly found themselves without unity of an obvious common cause, trying to reassert a sense of social order, stability and direction in somewhat austere and challenging economic circumstances. Amidst the inevitable confusion of these years, the perceived threat to juvenile delinquency continued to be a major concern in the minds of an uneasy public, and fuelled by the popular British press and wasn’t helped by the alarmist fiction films of the period. So here we have a look back at the beginnings of the British teenage culture, as viewed through the highly polished government lens and what youth clubs were like in mid 1950s Britain, then look no further with this information short film, ‘YOUTH CLUB’ makes for some distinctly fascinating but occasionally and bewildering watching with today’s modern audience. There is no dialogue as such, but is complete. ‘YOUTH CLUB’ was considered unsuitable for domestic release. Also contemporary viewers may find themselves wondering exactly what the International audiences in in the 1950s would have made of the thoroughly “typical” marching Boy Scouts bagpipe band prominently featured in this documentary rousing finale. By the way it doesn’t have much to do with ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ except for the near time period and featuring youth. Strangely this short was not intended for distribution in the UK but for export purposes only, so a nice little bonus. The film has been mastered in 2K, though not thoroughly cleaned for remastering as there are for the first 10 minutes lots of dots and speckles visible, but despite this it still looks very good and the sound is equally nice and clear. It is presented in the 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo Audio.
Special Feature: ‘THE SQUARE’  [480i] [1.33:1] [15:50] This is directed by Michael Winner and is a very gentle, genial debut touching, understated first film of the director Michael Winner [1935-2013] and was a long-thought lost short Black-and-White documentary film that was thought to be a long lost gem, and felt it was lost forever. This debut short documentary film was made for £1000 independently. ‘THE SQUARE’ sees an elderly resident of a run-down house in London’s King’s Cross area and sees the forever-aged screen veteran actor A. E. Mathews, who was renowned for his many character roles as somewhat dotty old chap, and according to Michael Winner, says that A. E. Mathews was a constant heavy drinker like the character in the film ‘Withnail and I’  Indie film, with the penchant for lighter fuel and also reminiscing about the good old days, before preparing to move out so that his now-shabby property can be pulled down. But before he goes, the people that inhabit the streets nearby arrange a surprise party for him with live music provided by a local Skiffle Group led by Rory McEwan and as A. E. Mathews enjoys the festivities, a young girl teaches him to dance. Intriguingly, the pretty, softly spoken, light-footed teenager who invites that most unlikely of dance student A. E. Mathews to get up and ‘Rock n’ Roll’ was none other than a 18-year-old actress and dancer Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, who would go on to play a significant in Michael Winner’s life. The film was never released as it could not find a distributor and the print was donated to the BFI archives along with his other film materials after Michael Winner’s death in 2013, in accordance to his wishes and dare we say “Death Wish,” the documentary film has been remastered in 2K, and it looks really good for the source of the negative. The sound is really good except at the very end where it starts sounding pretty bad with lots of loud pops, crackles and drop outs. It is presented in the 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo Audio.
DVD Special Feature: Alternative Sequences  [590i] [2.35:1] [2:21] This is a montage of the alternative film sequences used to replace the cut songs from the 1962 version of the film. One thing I noticed is the sound was slightly clipped and slightly rough, but of course all the cut clips you view in the 111 minutes 1959 longer version of the film.
Special Feature: Original US and UK press books [downloadable PDF via the DVD only]
BONUS: A beautifully printed and illustrated 30 page booklet, with a new writings by Andrew Roberts, Vic Pratt and Steve Chibnall, and full film credits. First the essay “EXPRESSO BONGO” was written by Film Historian Andrew Roberts. Next is a reprint of a 1960 review of the film by Brenda Davies written for the Monthly Film Bulletin publication that was a periodical of the British Film Institute published monthly from February 1934 to April 1991, when it merged with the Sight and Sound publication. There is also an insightful biography on the director Val Guest and is next followed by the film’s full credits; the bonus features credits, and information on the film’s transfer presentation.
Finally, ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’  does have its fun along the way, but it has unfortunately seriously aged. But the great thing is that it is a time capsule of the English scene pre-British invasion. With two versions of the film, a great transfer, and a good selection of extras including a director’s commentary and the British Film Institute has put together yet another great release. One thing that is conspicuously missing is English subtitles for the bonus features. Previous BFI Blu-rays and DVDs offered English subtitles on the extras. But according to the recent information from the British Film Institute, about their three recent BFI Flipside Series Blu-ray releases ‘BEAT GIRL;’ ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ and ‘SYMPTONS’ are missing the English subtitles on the extras and why BFI stopped this practice is a mystery to me as it was always given that there would be English subtitles on the extras. Also, why no input from Cliff Richard? Maybe the reason is that he is probably too rich and too busy relaxing in Barbados, one can only assume? ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ was a major hit when it was released in the UK in 1959. With Cliff Richards’s continuing rising success in the music world it prompted a re-release of the film in 1962, though with slight differences. First and foremost, the musical sequences that didn’t feature Cliff Richards were cut out entirely and some alternate scenes were added to emphasise Cliff Richards the musician. For fans of the original ‘EXPRESSO BONGO’ music genre film, it would have been frustrating as musical numbers were already cut down for the 1959 film, but the new 1962 re-issue cut was like an alternate film made especially for Cliff Richards fans and for many years only the re-release version was mainly able to be seen. I now wish the British Film Institute would release all the other Cliff Richard films, especially ‘SUMMER HOLIDAY.’ Highly Recommended!
Andrew C. Miller – Your Ultimate No.1 Film Fan
Le Cinema Paradiso