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Expresso Bongo

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Ace, London, 1960
(price: 2/6; 160 pages)

The blurb on the back:

What the critics say about the work of Wolf Mankowitz:
Times Literary Supplement - Mr Mankowitz may well become England's Damon Runyan ... reveals a genuine comic talent; he writes concisely and with agreeable lyrical undertones.
Daily Mail - Brilliantly sardonic, flagrantly immoral.
Nancy Spain,
Daily Express - A new and witty star ... Mr Mankowitz has achieved a small miracle ... A remarkable achievement.
John Connell,
Evening News - Wry, ironic, self-mocking, funny and plangent.
Punch - The characters are brought to life with a brilliant economy of means.

opening lines:
The picture in the fan-mag showed this gangly kid in jeans and a sweat shirt, his face contorted, mouth wide open, beating with both hands on a bongo set round his shoulder, over it the headline BONGO SCORES AT TOM-TOM .

Okay, listen up. Expresso Bongo was originally a West End musical written by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz, which took the piss out of the British rock & roll industry (with particular if unspecified reference to Tommy Steele). It was then filmed by Val Guest in 1959 with Cliff Richard in a version scripted by Mankowitz which eased off on the satire and emphasized the music, written by Monty Norman, the legally proven composer of the James Bond theme. This book followed the movie, and is thus a novelization of a film of a play, all three incarnations of the story having been written by the same man.

Actually, to call it a novelization is an absurd over-statement. So thin is the plot that it barely fills the eighteen pages it is allotted in this book. Even so, it is in summary the essence of every rock & roll story that has followed: working-class kid with a modicum of talent is taken up by a go-getting manager, makes it big and then finds that success changes him and makes him lose touch with his roots. It's simple but effective, and what little there is of it does include some shrewd observation, such as this description of what the mass-market wants from its pop stars:

It has to be someone who is (or can act) not much older than themselves, and since the mob is mostly female, the talent has to be male and sexy (or able to act it). It has to be someone with a nobody background - rags to riches in five yelping stages - from dirty sweaty shirt to gold lamé sweat shirt. (p.6)

Of the stuff that followed, Absolute Beginners owes a clear debt. Oh, and the other great thing about the story is that the central character has the great gimmick of being a bongo-player whose stage-name is Bongo Herbert. That's Cliff Richard, that is.

l-r: Avis Bunnage, Laurence Harvey, Wilfred Lawson, Cliff Richard

Of the other two stories here, 'A Kid For Two Farthings' was also filmed, with direction by Carol Reed and starring roles for Celia Johnson, Diana Dors and David Kossoff, whilst 'Make Me An Offer' is a neat little story about an antique-dealer who specializes in Wedgwood (Mankowitz once wrote a history of Wedgwood).

These two had previously appeared as a single volume published by Pan in 1956 to tie-in with the movie of A Kid For Two Farthings. That edition came with four pages of stills from the film, which were replaced when Ace did a quick cash-in by adding the additional short story and slapping a new Cliff-friendly cover. You may like to notice that they did so without adding any pages at all, and still managing to shave sixpence off the price.

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as it was...


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