Ever since Chuck Berry crowed "Roll Over, Beethoven!" in the mid-fifties there have been many in the pop world, both fans and performers, who have regarded themselves as being in a state of cultural war against all other musical genres. The rivalry between the "Mod" and "Rocker" sub-cultures of the early sixties- a rivalry which often involved actual violence- was partly based upon differences in musical taste, with the Mods favouring jazz and the Rockers (as their name implies) rock-and-roll.
"Gonks Go Beat" dramatises another of these musical culture wars, that between pop and what was rather patronisingly known as "easy listening". Unlike the Mods-versus-Rockers clashes, this one did not actually lead to fighting in the streets, but nevertheless generated a surprising amount of ill-feeling. There are still people, now in their sixties or seventies, who consider their youths to have been blighted by the fact that the Beatles' famous double A-side of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields" was kept off the top of the charts by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Please Release Me". I well remember the disgust of my female teenage contemporaries from the seventies when their idol, Donny Osmond, was replaced at Number One by Perry Como, a man old enough to be his father. It would not have mattered if the Beatles had been bested by the Rolling Stones or Osmond by, say, David Cassidy. What mattered was that pop, the music of youth, progress and freedom, had lost out to "easy listening", the music of the conservative older generation.
The central premise of the film is that, at some far-distant date in the future, Planet Earth is dominated by two mutually hostile powers, Beatland and Ballad Isle. Each of these two nations is defined by its attitude to the youth culture of the sixties. Beatland is a land of long, or longish, hair- very long hair was not as fashionable in 1965 as it was to become a few years later- polo-neck sweaters, jeans, sunglasses and, of course, hip and trendy beat music. Ballad Isle is a place of short hair, button-down shirts, pressed slacks and floral dresses. Its inhabitants, of course, only listen to ballads. (The old word "ballad", once little used except by devotees of folk-poetry, had been pressed back into service to mean an easy-listening song).
The story is a variant on the "Romeo and Juliet" storyline (but without the tragic ending) in which a Beatland boy, Steve, and a Ballad Isle girl, Helen, fall in love. It also features Wilco Roger, an interplanetary ambassador who has been sent by the galactic powers-that-be to try and reconcile the two warring factions. For the uninitiated the "gonks" of the title were a type of stuffed toy very popular in the sixties and seventies, both with children and occasionally with adults. (Ringo Starr was a noted collector). They feature prominently in the title sequence but do not play a major role in the film itself, although Wilco is frequently threatened by the powers-that-be with exile to Planet Gonk- evidently a dreadful fate- should he fail in his mission.
When "Gonks Go Beat" first came out, it did not prove very popular either with young or old. The older generation would have dismissed it as silly kids' stuff, and the youngsters would not have liked the way in which the rather anodyne Steve and Helen, the ostensible protagonists, are overshadowed by middle-aged actors like Kenneth Connor, Frank Thornton, Terry Scott and Arthur Mullard, all well-known comedians or comic actors of the period. They would probably also have been bored by all those ballads which make up around half of the 16 musical numbers. Both generations would have combined in deriding the absurd plot, the indifferent acting, the low quality of the dialogue and the cheap, wobbly sets. It has been named as a contender for the title of "worst British film ever made".
The various musical acts featured were mostly, even at the time, obscure; others who may have been well-known at the time have slipped into obscurity since. Probably the best-known performer to a modern audience would be Lulu, a little-known teenager in 1965 but one who shot to stardom later. Despite this, however, the musical numbers are generally cheerful and tuneful, if not particularly memorable; none of them are likely to turn up on a "Great Hits of the Sixties" compilation album.
The film's main virtue is that it never takes itself too seriously. Fifty-odd years on from the date when it was made, it may be a dated period piece but its endearing silliness reminds us of just why pop music had such a following in the sixties; it was fun. Nobody could call "Gonks Go Beat" a well-made film, but it can be a curiously enjoyable one, more enjoyable than many films with much higher technical standards. 5/10
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