30 June 2018

Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad! on Talking Pictures TV, 5th July

For UK readers, the happy news that Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad! is to get a rare television airing on Thursday the 5th of July at 6.05pm on Talking Pictures TV. Made before A Hard Day's Night, it fizzes with the same kind of inventiveness and fun, and can be seen as a kind of dry run for the later film, as Lester plays around -  a more appropriate verb than "experiments" - with different ways of presenting pop and jazz performances.

Like George Martin, Lester had had experience of working with Spike Milligan by the time he came into contact with the Beatles, and there is more than a little Goonish humour in evidence here. But the whole seems unforced, easy, unpretentious, and can still be watched with considerable enjoyment today.

I say this on the strength of a poor quality print of the film watched recently on youtube (and since taken down); be assured that Talking Pictures TV, which makes a speciality of resurrecting British films from the late fifties and early sixties, is likely to offer something rather easier on the eye.

I had originally seen the film when it was first shown on television in the eighties but didn't remember too much - beyond, that is, one thing: a sense of a gathering momentum towards the end and a vague feeling of costar Helen Shapiro's being lost amid the frenzy - quite disappeared, I mean, as though the film had been overlaid with a kind of mythical element, making it into an oblique cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to jazz-crazed rhythms.

As you'll see if the clip below is still available, the final sequence does indeed build in frenzy, though it's more decorous, less dangerous than my recollection suggested: carnivalesque rather than the nightmarish trance state of David McCallum in Violent Playground, caught up in an ecstasy of savagery as he dances with his mates in front of horrified police officer Stanley Baker; after a little hesitation Baker would surely accept an invitation to join his colleague Arthur Mullard in Lester's merry-making.

That notion of a mythical-overtones vanishing came, I think, from the sense I'd vaguely retained that, having organised this climactic concert, Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas become subsumed by it, as though they've created a monster they cannot control. Which puts it too dramatically, perhaps, but at the end, although everyone's dancing happily together to the song Ring-a-Ding, and there are glimpses of Shapiro and Douglas among the proceedings, singing as they dance, the ultimate message seems not so much about them as about the unstoppable power of the force they've chosen to invite into their town: in the final shot the camera closes in on a wailin' sax player getting wilder and wilder until we fade, mercifully, to white.

 An agreeable Dixieland version of the same tune is immediately played over the credits, but given that jazz and pop alternate throughout the film, it's interesting to note that Lester opts to finish the film proper with a pop performance, or pop with overtones of rock'n'roll (the honking sax), despite the film's UK title. (In America it was called Ring-a-Ding Rhythm!, which suggests Britain's trad jazz craze didn't travel.)

The saxophone is as much as a symbol of jazz as of rock'n'roll/pop, of course (unless you are one of those outraged by the addition of Bruce Turner to Humph's band), but was this a case of the director tacitly admitting which genre had the greater commercial clout?

It's Trad, Dad! marked a break from typical rock'n'roll exploitation movies like Rock! Rock! Rock! for several reasons. The plot may have been the same as earlier films: crusty adults try to quash new music which has their children in thrall, before [spoiler alert] they are won round to it themselves, tapping an indulgent toe or succumbing more wholeheartedly:

But the story, and indeed every element in It's Trad .., fizzes with a sense of fun and life easier seen than described, and which you will find only intermittently in earlier pop vehicles. The 6.5 Special film spinoff is a case in point - for the most part it's, like, uh, squaresville, Daddio. Even the brief sequences with the DJs, including Pete Murray, in It's Trad ... convey a sense of life absent from equivalent scenes in the rather lumpen 6.5 Special film. (Lonnie Donegan, glimpsed at the end of the latter, is the sole exception, though his sequence feels like it's been stitched on.)

What makes It's Trad ... so different from those earlier films? Lester's background, working with Peter Sellers as well as Milligan, meant that he had comic invention to spare for the project; he was, moreover, given a great deal of freedom to make the film as he wished. Handed what he assumed to be a 18 page treatment by the writer, Milton Subotsky, he was informed that this was actually the shooting script.
And so I just turned it around and made it ... send itself up.
Having already made the influential short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film with Milligan and Sellers, and a TV version of The Goon Show called A Show Called Fred, the sight gags integral to It's Trad, Dad! were already second nature to the young American director:
... when we'd do musical numbers with The Goon Show, the girl would be there singing with the band, and at the end of it a man would come up with a custard pie and go kssssh into her face and say, "That was lovely, Patty. When did you first decide ..." and then they would do the interview.
Also significant is that he had made a short documentary earlier called Have Jazz, Will Travel, in which the great cinematographer Robert Krasker (The Third Man), "didn't do a terribly good job" of capturing the music, according to Lester::
Jazz combos - both modern and traditional - photographed in smoky places, against black. Just abstracts and close-ups of instruments.
Presumably learning from this, Lester and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (a pairing which continued for A Hard Day's Night) successfully convey the excitement of jazz bands in action, as well as displaying variety in the shooting of most of the pop sequences - ring-a-dinging the changes, as you might say.

But it's the trad performances which are particularly compelling, and you don't need to be a fan to become caught up in the energetic whirl of that side of the film. For example, although I like the sequence in Sun Valley Serenade (photography by Edward Cronjager) in which Glenn Miller's Orchestra run through Chatanooga Choo Choo, and have written about it here, it seems staid by comparison, or rather too selfconscious. Maybe it's appropriate for the comparative regimentation of swing.

Lester filmed the music for his film in a variety of ways, but with the straightforward trad jazz bands (as opposed to, say, the Temperance Seven who are afforded quirkier treatment) the emphasis is on whichever instrument is prominent. Presumably they are miming to a backing track, and this is no more a multi-camera record of a single performance than than Cronjager's work above, but the effect is of something far freer, more alive, closer to cinema verite (though I do love the moment in Chatanooga Choo Choo, captured below, where the double bass player is the dead spit of Ernie Wise letting himself go during a dance routine).

It's not a high quality clip but here is Acker Bilk playing In a Persian Market from It's Trad ... for purposes of comparison. Note that in both clips the bands are not performing for an audience: the Miller band is doing a runthrough and Bilk's band is in a recording studio.

The verve in It's Trad ... must surely owe something to Lester's earlier experience of having to be on the alert to capture the essence of the Milligans of this world (as opposed to the Mulligans of the jazz world). During another number at the above recording session, for example, we see Acker Bilk's trumpeter reacting to the effort of a particularly tricky section; it's a tiny detail but it makes the whole band's performance seem all the more human. Fags are smoked, tea is hastily slurped as occasion allows during the recording. And the difference between Acker supposedly during the informality of the studio and a later stage performance is considerable.

But it was also the case that shooting was done at a fair old lick, with Lester obliged to shoot three musical sequences each day, so the fact there simply wasn't much time for reflection may have helped the process. Which ties in with the making of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film:
Once we took the slates off, what there was, there was! I think we did two takes of the final sequence coming down with the boxing glove, but other than that it was one take for everything. [Peter Sellers and I] cut it together and then I wrote the music for it and got a jazz group to play.
There was no expectation of this now celebrated comedy short becoming a commercial success: it was made "for fun." But that is another clue to the appeal of It's Trad ..., in which, quite apart from the musical sequences, the plot is treated with the contempt, or at least the perfunctory manner, which it deserves. A narrator speaks directly to the two leads, instantly outfitting them in dress clothes or changing the location, as desired; boring-but-necessary sequences are speeded up ... Lester is still having fun - in contrast to his next project, The Mouse on the Moon, apparently much more of a job of work, in which he was landed with an unsympathetic cinematographer who seems to have been running a business on the side.

In the book Getting Away With It, mentioned in an earlier post about the Goons and John Lennon, Lester talks to Steven Soderbergh about It's Trad, Dad!; the information and quotes in this post all come from that source. He makes clear that the Beatles knew, and were besotted by, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, and that that led directly to his being hired for A Hard Day's Night, Lester's next project after The Mouse on the Moon. He tells Soderbergh that isn't sure whether the Fabs would have watched of A Show Called Fred. But the answer would seem to be yes, according to Lennon's New York Times review of The Goon Show Scripts:
Dick Lester ... directed the TV version of the Goon Show - A Show Called Fred. It was good, but radio was freer - i.e., you couldn't float Dartmoor Prison across the English Channel on TV (maybe the BBC should have spent more money).
Actually, it was made by Associated-Rediffusion for the opposition, which explains why they weren't allowed to call it The Goon Show. (Honestly, if his eye for detail is this faulty how can we take any of his declarations in Lennon Remembers seriously ever again?)

Oh, and quite apart from Lester's Goon connection, the Beatles toured with Helen Shapiro the year after It's Trad ... was filmed, so it's probable that she would have discussed her experience, which may have further reinforced the case for Lester as the right choice for the Beatles' film.

(Adopts sonorous voice:) And for the real life Helen Shapiro that unstoppable force at the end of It's Trad ... proved to be strangely prophetic, although it was not a wailin' saxophone but rather a pair of bemopped heads wailin' into the same microphone who were to prove irresistible to teenager and Lord Mayor alike and curtail her reign.

But how did Lester, a young American in London, attract the attention of Spike Milligan, leading to It's Trad .. and, ultimately, A Hard Day's Night, in the first place? Soderbergh's book provides the answers (his comments and questions are italicised):
Lester made his own Dick Lester Show, a one-off programme starring himself and Alun Owen (then an actor) which attracted the interest of Peter Sellers:

He said, `Either that's the worst television program that I have ever, ever seen or I think you're on to something that we are aspiring to.' And I said, `Well, if there's a choice, could it be the latter?' And he said, `Would you like to have lunch and let's find out.' 

And did that lead right into Idiot's Weekly [predecessor of A Show Called Fred]?

That led absolutely into Peter and me going the next day to Spike Milligan, who lay on the floor with his head in a coil of rope. There he was, this wonderful picture. He didn't look at me or get up or do anything; he just said, `Comedy will never work on television. I can write, "Two Eskimos go outside the igloo and the number 47 bus comes and they get off in Hyde Park." You can't do that. No point in talking about it. I'm not interested.'So we went away and then hired a group of young writers and a script supervisor and did, if you like, something in the style of The Goon Show and had very good reviews. At nine the next morning there was a phone call from Spike saying, `I've got the running order for the second show.' Not: `I was wrong; you were right.' Just nothing. It was just bang, off we go. [...]
 Here is an episode of A Show Called Fred:

With Son of Fred we were now quite successful and it had a very good audience and amazingly good reviews, because all the intellectuals grabbed at it. It was the first piece of commercial television, in light entertainment at least, where there was something that was unexpected and worrying.
But what followed, Lester tells Soderbergh, did not enjoy the same success:
With Son of Fred, it just became bizarre. All scenery was removed; one prop would run through the sketches. It would be one thing in one sketch and, because of its shape, it could also suddenly become a key factor in another, and that would be the only common link. Then he started attempting to remove punchlines by interlocking sketches. We are talking a long, long time ago. [...]  Ratings were dropping as it became more unintelligible. And it was pulled about two or three shows before the end of the thirteen that were ordered.
I don't want to delve too deeply into Milligan here; you can, if so minded, read more about him and Steven Soderbergh's book in that earlier post here.

And here is Lester talking in a BFI video about the influence of Goon humour. (The link will take you to the most relevant point in the clip, although the whole thing is worth seeing.)

On the same topic, here is another blog post in which Colin Hall, the curator of Lennon's childhood home, talks about the importance of the Goons and rock'n'roll in the young Lennon's life.

I have quoted before one of Lennon's answers to a music magazine's questionnaire. Asked about his dislikes, he replied: "Trad Jazz and thick heads," with the clear implication that they are natural partners. The dominance of trad jazz - at one point the Beatles had to pretend to be of that persuasion to get a gig at the Cavern - may have contributed to his bitterness, but for those not in the know trad jazz and rock'n'roll in Britain are much more closely related than might be imagined. 

Some histories suggest rock'n'roll exploded out of nowhere in 1956 but Pete Frame's highly recommended book The Restless Generation documents, through extensive interviews with those involved, the growing interest in Britain in jazz in the very early 50s - in young people playing it, that is, rather than being content merely to listen to such 78s as could be acquired - and the rise and rise of Lonnie Donegan, a sideman in Chris Barber's Band who became the undisputed King of Skiffle and a huge influence on later rock gods including the Beatles.

There are various options for those who want to access the music for It's Trad, Dad! The original soundtrack album - by which I mean the original album of the soundtrack - is strangely likeable to these ears, even though it's an equal mix of pop and trad jazz - which I suppose proves Pete Frame's point. A CD version is commercially available, issued by Hallmark, and the sound quality isn't too bad for a company notorious for its needledrops and general lack of care.

Alternatives are available, however. For those who want only the jazz sides, and more than could be fitted onto the original LP, the Cumbrian-based Fellside Records have issued this compilation, entitled British Traditional Jazz Goes to the Movies.

In addition to It's Trad ... there is music from the soundtrack of several late fifties and early sixties British films, as seen on the cover, including Acker Bilk in Band of Thieves. (Find out more about this compilation, issued on their jazz imprint Lake, on their website here.)

Ah, but there's more. What of the customer with Lennonish tendencies, drawn to the varied pop in It's Trad ... but repelled by the jazz, despite the argument of Mr Frame's book? He (or she) could do worse than investigate a CD set issued by Fantastic Voyage, responsible for a lot of inventive public domain compilations, entitled Quiffs at the Flicks. Along with the music from many other films this includes all the pop sides from the original It's Trad ... soundtrack album plus four other pop numbers featured in the film which didn't make the vinyl, what with being crowded out by noises made by people wearing stupid hats and tootling clarinets.

Anyway, them's the choices. Which you could see as indicative of just far our society has progressed, or possibly regressed, since the original LP came out. On the one hand, you can now plunge more deeply into the side of Lester's film which interests you, be it Bilk or Douglas (- Craig of that ilk, as Dave Podmore's friend Andy Hamer would say). On the other, as you are no longer obliged to offer houseroom to that other sort of music, you are cutting yourself off from any possibility that, over time, you might come to love or respect it. And next thing you know you're complicit in the fashioning of enormous elasticated barriers to stop musicians who represent that despised and feared genre, that aural otherness, from entering your town to play a concert.

No: that sort of intransigence, common to so many rock'n'roll exploitation movies, must never be allowed to happen again.

Let's pray the big bands never come back.

Revised extract from a longer post which can be read  here.

More on the Soderbergh and Lester book plus compelling evidence of intertwangularity between John Lennon and The Goon Show here. Don't miss it in a bored voice. 

Details of the book I wrote with prankish psittacine Freddie Davies can be found here.

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