Espresso Bongo (1959) | Wood Lane
Val Guests’ much admired Soho-set rags-to-rock’n’roll-riches-to-rags film, starring Laurence Harvey and Cliff Richard. Aadapted from a stage musical, it was released in 1959, the same year that one of the original Wood Lane stations closed. Wood Lane has made almost as many comebacks as the Peter Pan of pop, Cliff himself.
Nearby BBC Television Centre (now a gym and boutique members club owned by Soho House) features briefly in stock footage. Harvey’s pop impresario Jackson books his protege Bongo Herbert on a TV show. ‘Espresso Bongo’ as the first true British rock’n’roll movie makes overt the link which existed from the immediate post-rationing era, connecting London’s Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, the coffee bars of the West End and Soho’s seamy demimonde, to West London-proper, home of the voice of the nation the BBC. The Westway became the Chameloid tongue that sipped talent and youth out of the West End, towards the more suited, stable and assured hinterland to the west of the Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.
Wood Lane was built as a stopping off point for spectacle. The first Wood Lane (Exhibition) station opened on 1st May 1908 to serve the Franco-British Exhibition and the 1908 Olympic Games, as part of the Metropolitan Railway. Another, the Central London Railway’s Wood Lane, opened two weeks later. Both served the exhibitions and were closed when there was nothing else on. The Exhibition station closed permanently on the outbreak of World War one in 1914. The second reopened in 1920 as Wood Lane (White City) but in 1947 was replaced by the current White City station just to the north, on the Central Line. The Metropolitan line White City also reopened in 1947, a short distance to the south of the current Wood Lane stop. It was this station that closed in 1959. BBC TV Centre eventually expanded so that both Wood Lane tracks marked edges of the TV Centre site. The new Wood Lane opened in 2008, the first Tube station to be built on an old Underground site in 70 years. Within five years, the BBC had quit the site, the banks had crashed and London was heading for Brexit and a pandemic.
Wood Lane continues to be West London’s Bermuda Triangle. In 2021 anti-vaccine protestors tried to storm the building to prevent the BBC promoting Covid-19 vaccinations. The BBC had left the site in 2013.
‘Espresso Bongo’ is best known for its depiction of the Soho coffee bar scene that was instrumental to the emergence of most British pop stars of the late 1950s. Its impressive roving opening shot through Soho’s streets inspired the opening of ‘Absolute Beginners’ (at White City on the map).