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Outer Space and Outta Sight: Gonks Go Beat on Blu-ray

  It's funny how some films take longer to find an audience than others, some are immediate blockbusters, but others need more time to settle, and if there was ever a film that spent ages before it was finally embraced by a cult of film and indeed music buffs, it was Gonks Go Beat. The brainchild of producer-writer-director Robert Hartford-Davis, it arrived in 1964 to either indifference, eyes rolled heavenwards, or outright hostility, which to be fair was more or less the reaction most of his movies received, from trash horrors like Corruption and The Fiend to supposedly ultra-contemporary (for their day) dramas like The Smashing Bird I Used to Know.

But Gonks Go Beat was rarely mentioned in the same breath as other British pop and rock music films, and if it was, it would be to lampoon it as a hopeless example of the stuffy film industry trying to get down wiv tha kidz. A review at the time from The Daily Cinema said: "...the infusion of outer space goonery and laboured comedy seems a serious misunderstanding of what the teenagers go for", and those teens seemed to agree back then. Later reviews that deigned to notice it included Alan Frank in 1982 claiming it was a "dismally scripted failure to combine science fiction and pop music with plenty of songs and no wit or intelligence." Not looking good so far.

1986's The World's Worst Movies by Tim Healey was one of those Octopus paperbacks designed for supermarket book carousels, this time to cash in on the Medveds' Golden Turkey Awards, but it was also one of the few publications to give Gonks Go Beat two whole pages to rip the piss out of it: "For wilful imbecility, nothing could beat (it)" and "The movie sank almost without trace, surviving today only as the supreme example of a teensploitation quickie that aimed low - and missed". Well, they say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but at this stage, even if you did recall this glitzy pop musical it would appear to be with an ill-disguised shudder.

In the nineties, when sixties pop culture was jostling with the seventies for visibility as The Beatles saw a new surge in popularity with the young, among others, 1994's Hollywood Rock (edited by musician Marshall Crenshaw) sought to collect reviews of every rock and pop film ever made, not merely Hollywood either. Because these writers knew what they were talking about, Gonks Go Beat enjoyed a paragraph. But oh dear, it starts "Gonks Go Beat is a clear and favorite entry in the sweepstakes for stupidest rock 'n' roll movie of all time", continues by calling the music "third rate" and ending by saying it makes The Beatles' Help "look like a Eugene O'Neill adaptation."

So what changed in the twenty-first century? Let's not go overboard, nobody calls this movie a classic, but in the ravenous hunger for kitsch, especially kitsch from the past, Gonks Go Beat found itself gathering interest as a movie so idiotic that it actually achieved a kind of zen plateau of daftness. It was released on DVD where a new audience found it intriguing, then it started to show up on television broadcasts where viewers would tune in to chill out with its chintzy tunes, childish comedy and occasional instances of genuine rocking out, and now Network have rereleased it on Blu-ray, fully restored, looking crisp and clear and sounding better than it ever did.

If you are new to this sixties relic, here's the plot: Kenneth Connor, most famed from the Carry On series and latterly, wartime sitcom Allo, Allo! was our hero, a hapless alien diplomat named Wilco Roger who is sent to Earth to settle a dispute that would be familiar from the era's music charts. The denizens of Beatland like rock 'n' roll, or its UK 1964 equivalent, and those in Balladisle prefer, well, ballads crooned by terribly nice young ladies and gentlemen; neither can see eye to eye, and will give no quarter to allowing their rivals the upper hand. Wilco meets with the Godlike Mr A&R (Frank Thornton of Are You Being Served?) to see if he can arrange a contest that will bring about a truce.

With popular music in the decades later just as polarised between the "serious" and the "ephemeral", maybe we could do with a visit from a space alien who looks remarkably like a small, middle-aged man going "Cor!" as a mediator, but Connor might not have been the best choice, given his often vocal complaints about pop and rock. He much preferred classical music, and even, judging by his 1971 album Much Ado About Love, bawdy folk, where he covered Elizabethan ballads which bizarrely were often absolutely filthy, but contrasted them with mickey-taking versions of modern rock, sticking it to the hippies and stoners as a vertiginous drop down music's evolution.

In Ken's opinion, he just wasn't made for these times, musically at any rate, so one presumed his role as Wilco was a mere easy paycheque and not to be dwelt upon, as you can imagine was the approach of his middle-aged co-stars Arthur Mullard, Jerry Desmonde and Terry Scott (who had tried the music biz with comedy song My Brother in the previous decade). The younger cast members might have seen this as more of an opportunity, or maybe more the equivalent of showing up for a television variety show of the sort that littered the schedules of the sixties, a here today, gone tomorrow gig that nobody would recall a week after seeing it, never mind in the next millennium.

Ah, but Gonks Go Beat has hung around, so we can see, for example, Derek Thompson's initial try at fame as Elaine and Derek, the duo the future medical soap Casualty stalwart formed with his twin sister. Much as Thompson may have preferred to forget it, especially when their ballad was not exactly arresting on the ear, and the tutor (Pamela Donald in a gown and leotard - !) accuses him of growing his hair to look like, no, not a Beatle, but Brigitte Bardot. However, there were artistes here with more credibility, or at least more musical success, for a start the gonk-filled opening credits were played out under the strains of Lulu belting out Chocolate Ice.

Don't recognise that title? If you're familiar with The Beatles' White Album, then you may note the striking similarity between it and George Harrison's contribution Savoy Truffle, though there was no My Sweet Lord-style court case as a result. Oh, and you may not know what a gonk is - indeed, that title may be indecipherable to anyone born after about 1975, but they were squat, round soft toys with goofy faces and little hands and feet, a minor craze among the young folks of the sixties, why, you could even make your own, as the ones in this film certainly had a home crafts appearance. Just one of those fads that pop up every so often, like deely boppers, hula hoops or yoyos.

And therefore ideal for a mention in this film, Wilco being threatened with banishment to Planet Gonk should he fail. But those other acts, yes, they were pretty obscure from the perspective of the future, no Rolling Stones here, yet you were offered the blues rock of The Graham Bond Organisation, which featured Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker drumming. Baker was latterly infamous for a warts and all documentary, Beware of Mr Baker, which highlighted how difficult he was to get along with, but here gets a real showcase in a drums-only number (Ronnie Verrell, who played the skins for Animal on The Muppet Show, is also there), a definite highlight.

There was also a neat bit of surf rock, or as close as Brits could get to surf rock, as a team of guitarists in a fleet of sports cars (we see their logos featured prominently, Cobra, MG, that sort of brand) are driven up and down an airfield, another highlight that belies the film's previous reputation as the nadir of naff. Yes, there were those drippy ballads, the two Romeo and Juliet-style romantic leads (Iain Gregory and Barbara Brown) given mediocre material to make eyes at each other over (and Barbara's dancing leaves much to be desired), but in the contest The Nashville Teens were very creditable even if the audience in the story votes them a "MISS" (along with Lulu).

Really, with its science fiction plot what Gonks Go Beat really needed was a dose of psychedelia, but alas, it was about two years too early for that to make an impression. You can envisage how Hartford-Davis could have gone to town on the trippy visuals and dialogue just that short time later, though this did demonstrate how quickly the culture moved in the sixties. What laughs there were would not be out of place on a Saturday night television extravaganza, you can imagine Bruce Forsyth would have been happy to introduce much of this, but even at its ambitious but budget hampered level, a degree of professionalism was present and correct. All that and a dance routine featuring a future Pan's People member (Babs Lord) and Russ Meyer star (Anne Chapman), among others. You could assuredly see the appeal of the truly kitschy yet oddly spacey in Gonks Go Beat.

[Network's Blu-ray has the trailer and an image gallery as extras. Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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