‘Show me a boy who never wanted to be a rock star and I’ll show you a liar…’ was a line I wrote decades ago that was used on the poster for the film Stardust. It caught on as a saying at the time and is now being quoted back at me as Stardust, and its prequel That’ll Be the Day, are considered, by some, to be ‘rock and roll cult classics’.
Can that be possible? Did I really write a couple of cult classics all those years ago? If I did, nothing could have been further from my thoughts that Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1972 when I went over to a friend’s house to borrow a book and That’ll Be the Day was conceived.
The friend was David Puttnam, who, after a successful career in advertising and then as a photographers’ agent had recently become a film producer in partnership with Sandy Lieberson – who had just made the Mick Jagger film Performance. As he gave me the book I’d come for, we began chatting. Then suddenly he asked me to write a film for him.
At that time, I was a journalist for the London Evening Standard who mainly wrote interviews with rock stars and other cultural heroes, and, although I sometimes reviewed films, I’d never actually seen a screenplay. I didn’t even know how to lay one out on the page.
But that afternoon, over several cups of tea, David and I mapped out the rough storyline for That’ll Be the Day, the idea having come to him from a Harry Nilsson album track.
The song was, 1941, about a boy of our generation, whose father had abandoned his wife and son, and who, in turn, runs off to join a circus when he grows up. ‘What if our boy runs off to join a fair?’ David suggested. I was hooked.
To us, fairgrounds had, when we were teenagers, been the only place we could hear rock music played LOUD, the way it was supposed to be heard; and, at night, they suggested a kind of dangerous glamour that was quite at odds with the ambitious, respectable lives our parents wanted for us.
‘Qualifications,’ was probably every mother’s mantra in the Fifties, as our generation was given opportunities theirs had never had. Teenage rebellion was, however, more romantic for a movie than qualifications. So, David and I invented a clever grammar school boy who, breaking all the rules, spurns the chance to go to university, and pursues a rake’s progress before he discovers his real path in life.
What we wanted to do was to capture the excitement of our rights of passage years through the music of our youth. We didn’t want to make a plucky Brits wartime film, or a kitchen sink, grim-up-north story, and absolutely not a larky ‘darling-we’re-the-young-ones’ holiday jaunt. We wanted it to be real, about how we had been in our teens in that Fifties period just before the Beatles and the Sixties changed everything. It was, as we liked to remind ourselves, about the day before yesterday.
Over the next few months, as I would work on the script late into the night and David would come for his breakfast a couple of times a week to see how I was getting on, I learned how to write a screenplay.
But I learned other things, too. One was that no matter how wayward a lead character can be, he has to either have some wonderful saving grace or be devilishly good looking and loveable. Unfortunately, the character I created, whom we called Jim Maclaine, and who had all the selfishness of teenagers everywhere, didn’t do one decent thing in the entire script. Audiences might hate him, we worried. Then one night David took his children to see a West End show called Godspell.
He rang me first thing the next morning: ‘I think we’ve found our boy,’ he said. The young actor playing the lead in Godspell was David Essex, who was so winning and good-looking that a cinema audience would forgive him anything.
A second lesson I learned was to do with research. I’d never worked on a fair, but the boyfriend of our American au pair had, and he gave me a rundown of all the tricks used in ripping off the punters. Such as: ‘On the dodgems, always give them their change when the cars are moving. That way they can’t check it’.
I’d never been to a Butlins’ holiday camp, either, but we knew that Ringo Starr had played in one during his pre-Beatle days. So, David and I had lunch with the ex-Beatle and Neil Aspinall, once the Beatles’ road manager and by then the managing director of their company Apple Corps.
We struck lucky again. The two amused us so much that David offered Ringo a part in our film, with Neil Aspinall putting together a group to play in our holiday camp, that included Keith Moon and Jack Bruce of Cream. Then we got Billy Fury to front it.
What had started out as a film about a grammar school boy, who writes jokey poetry about Madame de Pompadour in his idle moments, and who chucks his books into a stream on the day he should be sitting his history A-levels, was becoming increasingly rock and roll.
The third lesson I learned was that a screenwriter has to be infinitely adaptable. We’d always intended to have a few songs in our film, but, when it turned out that the financing depended on there being a double album of famous hit records, I rewrote great sections of the screenplay to fit them all in.
In that way we might hear 15 seconds of Sealed With A Kiss if the screen action is, for example, on the big wheel, a smidgen of Runaround Sue when we cut to the dodgems and a fragment of Great Balls of Fire by the time we reach the whip. One of my fondest memories, was sitting with David Puttnam going through our books of Oldies But Goldies and choosing our favourite songs.
Filming was mainly on the Isle of White, chiefly because in the early Seventies the island was still said to have a Fifties look about it. The cast and crew went by ferry – apart from Keith Moon, who astonished our director, Claude Whatham, by arriving in a helicopter.
Ringo’s entrance on film, wearing the teddy boy outfit he’d had specially made for the Magical Mystery Tour launch party, was even more impressive. And he was terrific. We’d had no idea that he could act so well, which was something the critics agreed with when the film was released.
A story that had started out as being about a grammar school drop-out finding his way, who is humiliated when he goes to visit a school friend at university, and who continually breaks his mother’s heart, had, by virtue of a financing deal, introduced Seventies youth to Fifties music. When the accompanying compilation album of rock and roll oldies was released it became a number one best-seller.
The entire film only cost £210,000 to make, with all the principals being paid around £5000 each – a fortune for me at the time, but, I suspect, rather less so for Ringo.
Even before it was released, we were thinking about a sequel, and to plan it I went on holiday to Italy with the Puttnam family. This time we knew we were going to make a film about rock. It was the story of young Britain in the Sixties, and to produce much of the music we got the great Dave Edmunds. He’s a one-man-band in the recording studio, and, with the exception of our rock opera, Dea Sancta, he played all the instruments and did much of the singing.
David Essex, hadn’t sung in That’ll Be the Day, but in the gap between the two films, he’d become a teen idol with his record Rock On. So we now had our very own rock star to play the part.
What we were not going to get, however, was a Beatle, with Ringo declining to repeat his role. It was his loss, I think. Did he feel that some of the script was too close to his Beatles experiences? We never knew.
Adam Faith got the part instead. I was dead set against him, and Michael Apted, our new director, was unsure, but David Puttnam was insistent. Most producers would have pulled rank on me, and sent me back to my typewriter at that point. But David likes writers and arranged a meeting with Adam, who immediately did to me what his character does to all those who oppose him in the film. He chatted me out of my doubts. He was slyly perfect in the part.
Until a week or two before shooting began, Tony Curtis was expected to play the American rock manager. Then his Hollywood agent demanded a fee for him that was somewhere in the region of a third of the film’s half a million pounds budget. We couldn’t afford him. So, at the last minute, Columbia Pictures who had the US distribution rights, replaced him with Larry Hagman – a US TV actor none of us then knew.
I’d originally written his part as a New York Italian called DiGillio, and, like a good pro, Hagman had prepared for it with a Bronx accent. When he arrived in London, however, he and we quickly decided that he would be more comfortable playing the character as a Texan, whom I now called Porter Lee Austin – after the town in which Larry had grown up.
It was an inspired switch, and not only for us. A few years later Larry was given the part of JR in the TV series Dallas, and when asked by Playboy magazine where he got the JR character from he happily admitted that his performance had come from his role in Stardust.
Filming began on a February morning in 1974 at a modern church in West London where a few dozen extras had been hired to mob our fictional rock star, Jim Maclaine, as played by David Essex. They weren’t necessary. As David Essex left the church in his film role, hundreds of local girls mobbed him as he fought his way to a limousine carrying his fictional son, who happened to be four-year old Dominic Connolly. (It only seemed fair to keep it in the family. David Puttnam’s son, Sacha, had played the young Jim Maclaine in the first film.)
For David Essex, it can’t have been easy to play a rock star as his own rock fame was growing by the day. But it wasn’t easy for Keith Moon either, who would now be central to our fictional band. With The Who he was used to fan adoration as he played to stadiums, but to us he was just another actor playing a small part – which didn’t always sit well with his ego.
Desperate as he always was to be the centre of attention, and this being the time of the record The Streaker, he would wander naked around our hotel car park in Lancashire at four in the morning just when the crew were returning from a night shoot.
Then there was the time he ‘borrowed’ the unit carpenter’s tool bag and sawed the door of his hotel room in half, so that he could hang his head out of it like a horse in a stable. You never quite knew where you were with Keith. Very friendly and funny at one moment, he could be a real pest the next.
One night in Manchester he and I fell out, with him trying to hit me. Naturally, I responded, whereupon a scrum of production assistants descended on the wrestling drummer and writer. ‘Don’t hit his face,’ the make-up artist shouted to me. ‘He’s been made up.’ Presumably blows to any part of the drummer’s body that wouldn’t show on camera would have been fine. The following day, Keith and I were good friends again, the little spat forgotten.
Upon release, Stardust was an even bigger hit that That’ll Be The Day had been, despite a real downer of an ending. Before filming, realising that we were on a winning run, the thought had occurred that perhaps we should extend the franchise (although we obviously didn’t use that term then) and carry the story on to a third film.
Thankfully, we resisted the temptation. A couple of years’ earlier I’d written for the obituaries of three young rock stars – two of whom, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, I’d interviewed. So, it seemed dramatically appropriate that the downward druggy spiral of Jim Maclaine should end badly.
On viewing the finished film, the censor wanted to give it an X- certificate because of some nudity and drug use. David Puttnam convinced him otherwise. The message was very clear, nothing in Stardust encouraged drug taking. Quite the opposite.
It was another big hit, with another hit album, and David Essex, now a very big star, wrote a song called Stardust to be played over the end titles. Best of all for me was to win the Writers Guild of Great Britain award for the best British screenplay of 1974.
I know that most British rock stars since then have seen it and like it. But whether Stardust or That’ll Be the Day is a cult classic, isn’t for me to say.
I’d simply gone out one day to borrow a book.
That’ll Be the Day and Stardust are now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and for download (complete with interviews with David Puttnam, Michael Apted and Ray Connolly) from StudioCanal Films Ltd.