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Saturday Night at the Movies

By Travis Elborough.

Cliff Richard has been on my mind a lot over the few years. And the more I think about him the stranger he seems to get. A large part of that strangeness, I can’t help thinking, is that he is not strange at all. He is completely normal. So unbelievably boringly normal that we just can’t quite countenance how unbelievably boringly normal he really is. Thrown a few details (the god stuff, the celibacy, the sharing his days with an ex-priest, the Blairs holidaying at his Villa etc.,), details that in an earlier era would probably have provided the backbone to some morally improving Hero of the Empire’s hagiography, we do the math and come up with colostomy bags and a closet life of sordid iniquity. But who can blame us, really? Over a century of undigested Freud, decades of tabloid exposés and the films of David Lynch have taught us that beneath even the blandest surfaces there is hidden dirt. No carefully tended is lawn is without its severed ear nor cardigan-wearing breakfast show host without a penchant for prostitutes, spanking and lines of chisel. In a culture of consumption – and the present vogue for thrift seems less about Crippsian austerity than a need to continue consuming in a way that is self-consciously less conspicuous – it’s the denial of sex, drugs and debauchery that we find odd about Cliff. The abstinence appears perverse. God knows, in some kind of quasi international league of rock’ n’ rollers, you’d have to conclude that England’s answer to Elvis, let the home side badly down. Even France managed to field Johnny Hallyday with his drug busts, car crashes and broken marriages.

It could all have turned out so very differently, of course. Difficult as it is to believe today, Richard was once considered so salacious in Britain in 1958 that the NME denounced his appearance on the TV show Oh Boy ‘as hardly the kind of performance any parent could wish their children to witness.’ The perception (or possibly misperception) of Richard as a teenage wildcat was not limited to these shores either. In a series of photographs taken in Berne and Zurich by Karlheinz Wienberger during the late 1950s, Cliff’s face adorns belt-buckles and leather jackets worn, with evident pride, by members of Switzerland’s nascent Hell’s Angels – The Lice-Infected Ones or ‘vie Verlausten’, as they were known. But then Cliff, the former Butlins Red Coat, was never cut out to be an outrageous rocker. By his second LP, Cliff Sings, he was already tackling, string-drenched ballads and exuding by instinct or inclination the distinct whiff of wholesomeness, then a requisite for any all round entertainer. ‘It became’ Richard conceded at one point in the 1980s, ‘very, very “family” for me.’

On the big screen too, the one-time teenage delinquent of the ‘social issue’ picture Serious Charge and the dipsomaniac coffee bar singing sensation of the rather brilliant having-its-cake-and-eating-it rock exploitation flick Expresso Bongo was soon starring in full-colour musical comedies. And full-colour musical comedies to boot where he was depicted saving youth clubs from the clutches of rapacious property developers — The Young Ones. Or personally avenging de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s entry into the common market by setting up profitable Anglo-American tourist ventures on the continent — Summer Holiday.

The latter two films, arguably, tell us more about a lost universe of popular culture, than their predecessors with their greater attempts at verisimilitude. To watch The Young Ones and Summer Holiday now, is to be reminded that a great swathe of the entertainment industry believed that the general public wanted nothing more disturbing than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five with guitars. And not in a knowingly ironic way either, as even Elvis’ cinematic output during the same period attests. Though in a rather telling transatlantic difference, at the time when Cliff Richard was taking London Transport buses for a spin at Chiswick Works, Presley was gearing up to appear in Viva Las Vegas. A film in which The King starred as a racing driver yearning to win the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Today it is the upbeat ingenuousness of Summer Holiday that it is interesting, infectious, even – and partly because it seems so disingenuously reactionary now. Conformist to a fault, it presents a teenage world where good girls don’t before marriage and nice boys wouldn’t dream of asking, and a game of volleyball is probably enough to keep beastliness at bay, anyway.

But then Summer Holiday is a fantasy. One where the hoary old Shakespearean comedy-romantic tropes of girls of dressed as boys, and gorgon-like mother-in-laws, are updated for an era when it was just about acceptable for fellars to use deodorant and wear jewellry. Women drivers, however, as the scene when Una and her gang lose control of their crock of a car confirms, still remain slightly beyond the pale. Pointedly the film begins in black and white. It is only when the Peter Pan of Pop himself, driving a London transport double decker, looms into view that the picture a la Wizard of Oz bursts into colour. And like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, Cliff, Mervyn Hayes and co. in their bright red RT bus are off to make new friends and encounter colourful characters in exotic lands: Lauri Peters, Ron Moody and Greece.

Filmed in 1962, however, it does acknowledge the arrival of cheap foreign holidays for the masses. Our girls ‘n’ guys take a piece of London along with them; those who came after them would be haunting faux cockney boozers on the Costa de Sol. And with its mix of youth and Ye Olde red bus, it seems an oddly prescient dry run for a 1001 Swinging London flicks. The major difference, perhaps, was that by then everyone was presumed to be ‘at it’ and the more dashing off-their-heads to boot. The reality for most as always, was probably rather different, more Woodbines, Wimpy burgers and the hire purchase sofas, than reefers, free love, acid and higher planes of consciousness. And the absence of the latter, as they were for Cliff, just part of what normal life was like.

First posted: Saturday, August 8th, 2009.

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