Eastenders: The Only Way is David Essex

With ‘King of the Gypsies’ David Essex about to take up permanent residence in Albert Square we look back at two great films he made back when he was a genuinely huge pop and movie star.
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Most people under 35 don’t understand why the arrival of David Essex in Eastenders is a big deal, but ask the nearest woman-of-a-certain-age (late 40s, early 50s is best) about him and they’ll go misty eyed and more than a little weak at the knees. Because, for a time in the 1970s, David Essex was a major stage, pop and movie star as well as being a heartthrob, pinned up on bedroom walls alongside David Cassidy, Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers.

Essex had been skirting the edges of fame for most of the sixties but it was his lead role in West End hit Godspell in 1971 which saw his career take off. Within a couple of years he was everywhere; his records (Rock On, Lamplight, Gonna Make You A Star, Hold Me Close) were massive hits and his twinkly, boyish good looks helped establish a huge army of slavering female fans. Cannily, he didn’t rely on his singing success to maintain his stardom but used it to forge a concurrent career in the movies.

In 1973 and 1974 he made two films which tapped into the mythology of the birth of British rock n roll and the lifestyles of major rock acts of the time, and both of them still stand up very well today. The first was That’ll Be The Day, the story of a feckless, unfocussed teen (Jim McLaine) who finds potential escape from post-war drudgery and the dull expectations of family in the newly arrived world of rock n roll. The sequel, Stardust, follows Jim’s career from wannabe rocker to Beatles-style star to excessive idol to drug-addled recluse. Together they mix the stories of acts such as the Who, Beatles, Stones and others, add them to the concerns of the British new wave cinema (family ties, expectations, disaffection, escape) and top off with a sprinkling of classic tunes to make highly enjoyable, dodgily-acted minor classics.

His twinkly, boyish good looks helped establish a huge army of slavering female fans.

Both films centre on Jim’s constant need for freedom, at first from his family’s desire that he live a quiet, small town life with his childhood sweetheart and later from the grasping claws of managers, publishers and the global money-making machine. Around this central thrust the writer, Ray Connolly, presented a realistic rock world, populated by music biz archetypes – the vain singer, the wild drummer, the controlling manager, the exotic girlfriend, the grasping svengali, the concerned mother, the wronged ex – and offered semi-real scenarios such as the early days in the van and the pretentious concept album. Connolly was steeped in rock n roll (he’d been at Uni with Jagger, interviewed many of the day’s major stars and written extensively on the music world) and this knowledge helped him construct two storylines which were at once plausible and affecting.

The realism of the films was both helped and hindered by the presence of several actual rock and pop stars in the cast. The likes of Ringo Starr, Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Keith Moon play managers, producers and musicians but while they add authenticity to proceedings none of them can really act. Ringo is OK, Faith (taking on Ringo’s part in Stardust) is better and Moon plays Moon but it’s unlikely that Olivier suffered any sleepless nights as a result of their efforts. Essex, in the occasional presence (especially in the first film) of some proper acting talent, performs more than adequately and not only provides his own vocals on the songs but also holds the attention throughout. Indeed, at the moments when the films asked the biggest leaps of faith in the audience – the global TV broadcast of an opera about Jim’s mum is a good example - its Essex’s sincerity that enables the viewer to stay onboard.

Indeed, at the moments when the films asked the biggest leaps of faith in the audience ... its Essex’s sincerity that enables the viewer to stay onboard.

There are some cracking scenes in the films, many of which were lifted directly from the real lives of the rock fraternity – the atmosphere of 50s holiday camp R’n’R breeding grounds is fabulously captured, Jim’s rise to fame mirrors 1963/4-era Beatles, the machinations of Porter Lee Austin (pre-Dallas Larry Hagman as the unscrupulous US money man) ring very true and the eventual exile in a Spanish castle is pure Stones at Nellcôte or Dylan in Woodstock. It’s quite an achievement to take the mythology of an entire generation of heavily documented lives and condense it effectively into two 90-minute films.

Essex went on to have more hit records, became patron of the National Gypsy Council and tours extensively right to the present day. His film career, however, hit a brick wall in 1980 with Silver Dream Racer - a film which (even with the presence of The Wire’s Clarke Peters as a character promisingly called Cider Jones) only be described as very poor. Let’s hope his turn in Eastenders provides some glimpses of his true ability.

Both That’ll Be The Day and Stardust did good business on release and enjoyed some critical success but they seem to have vanished off the radar of late. They are locatable, being available as a double disc DVD, so with today’s rock stars providing little in the way of entertaining excess perhaps now is the time to seek them out - and Rock On.

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