A crumbling (and presumably minor, judging from the size of the hall) public school toward the end of term, and a cheerless and painfully clumsy production of The Bacchae shudders to its conclusion in front of an audience of assembled parents and headmaster Robin Bailey. Five ‘hippie’ students, however, plan to liven things up. Lurking behind a curtain at the back of the hall, and lighting up joints, Ozzy Freemantle (David ‘Ford Prefect’ Dixon), Snare Phillips (Denis Lawson) and co. startle the blue rinsers by launching into Steel Ball Wind, a rickety pub-glam confection that turns heads (particularly of previously bored parent and ad exec Tim Curry) and earns their expulsion from school (Dixon sees the stern bailey off with a cool ‘Keep on truckin’, sir!’)
This matters not to Ozzy, as the lads are no longer public schoolboys but Slag Bag, set to take the country by storm. Patrick (Curry) takes them under his wing after a bedtime epiphany about the ‘Dionysian’ properties of rock, and soon they’re playing a church youth club to a completely indifferent audience (including a young Linda Robson) as Patrick and the local vicar look on from above and discuss the class divide (as one girl comments, ‘comprehensive boys are so much more… comprehending’).
After another drug-fuelled epiphany of Ozzy’s while watching Snare and his girl copulate wildly inside a sealed sleeping bag in Patrick’s flat, the band make it to the big time – well, The Ritzy in Chiswick. Clad in Greek togas and gold tinsel wigs, the band urge the screaming teenybopper audience on to ‘new heights of screwball abandon’, during which one unfortunate girl is killed in the David Cassidy-like crush. In court, the female justice finds them guilty of causing affray and gives them six months suspended, but Ozzy is already penning a raunchy song, Lady Judge, based on the experience. Distraught after a meeting with the dead girl’s father, sensitive Snare quits the band for Oxford. The prosecuting counsel, however, approaches the remaining lads with a proposition – a gig at his daughter’s birthday party.
During this marquee-set affair, with Ozzy in an elaborate gold lame centaur number, the girl’s mother becomes overwhelmed by the hypnotic power of the band’s latest composition Snake Madness (“Beast gladness!”) and strips off, having to be hosed down by husband and prudish son. Finally, straying too close to the wind, Ozzy lands in court again, and prison this time, over the libellous content of Lady Judge. Snare, in a similar ‘prison’ of cloistered academic study, fantasises one final reunion gig between the two in the old school hall. Fade out on Ozzy’s undimmed wild eyes.
However you look at this time capsule curio, it’s undeniably memorable stuff. Made around the same time as Rock Follies, it uses the same mixture of proto-pop-video fantasy sequence and disillusioned reality, and while writer Robin Chapman’s finger isn’t exactly on the cultural pulse (a cross-dressing mythological Bay City Rollers isn’t exactly the mid-’70s music scene distilled) making the boys upper class is a comedic masterstroke. Dixon’s mixture of fey RADA-speak and transatlantic jive is spot on for the character, and the lingering close-ups of his mad eyes are always good value. Lawson is perhaps weaker as the ‘sensitive’ band member, overdoing the button-down recrimination and nervousness.
Alan Cooke, who did a fine job on The Right Prospectus (qv), really lets his hair down with spiralling psychedelic graphics (an early sequence wherein Ozzy has a wet dream about a dressing room invasion must be a first for television), CSO-ed dance sequences, dramatic freeze-frames and the like, which sometimes look unbearably clunky (at least with hindsight) but do succeed in keeping the production moving, even if, as with the youth club scene, there’s necessarily nothing much happening. Stephen Deutsch’s songs, sometimes drowned out by an iffy sound mix but firmly wise to the genre, tap a similar vein somewhere between knowing kitsch and pure daftness.
Just like Slag Bag themselves, this play is a tricky one to judge, shifting as it does between Ozzy’s unflappable, if sometimes embarrassing, exuberance and Snare’s self-conscious worries that the band have made rock ‘n’ roll ‘rubbishy’. In that way, perhaps Jumping Bean Bag sums up the musical spirit of the time rather better than it may superficially seem to do.