BOOTLEG FILES 250: “Lucy in London” (1966 TV special starring Lucille Ball, Anthony Newley and the Dave Clark Five).
LAST SEEN: In its only U.S. broadcast, on October 24, 1966.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Obscure, barely recalled, one-shot TV special.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Before I get started, I would like to point out this is the 250th entry in the Bootleg Files series. I need to thank the many, many readers who’ve supported this column with input, ideas and (on more than a few occasions) great bootleg videos and DVDs. And thanks to Film Threat for allowing me to bring the best of bootlegged titles to you every Friday.
This week’s offering is a genuine peculiarity: “Lucy in London,” a 1966 television special starring Lucille Ball. It is not a great production, by any stretch, but it offers a diverting and often astonishing look at what passed for hipster entertainment on U.S. television four decades ago.
During the 1960s, Lucille Ball was enjoying a successful run with “The Lucy Show.” The program was decidedly inferior to the classic “I Love Lucy,” and too often the episodes relied heavily on second banana Gale Gordon’s bravura comic reactions and a parade of big name guest stars to breathe oxygen into the proceedings. Nonetheless, ratings were high and Ball was considered a major TV star.
In renewing her contract for the 1966-67 season, CBS offered Ball the opportunity to star in and produce TV specials that would be presented separately from “The Lucy Show.” Ball initially considered a travelogue-style offering called “Lucy in Paris,” but her Desilu production company was unable to arrange for location shooting in the French capital. Instead, Ball set her eyes across the English Channel and decided to set up shop at the core of the Swinging ‘60s: mod-inspired London.
Ball hoped to land Laurence Olivier as a guest star, but he declined. Instead, she snagged actor/singer/composer Anthony Newley and rock’s Dave Clark Five. These guests were at the height of their respective popularity, and it gave Ball a hipster cred she was previously lacking.
Oddly, the concept of “Lucy in London” was set up in an episode of “The Lucy Show” called “Lucy Goes to London,” which was broadcast on October 17, 1966, the week before the special was to air. In that episode, the star’s scatterbrained Lucy Carmichael character wins a trip to London through a dog food jingle contest. She winds up flying from Los Angeles to New York with her long-suffering boss, Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon), and the inevitable chaos ensues. As with most of “The Lucy Show” episodes, the redheaded star was clearly too old for the physical slapstick demands that she handled brilliantly on “I Love Lucy,” and she was thus limited to setting up nutty situations where Gordon found himself under constant assault (she accidentally turns up the volume on his headset to full blast, she pushes a button that flings him from his chair, etc.).
The following week, however, the half-hour format of “The Lucy Show” gave way to the full-hour “Lucy in London” special. (“The Andy Griffith Show” was pre-empted in order to accommodate the program). “Lucy in London” picked up where the previous week’s episode left off: Lucy Carmichael arrives in London on a free trip, but now it is explained she is there strictly for a day’s visit. Lucy is expecting a luxury tour via a limousine, but her guide (played by Anthony Newley) chauffeurs her about in a motorcycle with an open sidecar.
The concept of “Lucy in London” then falls into a pattern with Newley as the sincere but shabby guide escorting the nutty Lucy Carmichael on a weird tour. Things get off to a bad start: an extended musical number with Newley serenading her during a motorcycle tour of London’s urban center with “On a Wonderful Day Like Today,” complete with a chorus of bicycle-riding schoolgirls following them. That is followed by an extended sequence where Newley and Ball go punting on the Thames in an inflatable raft – they collide with a university rowing team and slowly sink into the waters.
But after that, things take an unexpectedly groovy beat as Lucy goes clothing shopping to replace her soaked threads. This leads to a music number revolving around a Phil Spector-penned tune called “Lucy in London” that features the star posing in mod clothing while young dancers bop around in various outdoor locations and the Dave Clark Five smile and wave at the camera. The sequence is actually a lot of fun, with inventive choreography and Ball showing off a rather fine physique (she was 55 at the time and her body looked wonderful in the mod tailoring of the era’s youthful clothing).
After this, however, “Lucy in London” returns to more labored comedy. Ball tours Madame Tussaud’s fabled wax museum, but she mistakes a curator for a wax statue that comes to life – it is fairly dumb and unfunny, and Ball’s reactions are so imbecilic that one has to believe her character has serious mental concerns. There is also an extended visit to a stately manor, where Ball is recruited to play Kate opposite Shakespearean actor Peter Wyngarde’s Petruchio in a scene from “The Taming of the Shrew.” Again, it is not particularly funny – Ball is out of her element spoofing Shakespeare and she has no chemistry with Wyngarde.
But then, again, the special offers a musical surprise. Ball (still dressed in her Elizabethan outfit from the previous scene) and Newley stroll along the banks of the Thames and encounter the Dave Clark Five (dressed, incongruously, in very proper morning clothes, complete with top hats and walking sticks). The rock quintet sings “London Bridge is Falling Down” while Newley and Ball sing “Pop Goes the Weasel.” They circle each other, intercutting their songs, and then part company. It is a bizarre moment, and rather inconceivable that the Dave Clark Five would be performing that tune rather than one of their major hits.
The final part of the special finds Newley taking Ball to an empty theater in the West End, where he stages a one-man show. Newley changes into a tuxedo and goes through a medley of numbers from his hit stage show “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” Ball, who is seen throughout the numbers in various guises (as the Queen, a male orchestra conductor), and then she gets on stage doing a mime number (she walks across the stage “holding” the spotlight) and talk-singing a brief song on her wonderful London adventure. (As anyone who was ever assaulted by “Mame” recalls, singing was not Ball’s forte.)
“Lucy in London” was broadcast on October 24, 1966, with Monsanto as the show’s single sponsor. Reaction to the production was, for the most part, unsatisfactory. Variety’s critic sneered: “What had promised to be one of the season’s major specials turned out to be a major disappointment.” Other critics were equally unfriendly, leading Ball to decline to pursue future specials and to concentrate on her weekly half-hour comedy show. The show was later broadcast on British television and that country’s critics actually liked it (who knew?).
“Lucy in London” was never rebroadcast; it was not included as part of the syndicated package for “The Lucy Show.” As a bootleg video, this one is pretty damn hard to find. A clip of the “Lucy in London” musical number on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmZhtkxe2-g. There is also an online fan site devoted to this oddity: http://www.geocities.com/lucilleballspecial_lucyinlondon/index.html.
But unless you are a die hard Lucille Ball addict or a fan of campy/awful 1960s TV, “Lucy in London” may not be worth the search. While there will always be an England and there will always be reruns of Lucille Ball’s TV shows, there is no reason for them to always be together.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!