Considering the historical entwinement of the United States and Britain, for the most part, people on either side of the Atlantic know where to spot the differences between our two cultures. The chips, the crisps, biscuits, boots, and lifts—as an American, I can accept all of those fairly easily, and will enthusiastically bring them up upon encountering any British patriots. But there are always blind spots—the little things you don’t always stop to think about, the everyday, commonplace concepts and public figures we each take for granted that have no cultural resonance outside their respective home country.
Take, for example, rock music. Most people stateside are familiar with the “British invasion” of the mid-’60s, that collection of rebellious rockers—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks—who were imported directly into the collective musical consciousness of American teenagers throughout the decade. But standing slightly outside this narrative is British singer Cliff Richard, the so-called “British answer to Elvis Presley” and an important precursor to the later Invaders (John Lennon and Freddie Mercury were said to be fans). I’d happened upon his 1963 film Summer Holiday without realizing he was no mere flash-in-the-pan knock-off of the King or Frankie Avalon, but a performer who found incredible fame in music and film in the 1960s, and still works today. My ignorance stands testament to the fact that he never quite reached the heights of popularity in North America as he did in the UK, but these early films are a lovely time capsule of the start of the swinging ’60s in London.
Summer Holiday is a breezy, fun film, embodying and anticipating the crooning sensuality of Elvis’s films, the wholesome good times of Frankie and Annette, and the madcap adventures of the Beatles. Richard plays Don, a mechanic who convinces his friends to travel across Europe via double-decker bus to the south of France, under the guise of doing a test run for a future tour company. However, their plans quickly change when they encounter a trio of lady singers who have a broken-down car and a gig to play in Greece in just a few days—so, to Athens it is! Meanwhile, they also pick up a stowaway who claims to be an orphan boy, but who actually turns out to be a “missing” female American singer named Barbara. Barbara’s mother is hot on their trail, not so concerned as to the whereabouts of her daughter, but eager to milk the story for all its worth for the sake of the press. She and Barbara’s manager set up a series of traps to stop the kids at every turn, delaying their journey and risking their ability to follow through on their tour company aspirations and missing the girls’ show.
Richard is incredibly charming as Don—lodged somewhere between Elvis and Frankie on the “wholesome” scale, perhaps—but still a magnetic screen presence. His ability to be persuasive is admirable: not only does he manage to convince the bus company to loan him a double-decker for the summer, and his friends and co-workers to work overtime to help fix it up, but he also talks his way out of some much more serious stuff, including some run-ins with the police. The kids, on the whole, are good, pleasant people, doing their best to have fun in spite of the various wrenches being thrown in their direction. If you enjoyed the oversized-vehicle-based humor of The Long, Long Trailer, this is certainly one to check out, as the bus obviously doesn’t take kindly to the sharp curves and steep hills of the European landscape.
The film is one of those great big, sunny ’60s musicals, in the vein of West Side Story or The Young Girls of Rochefort. It was choreographed by Herbert Ross, who had previously worked on Carmen Jones as well as Cliff Richard’s previous film, The Young Ones; and who would go on to choreograph Funny Girl and direct films like Footloose. There are lots of fun, memorable and inventive numbers, such as when the boys and girls have to quickly put on a mime show (with costumes and sets!) to convince a judge that they’re actually all part of a traveling troupe of entertainers. The on-location filming also contributes to the fluffy fun and eye-candy nature of the picture, whether it’s inside a working bus repair facility or on a sunny Grecian beach.
Despite the fun of the film, this early British “invasion” didn’t quite take hold in the United States—both the movie and Richard as a star himself—despite Richard being the number one box office draw in Britain two years running. That’s partly due to unfortunate timing of the release in the US, which ended up being just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But it also highlights the cyclical nature of audience acceptance and cultural currency; there’s just a point at which people need something drastically different and new, and Richard was being marketed to Americans as another Elvis Presley. Whether that emulation was ever even Richard’s intention, or just the limited creativity of those in charge of selling him, doesn’t really matter in the end. The arrival of the other British invaders changed the face of rock music so drastically that everything got shaken up—and anything and anyone not already firmly in place kind of slipped through the cracks.
This post is a part of the British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Click here to check out the rest entries from the blogathon, which continues through the end of the weekend.