Play It Cool
Play It Cool – 1962 | 82 mins | Drama, Musical | B&W
Up and coming young pop group Billy Universe and the Satellites complete their final gig in their hometown before heading off for a music competition in Brussels which they are sure they will win. At the airport they encounter a press frenzy surrounding the appearance of heiress Ann Bryant whose whirlwind romance with pop star Larry Grainger was broken up by her millionaire father. The Bryants are quickly ushered into the VIP lounge. There Ann tells her father that she cannot forgive him for ending her relationship with Grainger. He counters this by telling her that she will come to thank him and that it is a sensible idea that she leaves the country for a while until the media interest in her dies down. Following a series of minor misunderstandings at the check-in, Billy and his band give the staff an impromptu performance of one of their songs. In the departure lounge the group meet some of the other passengers including one man who is very nervous about the whole concept of air travel.
Bryant sees his daughter off at the aeroplane just as the other travellers arrive to embark. On board Billy sits down next to Ann Bryant. Since they have time to kill, the band performs another of their songs. After this Billy reads out aloud a New Musical Express review of a performance they gave earlier that month, but it is obvious that the girl is much more interested in the cover story featuring a picture of Larry Grainger. Just as the aircraft is taxiing to take off, it is ordered to return as the airport in Brussels is fog-bound. The passengers are advised that the delay should only be temporary. Back at the departure lounge, Ann is desperately trying to get in touch with Larry by telephone without success. To cheer everyone up, particularly the heiress, Billy and his mates perform another song which is well received by their fellow passengers. Then it is announced that the situation with the fog has worsened and the flight will be delayed for at least another six hours. This means that the band will be unable to perform at the competition in Brussels and so Billy goes looking for a refund on their tickets. They receive it some time later and decide to blow the money on a night out in London. Aware that Ann is still smitten with Larry Grainger, Billy suggests that she accompany them to London to look for the pop star at one of the many clubs that he is known to frequent. She agrees…Review
Michael Winner’s Play It Cool marked the motion picture debut of popular Decca recording artist Billy Fury, real name Ronald Wycherley. Fury was one of a group of home grown singing talents, including the likes of Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, working to establish a distinctively British rock and roll movement. The Liverpool-born performer’s early recordings were distinctly rockabilly in style but he was encouraged by his management to branch out into pop ballads where he achieved even more success.
In addition to a desire to exploit the popularity of Billy Fury, Play It Cool’s existence probably owes a lot to the success of the previous year’s The Young Ones, directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Cliff Richard and the Shadows. This immediately becomes apparent by the appearance of Fury’s fictional backing group, the Satellites. Featuring actors Michael Anderson Jr, Keith Hamshere, Jeremy Bulloch and Ray Brooks, their style of clothing and mannerisms are obviously based on members of Cliff Richard’s film and TV stock company of the early 1960s, especially Hank Marvin and Melvyn Hayes. Meanwhile, the overall tone of the piece, a mixture of light drama and mild slapstick comedy involving band members and some of the eccentric characters they meet, such as a nervous passenger (Richard Wattis) and a manic songwriter (Bernie Winters), also echoes the earlier work. Like The Young Ones, the plot features the presence of an overbearing father, here Dennis Price replacing Robert Morley, and the gender of his disruptive offspring being changed to female. Finally, the music score for the production is credited to Norrie Paramor who had performed similar duties on Cliff Richard productions like Val Guest’s Expresso Bongo (1959) and The Young Ones, later contributing material to the singer’s other cinematic ventures, notably Peter Yates’ Summer Holiday (1963).
Billy Fury stood from many of his contemporaries by virtue of the fact that he composed much of the material he performed on stage and in the recording studio. According to the credits for Play It Cool, Fury only performed the tracks he takes part in rather than contributing lyrics or music, although some words are attributed to his mentor Larry Parnes. The other songwriters credited, including Richard B. Rowe, Norman Newell and Ron Fraser do not appear to have collaborated with either Fury or his Decca label prior to this film, with the producers obviously bringing them on board exclusively for this venture.
The songs performed by the star are a mixed bag. These include two versions of the title song, along with an Elvis-influenced “Paint the Town Tonight” and “Twist, Twist, Twist” being the most rock and roll in style. Two other compositions, “I Think You’re Swell” and “Once upon a Dream” can be considered ballads. On this occasion, Fury appears at his best, certainly his most enthusiastic, performing the rock material, especially “Twist” which takes place in a Chinese restaurant-cum-nightclub.
To widen its appeal, Play It Cool also features cameos from a variety of pop talent of the era who had found particular success on shows like Oh Boy! Among those making an appearance are Danny Williams singing a slow ballad much in the style of Nat King Cole, Jimmy Crawford with the Lionel Blair Dancers in an extended dance number, and Shane Fenton and the Fentones. Of these, Fenton and his band are easily the most impressive, with their exuberant and spirited turn proving to be highly infectious. In the 1970s Fenton successfully reinvented himself as the leather clad Alvin Stardust, the identity under which he still pursues his musical career.
Teen singing sensation Helen Shapiro performs two tracks in this picture. The first, taking place in the previously mentioned Chinese restaurant is a slow ballad. The song itself is unremarkable but Shapiro’s performance of it is quite bizarre, featuring inept miming and stiff, almost robotic movements, suggesting that she was deeply unhappy with either the material or the setting, or both. She makes up for her shortcomings there with a later piece called “I Don’t Care” which is much rockier than the earlier work and which she carries off with some aplomb. In an apparent attempt to secure an American theatrical release, which was achieved through Allied Artists the following year, the movie has a fleeting appearance from Bobby Vee, seen performing a short ballad just after Shapiro’s set.
There are only perhaps a half a dozen or so genuinely impressive British movie musicals, including Summer Holiday, Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968) and Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986). Play It Cool is unfortunately not part of this select group. For some reason that has never been adequately explored, British filmmakers seem unable to animate musical numbers or integrate them into the overall framework of a movie in the same way that even their lowliest Hollywood counterparts can. Michael Winner appears to be no exception to this state of affairs.
While the numbers are certainly performed in a largely very capable manner, they are presented on screen in a manner that can only be described as pedestrian, with little in the way of visual style or imaginative staging. In fact, in most cases the presentation is just above that of a variety show. Even a potentially exciting sequence such as that involving the Lionel Blair Dancers remains mediocre in execution with its bland editing and complete lack of visual panache. Most of the time director Michael Winner seems content merely to record a performance rather than orchestrate it for the camera. He is not helped by roomfuls of extras that seem unable to dance.
There are some exceptions. Shane Fenton and his band’s enthusiastic performance is helped considerably by the tight jump cutting employed by film editor Tristam Cones, underlining the vibrancy of the performance. The same is true of Billy Fury’s later “Twist, Twist, Twist” where, thanks again to Cones’ skill, not only is the Fury’s turn exciting; it almost succeeds in making some of the dancer extras look rather good.
Play It Cool is considered to be Michael Winner’s first substantial foray into mainstream commercial cinema following a series of industrial films, shorts, minor B-pictures and the nudie cutie Some Like It Cool (1961). Winner prefers to shoot all his films entirely on locations and their use has become a trademark of his work. While Cliff Richard’s pictures had the benefit of a fairly lavish budget, courtesy of one half of the duopoly of the British film industry in the form of Associated British, which allowed access to TechniColor and CinemaScope along with generous shooting schedules and extensive location work, Winner had to make do with the limited resourced offered by his deal with Independent Artists. Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn’s ability to stretch a budget, especially with low budget genre product like Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1962) and John Krish’s Unearthly Stranger (1963) was well known within the movie community. Here, however, a tighter than usual budget meant that the filmmakers were largely confined to the rather drab interiors of Pinewood Studios. Exteriors are limited to a few scenes at Gatwick Airport, a night time Euston railway station and a few general shots of a neon lit London, none of which are particularly well used by Winner or cinematographer Reginald Wyer. Overall, the direction can be said to be generally workmanlike with a mediocre visual style. There are some indications of Winner’s later penchant for the use of zoom lens in this early work.
Outside of the musical sequences, the wrap-round plot involving heiress Anna Palk’s search for her errant pop star boyfriend in various London clubs is a desperately tedious affair, taking place in an imagined capital city which seems to have more in common with post-war Britain than the seminal years of the 1960s. Most of the humour, including digs at beatnik poets, drunken toffs and officialdom, falls flat. It is partly redeemed by the occasionally witty put-down and pun. Billy’s short bandmate (Keith Hamshere) is the butt of several jokes because of his size – at one point Billy sits on him.
A genuine bonus for the enterprise is the presence of a roster of great British character talent including Hugh Lloyd as a taxi driver and Tom Adams as a reporter along with the ubiquitous Marianne Stone. Among those who impress most in the supporting cast are
Peter Barkworth, portraying a slimy paparazzi and Maurice Kaufman as a positively reptilian Larry Grainger. Even better is Max Bacon as the Jewish owner of the Louts Chinese restaurant and nightclub. His role seems to be modelled heavily on TV and theatrical impresario Lew Grade. Sadly, Anna Palk as the heiress Anne Bryant makes a particularly colourless female lead.
Star Billy Fury’s performance can be best described as awkwardly naïve, an attribute which some may find appealing. For the purposes of securing a wider family audience, Fury’s image, which at the time was considered somewhat raunchy, has been sanitised somewhat, even when seen performing most of his numbers. Thus, he remains chaste throughout the movie, does not drink, smoke or swear and fails to get the girl at the end of the picture even though he had the opportunity. He is also seen sporting a rather natty sheepskin coat that may have been donated by an uncle or best friend’s dad. Interestingly, this was wasn’t actually Fury’s dramatic debut, that occurred in an Associated Redifusion live TV play in 1959.
For modern audiences, Play It Cool’s appeal will probably lie in how nostalgic they are for the musical talent of the era rather than the limited qualities offered by the film itself. Since the culture of the early 1960s is once again in style, it is highly likely that this may be reason enough to track this title down on tape or DVD.
Billy Fury’s next picture was another comedy entitled I’ve Got a Horse, made in 1965 by independent filmmaker Kenneth Hume. After that, Fury, who was plagued by ill-health throughout his life, only appeared in one another movie, the David Puttnam production about the early days of British rock and roll That’ll Be the Day (1973), directed by Claude Whatham. There Fury played a version of himself called Stormy Tempest. Fury himself died in 1983 just as he was on the point of embarking on a comeback tour.
© Iain McLachlan 2005
Michael Winner: Director
Lionel Couch: Art Direction
Reginald H Wyer: Cinematography
Tristam Cones: Editing
Stella Rivers: Makeup Department
WT Partleton: Makeup Department
Bob Barrett: Original Music
Norrie Paramor: Original Music
David Deutsch: Producer
Jack Henry: Script
Gordon K McCallum: Sound Department
Dudley Messenger: Sound Department
Allan Morrison: Sound Department
Billy Fury: Billy Universe
Michael Anderson Jr: Alvin
Dennis Price: Sir Charles Bryant
Richard Wattis: Nervous Man
Anna Palk: Ann
Keith Hamshere: Ring-a-Ding
Ray Brooks: Freddy
Jeremy Bulloch: Joey
Maurice Kaufmann: Larry Granger
Helen Shapiro: Herself
Bernie Winters: Sydney Norman
Bobby Vee: Himself
Alvin Stardust: Himself
Lionel Blair: Himself