Tom Jones heads an extravagant and unlikely cast in a 1972 TV special celebrating the opening of the relocated London Bridge in Arizona.
In 1967, London Bridge was in need of one of its periodic upgrades – the current version, having stood since 1831, was no longer considered fit for purpose. The old bridge would normally have simply been scrapped, but enterprising City of London councillor Ivan Luckin had a better idea – why not try to sell the thing? Surely there would be some wealthy investor, probably in America, who would buy the old version as a prestige bit of history and tourist attraction? And so it was. Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil in Missouri paid a whopping $2,460,000 for the bridge, which was then carefully dismantled, shipped to Arizona and rebuilt around a sturdier modern structure. It was more a publicity stunt than anything, though the bridge remains in use to this day.
To celebrate the opening of the ‘new’ bridge in 1971, celebrities, bigwigs and the London Mayor gathered in Arizona. For those unable to attend, the event was commemorated with one of the most extraordinary hours of television that you are ever likely to see: The Special London Bridge Special, starring Tom Jones.
I can’t pretend to have unearthed this myself – the ever-resourceful Steven Sheil, perhaps the only person even more devoted to finding pointless pop culture than we are, excitedly showed me this during this year’s Mayhem Film Festival. It’s quite the find.
Jones – not, we might note, an actor by any sensible interpretation of the word – heads a remarkable cast in a story that sees him miraculously transported from London (which we first see in a collection of tourist clips while he sings London is London – not one of his best-known tunes) to Arizona via a magic bus, where all manner of strange and exciting things happen to him. This mostly involves him looking bewildered or explaining bits of London history to a series of equally baffled guest stars – it’s entirely possible that the producers didn’t realise that Jones isn’t English or that Wales isn’t actually an English town. Who are these guest stars? Well, if I tell you that the bus conductor who transports him magically across the ocean is Hermoine Gingold and one of the people he duets with is Kirk Douglas, you’ll get a flavour of just how weird this is.
Other guests include The Carpenters, Jennifer O’Neill, Rudolph Nureyev, Jonathan Winters, Chief Dan George, Lorne Greene, Charlton Heston, Terry-Thomas, Englebert Humperdink, Michael Landon… and Elliott Gould as ‘the villain’. Because this damn thing really does have some sort of story to it and every story needs a villain. Looking at that cast, you can only imagine how much money was sunk into this mad folly. How all this actually promoted the newly installed bridge will forever be a mystery.
The whole thing is just baffling, even by the often-bizarre standards of 1970s American TV specials. It seems to be the result of a fever dream, presumably one experienced by choreographer David Winters. Winters, who produced and directed this special, had quite the career – he choreographed and directed many TV specials for the likes of Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret, directed the film version of Alice Cooper‘s Welcome to My Nightmare and the musical version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and had a hand in the Star Wars Holiday Special. In 1982 he directed The Last Horror Film and by the end of the decade had shifted gears into becoming an action movie producer – his name is all over the low-budget action and sci-fi films of the early 1990s through his company Action International Pictures. Oh, and he was Linda Lovelace‘s boyfriend for a while.
The Special London Bridge Special needs to be seen to be believed. Luckily, through the miracle of technology, you can do just that. Settle back and enjoy!
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