Mr Acker Bilk and his jazz band are playing to a captive audience: the inmates of a prison, though no matter how they have to be there anyway, the convicts are eager to applaud once the show is over. The Governor (Geoffrey Sumner) is an avid fan of trad jazz of which this band are premier exponents, and it was his idea to have them perform here, but now the prisoners are filing back to their cells Acker and his musicians must leave the stage - and return to their cells as well, for they have been incarcerated too. But there's a chance their music might get them an early release...
Around about this time there were movie producers keen to put anybody who could sing or play an instrument to a degree that guaranteed them some level of success into a film of their own. Depending on the extent of their stardom, they could be wheeled on as guest stars, or if they were lucky take the lead, which was how the unlikely figure of Mr Acker Bilk, clarinetist extraordinaire, got to be the protagonist in his personal vehicle. Not that he actually said very much in it in spite of being the supposed main attraction, as whether by choice or the design of others by and large he let the music do the talking.
Which was just as well when you saw him try to act, as he seemed content to speak his lines and adopt a mischievous, "How did I end up here? I can't believe me luck!" persona, as if all too well aware of the flimsiness of the movie that placed him in the starring role. The tunes, on the other hand, were nicely played and arranged, penned by Acker and popular bandleader of the day Norrie Paramor who attended to production duties on a variety of the musicians and singers of the day, including Cliff Richard who himself was no stranger to the cheery musical as a way of publicising the acts of the day. Cliff, however, would have had no truck with the goings-on here.
You'd never get the Peter Pan of Pop playing a prisoner come the sixties, but here the whole set up was so unselfconsciously silly that it was difficult to begrudge them the daft idea of making Bilk a movie celebrity. When one of the characters uses his name as a swear word, you can tell what the sense of humour of the piece was, a self-mocking affair which nevertheless was serious about the appeal of the trad jazz melodies. That movement had emerged from the New Orleans jazz sound, pushed in Britain by the fans who were unimpressed with the more experimental modern jazz, though as a fad it didn't last as long as the British rock 'n' roll sound, especially as the year this came out The Beatles were making their mark on pop culture.
The Fab Four got their movies to make as well, of course, and they have endured further than Band of Thieves and the other ephemera released on the lower half of double bills designed for a quickie cash-in, though for a brief snapshot (this barely lasts over an hour) of the era it offers a neat idea of what the entertainment was like. The plot was simply an excuse to get the group playing, and although non-aficionados may have trouble working out the differences between each number (fast and slow are the basic variations), there were a few amusing comedy bits as the band are persuaded by likely lad Jimmy Thompson to help out in a few robberies when they're touring off the back of their newfound fame. Their patron is the Governor's wife (Maudie Edwards, the first person to speak on TV soap Coronation Street), oblivious like the rest of the well-meaning folks to the subterfuge, and Jennifer Jayne was beyond perfunctory as Thompson's (not Bilk's) love interest. Totally lightweight, but the tunes were foottappers.