Take Me High
Take Me High is a cinematic love song to Birmingham. And despite being the one and only exemplar of that particular genre it’s a film that even natives of the city find somewhat baffling and embarrassing. A minor footnote in Sir Cliff Richard’s career, unloved and overlooked by even his keenest fans, the film is an intriguing artefact that has proved surprisingly prescient in its portrait of the city.
The film was something of a turning point in the careers of those involved in its production. It marked the cinematic debuts of its director David Askey and scriptwriter Christopher Penfold, but whilst Askey went on to direct many classic British sitcoms and Penfold wrote extensively for TV, neither they nor its songwriter Tony Cole ever worked in cinema again. For Cliff too, after fourteen years and eight movies, Take Me High was the end of his film career. It’s hard to escape the sense that once filming was over, everyone fled and never looked back.
And perhaps it’s not difficult to understand why. Even by the eccentric standards of the early 70’s British film industry, Take Me High is an oddity, attempting as it does to combine light musical comedy with the world of local government contract procurement processes. Sir Cliff plays Tim Matthews, a merchant banker who instead of being posted to New York is sent to the company’s Birmingham office. Matthews gets embroiled in a power struggle between the left wing Council leader (George Cole) and an aggressively capitalist local businessman (Hugh Griffiths), before deciding to set up a hamburger restaurant called ‘Brumburger’.
The direction could be fairly described as uneven. George Cole’s straight-laced depiction of Bert Jackson appears to inhabit an entirely different film to the Bunuel-esque scenes of Sir Harry Cunningham and guests opening fire on a television set. Presumably Cliff’s charisma was meant to pull everything together, but this was made impossible by his role. Speaking some years later about his film career, Richard said ‘how many times can I go and be the leader of a youth club?’ The character of Tim Matthews was certainly an attempt at a ‘grown-up’ role: the kind of high-flying businessman who buys his girlfriend a food processor as a gift; has a built-in electric razor in his Mini; and wears a velvet suit like a proud teddy bear going to his first party. Yet despite these winning attributes Matthews is remarkable for his sheer unlikeability; inexplicably pleased with himself, unnecessarily combative and singularly unable to run alongside canals in any kind of dignified manner.
Richard’s job was made even more difficult by the lyrics written for him. Described by Cliff-biographer Steve Turner as ‘vacuous and instantly forgettable’, Tony Cole’s songs combine often puzzling imagery:
‘Well maybe tomorrow I’ll try and encourage the eagle to fly with the dove’,
with oblique social commentary:
‘See a man of wealth and power
Notice how his stomach churns
Look a little closer
See the way his ulcer burns.’
At times the songs seem written for different characters altogether, and often neither the songs nor the action make any conventional sense either together or apart. After quite gleefully goading his girlfriend into a bust-up, Richard sings an apparently regretful:
‘Your weary eyes and weary shoulders won’t bring her back to you,
You used to be a man of colour, now you’re midnight blue.’
That he sings this on the roof of his Mini, in the middle of Inner Temple Gardens, whilst having a shave, makes the scene no less impenetrable.
We first glimpse Birmingham as Richard drives along the Aston Expressway: ‘Just as bad as I expected. Even worse. But I’ve got to face it. Face Birmingham.’ But despite his character’s misgivings, it’s apparent that Birmingham’s shiny, modern backdrop was intended to frame Richard as contemporary and relevant. At the start of the 70s, ahead of his later successful repackaging as a rock artist, Richard was struggling with his direction and image. Take Me High has several lengthy outdoor location sequences whose only purpose seems to be to set Cliff in the context of the city’s iconic new landmarks. He skips down the steps of John Madin’s library complex; he strides purposefully along a pedestrian walkway over the roaring six-lane Queensway; he speeds along the canal in a hovercraft. Predating Kraftwerk’s Autobahn by at least a year, Take Me High’s LP cover superimposes Cliff’s head against the magnificent newly-completed Spaghetti Junction. But the ‘Concrete City’ failed to boost Cliff’s career and was itself soon judged by as dated and ill-conceived as Cliff’s lace-up denim jacket. The film serves as a memorial to many of the landmarks it featured. The Brutalist library, just a few months away from opening when the film was made, is now a pile of rubble.
If Take Me High failed to anticipate how briefly concrete would reign, it was prescient in foreseeing which direction the city would turn next. When Birmingham wanted to shake off its concrete-and-cars reputation it looked to its canal network to provide a new narrative. The redevelopment of Brindley Place took place in the early 1990s but Cliff had started the whole process off almost two decades earlier. Posted to a new city, Cliff’s character Matthews is not the kind of guy to trog around estate agents windows looking for new digs. Instead he indulges in a little psychogeography, folding a map in quarters and deciding the intersection is where the energies are right to base himself. This takes him to Gas St Basin, where he buys a narrowboat, turns it into a swanky bachelor pad, and thereby kickstarts the entire process of repurposing the city’s industrial heritage for leisure use. Later he bases his Brumburger restaurant at Water’s Edge, the exact scene of the very first phase of the Brindley Place development twenty years later.
And the Brumburger itself is prophetic too. Birmingham’s woeful culinary reputation of the early 70s is reflected in the film. As one embittered, inexplicably bare-chested chef declares: ‘You can fool anyone in this Godforsaken fish and chip town…Just like every other café in Brum, fobbing people off with third-rate frozen food.’ Birmingham has since reinvented itself as a gourmet destination endlessly banging on about its Michelin stars, but yet again the city has Cliff to thank for this rebirth. After a disappointing takeaway burger, Cliff and girlfriend Debbie Watling invent the gourmet burger: ‘Made from fresh ingredients, locally bought and prepared and cooked immediately’. In the film the opening of the Brumburger restaurant is marked with an enormous parade, with marching bands and thousands of frozen-food-eating Brummies staring on open-mouthed. Now there are simply too many gourmet/artisan/dirty burger pop-ups opening every week in Birmingham to each warrant their own parade, and each new Brumburger-style offering is celebrated with lurid Instagram portraits instead.
Take Me High is a mind-bogglingly strange film. A critique of rapacious capitalism. A hymn to a second city. A vehicle for a flagging pop star. A film about a hamburger. It’s a musical without hits and a comedy without jokes. It’s one of a kind. It failed to successfully repackage and rebrand Cliff Richard but it was years ahead in its imagining of a repackaged, rebranded post-industrial city.