BOOTLEG FILES 492: “The Special London Bridge Special” (1972 TV special starring Tom Jones and a stellar guest list).
LAST SEEN: The production is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The expense in clearing music and performance rights.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely, at least for now.
One of the great mistakes of film and television production is the belief that an all-star cast can elevate inane material into something of value. The concept behind this train wreck of thought is the notion that the charisma and fame surrounding big-name performers can compensate for bad writing, dubious direction and misguided production values.
A case in point: in 1972, director/producer/choreographer David Winters decided to take advantage of the hullabaloo surrounding the relocation of the old London Bridge from England to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. In Winters’ mind, the bridge’s history and unlikely new home could be used as a backdrop for a musical comedy revue featuring a surplus of high-profile British and American stars. The resulting production carried the awkward title “The Special London Bridge Special,” and it was anything but special. However, today’s viewers might get a healthy dose of unintended laughs from this vintage misfire.
“The Special London Bridge Special” is anchored around Tom Jones, whose popular TV series “This is Tom Jones” had gone off the air in 1971 after a two-year run. For this production, Jones sported oversized sideburns – it looked as if two baby minks were holding on to his cheeks – and his hair was pressed into the Welsh equivalent of an afro.
Jones opens the show by singing about how much he loves London, and split screen effects offer the viewer scenes of the city’s most famous attractions. But once Jones gets on a double-decker bus, something odd happens: under the direction of the wonderfully wacky Hermione Gingold (as a bus conductor), the vehicle arrives at Lake Havasu, where Jones is amazed to find London Bridge.
Jones cannot figure out how the bus was able to make the trans-Atlantic journey – Gingold cryptically remarks about traveling under the ocean – but this mystery is quickly forgotten as soon as actress/model Jennifer O’Neill shows up to welcome Jones to America with a rendition of the tune “Consider Yourself” from the musical “Oliver!” Yes, this might be a corny choice, but it becomes positively grueling as O’Neill flatfoots her way through the number while a group of dancers called the Yankee Doodle Dandies hop and twirl all around her. Yes, O’Neill was a knockout in the fashion magazines and on the silver screen, but she had absolutely no talent as a singer and dancer. Still, Jones expresses his attraction to the American beauty by singing the Beatles tune “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
A budding romance between Jones and O’Neill becomes the core of the special, although there are plenty of distractions thrown at the audience. Jonathan Winters turns up in a weirdly unfunny sketch where he plays a British tour guide and the raucous American tourists following him about. Engelbert Humperdinck shows up for a few seconds as a Royal Guard that decides to jump off the bridge.
The Carpenters engage in some cranky dialogue before they are plopped in the middle of the Arizona desert to perform a medley of their hits. The Carpenters’ music is used as the backdrop for a studio-bound sequence featuring Rudolph Nureyev and the Royal Ballet’s Merle Parke – and while their dancing is peerless, it is difficult to ignore that their choreography is not in sync with the Carpenters’ music.
Jones and O’Neill wind up at a tennis match involving Charlton Heston and Michael Landon – and although Moses and Little Joe are billed as guest stars, neither looks at the camera or acknowledges that they are supposedly part of this special. O’Neill goes on the tennis court for a dance number involving a group of young men dressed in Zorro outfits while Jones’ hit tune “She’s a Lady” plays on the soundtrack. Gingold turns up with Oscar-nominated actor Chief Dan George, who supposedly abducts her – never mind that she is goading him to carry her off and he can barely keep a straight face.
O’Neill is later kidnapped by Elliott Gould, who is billed as “The Villain.” We know he is a villain because he is dressed in black and is sporting enough hair to qualify for a remake of the Patterson-Gimlin film. Jones puts on a cowboy outfit, saddles up on a horse and rides across the Arizona landscape while singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (which, of course, has nothing to do with the sequence – but, hey, it is a great song).
Jones arrives in a ghost town where Lorne Greene is perched on top of a building while dressed as the title character of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Don’t ask how this gag got into the show!) Kirk Douglas turns up as a cowboy who is willing to help Jones. (Douglas is addressed by Jones as the Indian Fighter, a reference to one of the star’s old films.) But then, Douglas and Jones dress up in top hat and tails to do a song and dance number. Comedian George Kirby arrives for a few seconds as a gunslinger and does an awful Douglas imitation.
Gould and O’Neill do a mock silent movie sequence involving the latter being tied to railroad tracks, and Jones rescues her – but discovers that the kidnapping was a hoax. He walks off angrily, but then engages with O’Neill in a duet of “If” via split screen effects. Jones’ voice is a full boom that could fill a concert hall, while O’Neill sings in a flat wail that one normally associates with singing in the shower.
Jones and O’Neill reunite at an outdoor theater in Lake Havasu, where the Carpenters perform more of their songs. Jones winds up back in London, where he is baffled about what occurred – was it all a dream? He attempts to board a double-decker bus, but he is thrown off the vehicle by conductor Terry-Thomas.
There is a publicity photo from this special of the Carpenters dressed up in fancy English costumes – Richard as a Tower beefeater and Karen as Victorian lass – but there is no scene in the special that shows them in this garb. The Internet Movie Database claims that this production also included footage of Jones singing with Raquel Welch from the latter’s 1970 TV special. However, there are no scenes of Welch in the print that is in circulation, nor is she cited the special’s credits or promotional material – something of a major omission, if she was part of the proceedings.
“The Special London Bridge Special” was broadcast on NBC on May 7, 1972. It made very little impact with audiences at the time, but over the years it piqued the interest in fans of Jones and the Carpenters. Alas, the expense of clearing the music and performance rights has prevented the commercial home entertainment release of this old special. But at least one faded print has been going through the collector-to-collector channels, and the entire show can be found on YouTube.
Yes, this special was a mess. But for those of us who are nostalgic for that marvelously tacky era known as the Decade That Good Taste Forgot, “The Special London Bridge Special” offers plenty of the harmless silliness that defined 1970s American television.
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