NICOLAS WALTER's articles on disobedience and direct action in ANARCHY 13 and 14 have just been reprinted as a pamphlet by the Committee of 100's "Schools for Nonviolence". The present article first appeared in, and is reproduced by courtesy of, New Society.
ONCE UPON A TIME there were four young cockney mechanics who drove a London bus across Europe to Athens. On the way, they picked up three refined young singing girls (who never sang), they twisted in a Paris jazz club (which might have been anywhere), they picked up a young American stowaway (who began as a boy but turned out to be another singing girl on the run from her mother), they got mixed up with a mime troupe (and did a crude slapstick turn with them in a French courtroom), they went through Switzerland (where the leading mechanic fell in love with the American singing girl), they waltzed in an Austrian hotel (which might have been anywhere), they got mixed up with a Yugoslav wedding feast (by asking for a bride instead of some bread), and at last they reached Athens (where they were accused of kidnapping the American girl by her mother, who had been trying to spoil their trip ever since Paris), But all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Boy married girl, and of course they all lived happily ever after.
YES, A NEW British musical film — called Summer Holiday — as bad as you might expect. Then what is all the fuss about? Why is everybody so interested? Because the leading mechanic, the hero of the film, is played by Harry Webb, alias Cliff Richard.
I can't believe anyone seriously pretends that Summer Holiday is anything more as a film than a sort of instant mixture of a flip side American musical comedy and a B feature British romantic comedy. You only have to put it beside West Side Story and Porgy and Bess, say, or Guys and Dolls and High Society, or even South Pacific and Oklahoma, to realize just how far the British musical film still has to go. No, Summer Holiday — like The Young Ones — isn't so much a film as a pictorial vehicle for Cliff Richard's songs, and even as a vehicle it doesn't come to much. A pity, because Cliff Richard did once have a part in a good film; but then Expresso Bongo was a different sort of film, and he had a different sort of part, virtually a self parody. Summer Holiday, like The Young Ones, takes no such chances. It is another straight-faced, strait-laced illustration of a pop hero, who (he sings) is going on a summer holiday just to make his dreams come true, for him and you, promises he'll be a bachelor boy until his dying day, adds that one day he'll meet a girl and fall in love and marry her, believes that every girl is beautiful, tells one who isn't that they'll have a swinging affair, then does fall in love and marries her: and off they all go on another summer holiday, to make more dreams come true, for them and you.
The trouble is, Cliff Richard's persona or charisma or whatever it is doesn't transfer from the stage to the screen. The music is partly to blame, since he spends far too much of the time crooning so-called ballads and blues and dancing to Broadway type "choreography", instead of getting on with the music that goes with his brand image — noisy rock-and-roll backed by his Shadows. It's said he wouldn't be anywhere without them, but I doubt it. It isn't the gimmick of the Shadows (formerly the Drifters) that is important, it's the sort of music they play, There must be plenty of other rhythmical guitarists and drummers in show business. I wonder, rather, where they would be without him. But this isn't the point. The point is, how does he do it? Make no mistake about his success. He's no flash in the pan. His records have sold more than 6,000,000 copies. He has two Golden Discs and 13 Silver Discs. He is Britain's Most Popular Film Star and one of Britain's Ten Best Dressed Men. He has frequently been Singer, Newcomer, Boyfriend of the Year. He has been Top of the Bill at the London Palladium, and is seldom far from the Top of the Top Ten or Twenty. He is just about the Top of the Pops in this country. He is 22 years old, and has been going strong for four of them. How did it happen?
IT BEGAN when beat music (which has nothing to do with the beat generation) was brought from jazz to give a new life to pop — following the repeated pattern described in Francis Newton's The Jazz Scene. The old rhythm and blues and hill billy folk music of America were turned into skiffle and rock-and-roll and put on to the assembly line for the mass market of the teenage revolution. Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, the American pioneers, began in 1953 and 1954. In 1955, the archetypal teenager James Dean died in America, and commercial television was born in England. Rock-and-roll and skiffle really hit us in 1956, the year of Suez and Hungary, of Look Back in Anger and The Outsider. The kids used their new money to buy the beat music, and Tin Pan Alley used the new fashion to buy the kids to make beat music (and big money).
This was the beginning of the age of what Ray Gosling called "Dream Boy" (see New Left Review 3). Dream Boy was just an "Ordinary Kid". The Ordinary Kid was born in a working class home around the time of our Finest Hour, brought up in a council house, taught in a secondary modern school, thrown out into a causeless world of affluence and opportunity (for other people), and left to look for his own dream by himself. He drifted about in the eddies of pop music, until he found his man and became a Dream Boy (hardly ever a Dream Girl — Helen Shapiro is a rare sort of bird). Tommy Hicks, the merchant seaman from Bermondsey, found John Kennedy and Larry Parnes, and became Tommy Steele. Terry Williams, the record packer from Newington, found Hyman Zahl, and became Terry Dene. Reg Smith, the timber hunker from Greenwich, found Larry Parnes, and became Marty Wilde. Ron Wycherley, the deck hand from Birkenhead, found Larry Parnes, and became Billy Fury. Terry Nelhams, the film boy from Acton, found John Barry and Evelyn Taylor, and became Adam Faith. Harry Webb, the factory clerk from Cheshunt, found George Ganjou and Norrie Paramor and Jack Good, and became Cliff Richard.
So it goes. There are dozens more — at least a dozen in the famous Larry Parnes stable alone. But they aren't all the same. Dream Boy is an Ordinary Kid, but there's something extraordinary about every kid, and this becomes the dream boy's gimmick. Tommy Steele becomes a cockney clown, Billy Fury a with-it troubadour, Adam Faith a singing James Dean, and so on. At first Cliff Richard became an English Elvis Presley, but he gradually developed his own personality. So did Tommy Steele and Adam Faith, of course, but they were never taken in by the dream in the first place. Cliff Richard's gimmick is better than theirs, because it isn't a gimmick at all. He really likes beat music, singing, other singers, his parents and sisters, his managers and advisers, his fans above all. Sometime he looks like the politician who finds out what most per cent of the voters think before he thinks, But he really doesn't like smoking, drinking, chasing girls, and so on. His secret is simple — he has no secret. His personality is simple — he has no personality. He is, as Colin MacInnes once said of Tommy Steele, "every nice young girl's boy, every kid's favourite elder brother, every mother's cherished adolescent son". He is a non-hero of our time, an innocent idol.
HE DOESN'T do any harm. I wish he would. I wish his "Number One Person in all the world" weren't Prince Philip. I wish he didn't want to be Peter Pan. I wish he wanted to be something more than a young one, a parasite on the teenage thing; as he said, "we may not be the young ones very long". I wish the riot in Leicester Square on the evening of January 10 had been for something more than the chance to see Cliff Richard going to the premiere of his new film. I wish someone would come and lead the second Children's Crusade, the "new classless class", and finish the teenage revolution once and for all. I wish the kids would refuse to stand for all the rubbish that is handed out to them. Cliff Richard is a nice boy, but I wish he were a really angry young man. I wish he hated someone or something. I wish he weren't so good, so safe, so useful. I wish he would sing a new song.
He won't, of course. He'll go on singing the same song and playing the same part in the same film and doing no harm, as long as it pays. But seriously, though, I can't hold anything against Cliff. I'm sure his part in Summer Holiday was worth the £100,000 he got for it.
The people who really worry me are the fans who have made such a hero out of such a non-hero. Fan = fanatic = inspired by a god. Something has gone wrong somewhere. And to worship such a god you must lose something yourself. I don't know what his fans do to him, but they frighten me all right. Why worship anyone? It isn't as if there weren't any good, brave causes left. Why don't they do something themselves, instead of watching someone else do something (or rather, nothing). Why, for that matter, don't we all do something ourselves, just to pretend we're alive? We may not be the young ones very long.