David Essex, always more content in the role of actor rather than pop star, combined both occupations in That’ll Be The Day – and its sequel Stardust (1974). Two films which saw his character, Jim McLean, rise from girl-hopping delinquency on a fairground in the 1950s to castle-owning pop stardom.
Although he’d played bit parts in two movies – Assault (1970) and All Coppers Are… (1972) – David had now stepped virtually untested into the starring role in a major movie – an enormous burden for a relatively inexperienced actor.
Jim McLean is a middle-class kid whose father deserts his family soon after leaving the army. Jim becomes increasingly restless at school and finally flings his books into the river on the morning of his most important exams.
After a stint as a deckchair attendant at the seaside, he moves to a Butlin’s-style holiday camp and befriends Mike (Ringo Starr), who has been living off casual jobs for years. Mike teaches Jim about pulling girls, and after the holiday season, they both head off to work in a fairground where they make extra cash by short-changing the punters.
Meanwhile, Jim’s fascination with pop music grows. He watches holiday camp band Stormy Tempest (Billy Fury parodying himself) and The Typhoons (based on Rory Storm and The Hurricanes) and asks their drummer (Keith Moon of The Who) why they don’t write their own songs. “Only Americans can write songs”, comes the curt reply.
Jim returns home to help his mother run the family shop. He marries a local girl and tries to settle down but becomes bored with family life.
One day after meeting a former schoolmate who’s now in a group, Jim abruptly decides to buy a guitar and walks out on his wife and child.
That’ll Be The Day, chiefly filmed in Manchester’s Belle Vue fairground, was the more evocative and powerful of the two films, reflecting as it did the retro fascination with Rock & Roll (as evidenced by Essex’s biggest hit single Rock On).
In the late 50s, Rock & Roll provided a badly needed whiff of transatlantic glamour and an infectious vitality. The music actually belonged to the young people and helped them define their antagonism to older values.
As a cameo of British provincial life during that era, That’ll Be The Day struck a strong response in a youth culture that was already looking ruefully over its shoulder.