Burger me! ‘Take Me High’ (1973) revisited

❉ Uncool it may be, but Cliff’s big screen swansong – released 50 years ago this month – is genuinely great, writes Lee RealGone.

Birmingham itself is as much of a character here as any of the lead actors, and in so many ways, the extensive location filming adds to Take Me High’s brilliance... A lot of time is spent in the city, the roads surrounding Gas Street, or at the canal basin –  getting to the heart of a very vibrant and busy working area. If that isn’t enough, the film’s climax captures a superb period snapshot of Birmingham’s New Street, complete with a cast of thousands, supported by aerial camera work.”

When most people born after the 1960s think of Cliff Richard, they likely think of his terrible Christmas singles. They’ll also think of a devoutly religious man whom, for years, conveyed such a squeaky clean persona, he came across as the ultimate bland celebrity. The years of mediocrity have made it all to easy to forget that he was once one of Britain’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars, and that the former Harry Webb has also recorded some great pop singles. In addition to the finely crafted Wired For Sound and We Don’t Talk Anymore, Cliff’s vast catalogue also includes a few largely overlooked gems. Reunion of The Heart, in particular, was too good to be hidden away on the b-side of a 12” single in the mid ’80s. Luckily, that was later recorded by The Hollies in a superior version, so the song eventually got a decent send off. Admittedly, the occasional great song isn’t much to hang several decades of stardom upon, but sometimes it feels like just enough to not consign Cliff’s entire career to the dustbin.

None of Cliff’s audio recordings come close to supplying the kind of enjoyment that can be gleaned from his final cinematic outing, Take Me High. Released in December 1973, the film enjoyed a brief cinematic run, before being forgotten by many. It became so overlooked that its first official DVD release came free with the Daily Mail “newspaper” in 2010. It wasn’t really until the people at the sadly-missed Network released Take Me High on DVD and Blu-ray as part of their British Film collection in 2019 that most people actually saw it for the first time. When Talking Pictures TV gave it a long overdue showing a short while later, the film was drastically undersold; their pitch merely said something along the lines of “Cliff Richard goes to Birmingham. Spaghetti Junction is prominently featured.” If that was the most exciting thing they could find to say about Take Me High, exactly how bad was it? Was there an obvious reason why it had spent so long lurking in the doldrums of film history, mostly unloved?

That actually worked as reverse advertising and it inspired people to tune in. It was so well received that a core of the same audience actually returned for a repeat showing a few weeks later, and took to social media for a film tweet-along. It had been a long time coming, but Cliff’s big screen swansong had finally found a new audience. And its resurgence in cult popularity is very much deserved, since this David Askey directed picture is almost like nothing you’d expect from a Cliff Richard film. It mightn’t boast the big drama and kitchen sink brilliance of 1959’s Serious Charge – a film into which the young pop star appears to have been shoehorned, somewhat uneasily – but it’s a thousand times more fun than the lightweight fodder that filled the likes of Summer Holiday.

Uncool it may be, but Take Me High is genuinely great. How many supposedly feel-good musical features begin with a dramatic domestic bust-up? There must be others, but this is certainly the only film that begins with its main protagonist lobbing a food mixer into a nearby cement mixer in the aftermath of a middle-class strop. If this sounds petty, businessman Tim, played by Cliff, already has the audience on his side, as his on-screen wife – played by Madeline Smith, in the briefest of roles – is horrid. Tim then sits and drinks champagne alone in his car, whilst singing a really maudlin song loaded with self pity. It becomes even more ridiculous if you even start to think about its contrast with the previous scene, making it clear that future All Creatures Great & Small and The Tripods scriptwriter Christopher Penfold intends to have fun with the plot outline he’s been given.  The sense of fun – and strangely subversive tone lurking beneath the film’s surface – is escalated when we discover that a hard-talking politician, played by Hugh Griffith (The Final Programme), is rather fond of shooting up TV sets with machine guns.

Naturally, the strange is balanced by the ordinary, but even the film’s more predictable elements have a truckload of charm. From the moment we meet Sarah – an owner of a failing bistro, played by Doctor Who’s Deborah Watling – it’s impossible not to be swept along by her charm, or the blossoming relationship between her and Tim. Their early bickering and unease often feels like a direct throwback to Judy Garland and Van Johnson in The Good Old Summertime, or a future echo of Nora Ephron’s hugely successful romantic comedies. Cliff’s new home on a barge moored in the middle of Birmingham has a brilliant TARDIS-like quality, and being on board whilst Tim and Sarah eventually hatch a plan to create Britain’s best burger fully absorbs the viewer into their world.

The plot about burgers, too, obviously has a huge whiff of social commentary you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a film such as this. Wimpy bars had been commonplace in Britain since the ’50s, but a new wave of genuinely fast food was incoming at the time of the script’s writing, and the first branch of McDonald’s would open in the UK in less than a year after Take Me High’s cinematic run. The obsession with creating a gourmet burger that uses only the best ingredients is clearly a slight on the fast food giant’s impending arrival…

Much like the abilities of David Essex at a similar time, Cliff retains an affable screen presence, but his acting chops are obviously limited. This leaves his supporting cast to do a huge amount of heavy lifting. Watling turns in an amazing “girl hates boy/tolerates boy/loves boy” performance, and her character is rarely anything less than adorable. George Cole, continuing a run of strong screen roles, is perfectly suited to his role as a local councillor, and despite turning in a slight variant of his gruff self from The Bargee, Griffith is perfectly cast as the villain of the piece – a brilliant political rival for Cole. When he’s not bickering with Sarah, Tim also has his own business-related antagonist, and Anthony Andrews slides easily into his role as a well-to-do high-flier who’s not only uncomfortable with Tim’s arrival in Brum, but also happens to be romantically involved with Sarah.

Take Me High might be a “Cliff Richard Film” on the surface, but repeat viewings help to uncover something much richer. First and foremost, it’s a fantastic ensemble piece where everyone gets their moment to shine – even Cole, who is arguably underused at times. Everything also seems to benefit from Askey’s directing style: he was a TV director, with credits including the Doctor series, Sorry!, and The Fenn Street Gang, and this was his only feature film. However, his approach, whether overseeing the dialogue driven scenes or any of the film’s set pieces, is perfect for the job in hand. His natural flair translates just as well to the big screen.

Askey clearly understands that Birmingham itself is as much of a character here as any of the lead actors, since his choice of establishing shots and a brilliant montage really sells the landscape. In so many ways, the extensive location filming adds to Take Me High’s brilliance. By the early ’70s, huge expanses of London and Middlesex had been seen on screen thanks to years of great movies from the Ealing and Pinewood studios, and the North became familiar due to some truly fantastic kitchen sink productions from Woodfall Films. Britain’s second city, by comparison, was a cinematic stranger.

The decision to film in Birmingham instead of the New York that Cliff’s character hopes to visit presents something arguably less glamorous – and was almost certainly a budgetary choice on behalf of EMI Films – but it turns out to be an inspired location. A lot of time is spent in the city (or “The Siddy” as Tim likes to call it, with his soft-toned and slightly Americanised accent), the roads surrounding Gas Street, or at the canal basin. With Tim arriving for an important business meeting via hovercraft – yes, really – the canal becomes just as important as the more famous Spaghetti Junction, really getting to the heart of a very vibrant and busy working area. If that isn’t enough, the film’s climax captures a superb period snapshot of Birmingham’s New Street as Tim leads a massive musical parade, complete with a cast of thousands, supported by aerial camera work.

As for the songs, they were obviously one of the biggest selling points at the time, but composer Tony Cole’s numbers are very much a mixed bag. There’s the aforementioned balladry (Midnight Blue); a strong pop rocker that sounds like a Jeff Wayne take on a Badfinger number (Life); acoustic balladry (The Game), and the title track is a rousing sing-along that sounds like a distant cousin of Congratulations. Naturally, there are a couple of theatrical duets in the time honoured stage musical tradition, too (Driving, shared with an uncomfortable Anthony Andrews, and the perky Brumburger Duet with Watling).

Despite best intentions, the soundtrack only features two songs that a less than devoted Cliff fan would want to listen to for pleasure, but both are superb. It’s Only Money, a massive power pop number used effectively as the film’s overture, could easily be an old Pilot single in disguise. It’s such a thrill to hear the film introduced with a full compliment of jangling guitars, and despite Cliff offering his usual polite vocal style, he’s able to sell a very strong melody throughout.

Winning – used effectively as the accompaniment to Cliff strolling around the city – also supplies massive pop thrills, fitting the light entertainment style of the time. Much like the film itself, the soundtrack album has become an afterthought in Cliff’s long history: upon release, it failed to reach the Top 40 of the UK album chart, peaking at a rather humble #41.

Had the script ended up in the hands of Richard O’Sullivan or Richard Beckinsale, Take Me High wouldn’t have been a musical, but the likelihood of it retrospectively being considered one of the era’s best light entertainment pictures would be much higher. There are a lot of people who’ll avoid this film purely due to Cliff’s starring role, but that’s their loss. Harking back to the ’60s musical during an era more concerned with folk horror and Brit gangster flicks, this is a square peg in a round hole. Perhaps it’s that displacement that makes it shine even more brightly, but Take Me High remains one of the greatest British films you’ve probably never seen.

❉ ‘Take Me High’ (1973, EMI Films). Director: David Askey. Starring: Cliff Richard, Deborah Watling, Hugh Griffith, George Cole, Anthony Andrews, Richard Wattis, Madeline Smith, Ronald Hines, Moyra Fraser.

❉ Lee Realgone has been a keen viewer of cult cinema for decades. He spends a lot of time watching Blu-rays from Indicator and Arrow. At other times, he does pretty much everything at the music website Real Gone. Find REAL GONE on Twitter at @realgonerocks. Like REAL GONE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/realgonerocks 

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