Heironymous Merkin (Anthony Newley) is about to stage his entire life for the edification of the audience, who include his young son and daughter (played by the star's actual offspring) and his mother (Patricia Hayes), so he announces the beginning with all the grandeur he can muster as they sit on a beach before what looks like a small junkyard of relevant bric-a-brac. This is the way he wants it, and this is the way he is going to tell it, so he goes back to his early years where he got his start in showbusiness as a child star, guided by Uncle Limelight (Bruce Forsyth), a song and dance man in the music hall tradition who would be a great influence on the boy. But a darker side of the entertainment industry beckoned, where all your indulgences were in danger of being granted...
Anthony Newley's career as an entertainer might have ended here, with this infamous flop that was barely released, or at least barely seen when it was. This posed as his tribute to the fantasia of Federico Fellini (indeed, the maestro is referenced in the dialogue by a bets-hedging Greek chorus of critics), but mostly it was Newley's tribute to himself, dressing up his experiences, no matter how tawdry or depressing, as grist to the mill of his creativity, which according to this knew no bounds. Or knew no restraint at any rate as what unfolds celebrated not so much his career highs as the sour feeling he was suffering on his fortieth birthday at getting somewhere near the top of the showbiz tree he had always dreamt of but not liking the view when he got there.
Or was it his own bitter soul he was having trouble reconciling with? In a fashion that puts most confessional works to shame, he constructed a musical that painted him in an extraordinarily poor light, then asked us to respect him in the morning, or by the end credits anyway. The songs, penned by Newley, were of his trademark declamatory style that had done so well for him in stage successes like Stop the World I Want To Get Off, but here sounded so jaded that a sickliness grew apparent in the whole enterprise, as if its creator had reached the end of his tether and was tempted to pack it all in. Well, until he got the call to write the score for the far more successful Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but even so after Heironymous you could argue he was never the same again, nudity and all.
Certainly he kept himself busy, yet as if he had given away too much here it was difficult to regard him in as beneficially as he had been viewed previously. Don't say things you can't take back would be a lesson from this as evinced by the way his then-wife and co-star Joan Collins left Newley quickly after seeing this which admitted he found it impossible to stay faithful, thus is Heironymous dallying with Playboy Playmate of the Year Connie Kreski while still married to Collins, only they're not called that, Connie's called Mercy Humppe and Joan is named Polyester Poontang (she sings, too). The name alone would offer reasonable grounds for divorce, but more than forcing those who might love him away, Newley appeared to be undergoing a very public mid-life crisis, and it was he who was making it public. We see women lining up to be bedded by Heironymous as he waxes lyrical about his obsession with "young girls", and it's not difficult to recoil.
Especially when with a few tweaks his Felliniesque fantasia would make for a particularly chilling horror movie, just take a look at the clockwork alter ego with his blank face aside from a speech bubble-spewing mouth, it's like something out of a nightmare and very possibly was. At nearly two hours in length, this managed to test the nerves while remaining horribly compelling, veering from bits about the protagonist's first baby who was "allowed to die" when he was born with a "hole in his back the size of a fist" to old timers George Jessel and Milton Berle in a variety of costumes - satyr, goblin - offering up jaded non-comedy to encourage Heironymous to further heights of fame (or depths). By the point our hero relates a fairy tale about a princess who found her ideal sexual partner with a donkey, it looks like Newley was committing professional suicide; there are some thoughts all-round entertainers shouldn't share. If you wanted genuinely charming, post modern quirk from him, watch his Gurney Slade TV show of ten years before: this was an uncomfortable item of self-rapture, one of a kind as it is.