Sunday, 1 January 2017

What a Crazy World to be shown on TV

I'm delighted to report that Talking Pictures TV, available on Freeview and elsewhere, will be showing What a Crazy World (1963) on Saturday January 7th at 8.05pm and Sunday January 8th at 8.00pm. Its website is here. And for anyone new to this blog, here's an introduction to the film.

An adaptation of a Theatre Workshop musical, What a Crazy World is far from your average pop film. Its songs are a blend of music hall and rock'n'roll, and for all  the lightness of tone their subject matter is essentially gritty: unemployment, petty thieving, fighting, the generation gap. Joe Brown is the lead, but the cast includes Stratford East regulars such as Harry H.Corbett and Avis Bunnage.

The original stage show came about in 1962 when Gerry Raffles happened to hear Joe Brown sing Alan Klein's song of that name on TV and was impressed enough to commission Klein to write a complete musical around it. It was a canny decision: there was something fresh about the young Alan Klein's lyrics at a time when the charts were saturated with cover versions of American songs.

Klein's epiphany had come after a stint at Butlins when his band had been obliged to sing the latest chart hits. He told Radio Merseyside's Spencer Leigh in 2008:
I thought, we can't just go on singing about Kansas City ... which I'd never been to. I've got to start writing about ... what I see around me.
Twelve bar blues didn't seem right for the new song he started work on, however, and Klein reached back to childhood memories of seeing George Formby films:
I thought well, the way to do an English song is maybe I should think in terms of ukele chords, George Formby-type chord sequences, and that's what I did with that one: tried to make it a bit more up to date.

The resulting musical, replete with songs based on his own observations, was a popular success despite some adverse critical reaction. Robert Stigwood wanted to put it on in the West End with Mike Sarne in the lead but Klein opted for Michael Carreras' offer to make a film of it because "a film's gonna be there forever." And thank goodness he did, because now, more than fifty years on, we can still enjoy it. (And if you can't access Talking Pictures TV a Network DVD is also available.)

Some readers may have been watching A Hard Day's Night on Boxing Day on BBC 2. For Klein, the original cinema release of the Beatles film a few months after his own, suddenly made What a Crazy World seem dated, but I think both films can now be seen and appreciated without any need for comparison.

Alan Klein described What a Crazy World to Spencer Leigh as:
A document of its time ... All I was doing was saying what people felt.
Which may be true, but its themes aren't exactly alien today: disaffected youth, unemployment, the temptations of petty crime, and the yawning, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between parents and children.

The title song attacks the parents for their negligence ("No one seems to notice me") and their preferring bingo and betting to quality family time. But there's a counterbalancing song shared by the mother and father, surrounded by their mates at the bingo hall and dog track respectively. In it, they protest that these entertainments are not about having a good time: they're only  trying to win a bit of money to buy their materialistic kids all those new possessions and gadgets they seem to demand as their right.

Both sides of the generation divide are given their say - it isn't all troubled teenagers. But they're not listening to each other. And - significantly for a British pop film of the period - that isn't resolved by the end. No indulgent toe-tapping to this newfangled music, even though music is involved at the climax.

Aspiring songwriter Alf (Joe Brown), after much slogging around Denmark Street, finally gets someone interested. He returns home to play his family the record he has just made ... which might have made for a triumphal ending in another sort of film. Instead, there ensues an almighty barney in which both the record and Alf's achievement are forgotten as the family go at it hammer and tongs. There's no real resolution to his on-off relationship with his girlfriend (Susan Maughan) either, as she is sceptical about his chances of success in showbiz and wants to "wait and see" before she makes any commitment.

Essentially, then, all that happens in the climax is that grievances are loudly aired and then, going very much into stage musical mode, we hear everyone singing part of the title song, so that it no longer seems to belong to the Joe Brown character, the young complaining about the old, and has simply become a vehicle for everyone to have a good old moan.

If that makes What a Crazy World sound like a gloomy prospect, however, it's anything but. The tone is jaunty throughout, however grim the subject matter. And what makes the film special from a musical point of view is its successful marriage of rock'n'roll with music hall: throughout, there is a warmth and a verve that you - or I, anyway - can't resist.

A crazy world, then, but one which I think you will want to embrace. The cast, including many Theatre Workshop regulars, are superb. Harry H. Corbett is the father and Avis Bunnage the mother. Alan Klein himself is one of the layabouts who cluster around bad boy Herbie Shadbolt, played by Marty Wilde. The only slightly weak link is Susan Maughan, not really suited to the part of Alf's girlfriend. Wilde himself is very good, as is Joe Brown. The device of Michael Ripper as a kind of common man, or common jobsworth, forever beseiged by "Bleedin' kids!" is also very effective.

This is a long way, then, from your Cliff Richard musicals or other pop exploitation films. It has a foot in reality, even though it's carnivalesque at times, as in a scene in the labour exchange. One of Alan Klein's daughters has even compared it to Quadrophenia, though it takes itself rather less seriously.

So if you're able to see it on Talking Pictures TV or some other station, or to purchase the Network DVD, I urge you to take a chance on a film which is gritty, witty and, above all, teeming with life. When the DVD was released I know that Network were pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest, so here's hoping that this forthcoming TV screening will generate even more. As far as I'm concerned, What a Crazy World is a classic.

Guide to other blog posts about Alan Klein here.

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