Small-time talent agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) tries to hit the big time with a bongo player called Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) who he spots in a Soho skiffle and coffee bar, backed by The Shadows.
Johnny gives Bert 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 perform at the Tom Tom expresso bar.
Bongo’s first single, Voice in the Wilderness, is a smash hit, but Johnny then decides that a little image adjustment might make him a bigger draw, so his follow-up is a sugary, religious tune, The Shrine on the Second Floor.
The new image hardly fits with Bongo’s newfound fondness for strippers and love-starved American variety star Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan).
Johnny thinks he has a meal ticket for life, but when record company exec Gus Mayer (Meier Tzelniker) discovers that Bongo’s agent is earning 50% commission he demands the kid is exclusively signed to his record company.
Finally, Dixie decides to outwit Johnny when she discovers that Bongo is really a minor, making his contract null and void. As a result, Bongo breaks his contract with Johnny and heads to America under contract to Mayer.
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.
Cliff Richard was Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley at the time (although he never quite made it in America).
Expresso Bongo is Britain’s greatest-ever film musical – and the picture that inspired Andrew Loog Oldham to become a pop impresario.
If the brilliant use of authentic Soho locations and the sight of Sylvia Syms as a singing stripper wasn’t value enough, Cliff’s performance as the naive-seeming singer is so plausible that many observers wondered if the 19-year old actor really understood the X-rated script.
Best of all is Harvey’s portrayal of Jackson, who assures Bongo Herbert that one day he will “open shoe shops for cash!”
Harvey perfectly captures the cynicism of the piece. One of the most prescient images of the Macmillan era is that of a caffeine-crazed Jackson skipping through parked Crestas and Zodiacs crooning “I never had it so good before”, but better still is the film’s stand-out number, Nausea, in which Harvey and Meier Tzelniker dance through Soho as they summarise the nature of most pop music: “When I hear this little bleeder and compare him with Aida – nausea!”
Bert Rudge / Bongo Herbert
Reverend Tobias Craven
Night club cleaner