Interview: Jess Conrad on Konga
On its 60th Anniversary we speak to actor and popstar Jess Conrad about Britain's answer to King Kong
Interview conducted by Martin Parsons
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of John Lemont’s Konga which, if you haven’t seen it, is a treat of a film. Michael Gough’s mad professor disappears in the jungle and returns with a friendly chimp – the titular Konga – and a clutch of carnivorous plants from which he extracts a serum which causes animals to grow to unnatural size. Serum quickly meets chimp, of course, and before long Konga is strangling Gough’s enemies for him, before eventually getting so big that he smashes his way through a variety of lovely but not exactly convincing model buildings, before finally making Gough his Fay Wray and lurching through London.
We spoke to one of the film’s stars, actor and popstar Jess Conrad, about the enduring appeal of Britain’s answer to King Kong.
Martin: Conrad plays Bob, the closest thing the film has to a heroic lead – though he doesn’t last long. A fight with Gough’s Dr Decker over the girl they both love leads to Bob getting killed by Konga! There are two things that do not quite add up when it comes to Conrad’s appearance in Konga. The first is that he doesn’t sing – though it frequently feels like he might be about to. The second is that nobody comments on the fantastic fluffy blue jumper he wears. As Conrad explains, there is a reason for both of these…
Jess: “[Producer] Herman Cohen missed the biggest trick of all – it’s famously the world’s worst horror film – and that’s why it has such an appeal – but it also had the opportunity of having the world’s worst record in it! In the scene where I had the fight with Michael Gough (who was a wonderful actor and very nice to work with), I sang ‘This Pullover’. And Herman Cohen cut it out. One of the big things about the film, why I was sort of cast in it, apart from the fact that Herman Cohen liked the way I looked – I went to Hollywood to promote the film – was that Jess Conrad would sing in it. Because, at the time, it would have been a pulling power.
He cut it out because ‘This Pullover’ was slow. It is a slow sort of ballad. ‘This pullover, that you gave to me, I am wearing, and wear it constantly…’. My whole wardrobe was down to the fact that I sang the song – which didn’t make number one spot but did make the fact that it’s the world’s worst record, so it’s just as famous as making a number one!”
Check out the song here to see if you agree with Kenny Everett that it is one of the World’s Worst Records:
“It was a happy shoot” Jess remembers, “One of the boys in my gang became very famous, didn’t he? Steven Berkoff. He became a big star villain after that. And of course, Gough, he’s a legend. He was the king of horror, wasn’t he? The equivalent of Vincent Price, really, in these English-made horror films. Very very nice man, didn’t show off at all. As a young actor, you like watching people who teach you good things as opposed to bad things! Michael Gough was the archetypal professional”
While the giant Konga who famously looms over the cardboard Houses of Parliament in the finale was a man in a suit, the smaller Konga was a real animal…
“Konga the monkey – the real monkey – came on the set one day and got a hard-on, apparently because of the perfume that the leading lady was wearing. He went ape!” Jess chuckles, “Everybody was concerned, but I remember she said ‘I’m quite thrilled! Nobody’s been excited like that over me for years!”
While some actors would steer clear of horror back then, the genre was not a problem for young Jess…
“Being a young actor, I was quite happy about the fact that I was making a film! It wasn’t like doing a picture with Laurence Olivier – I was doing a horror film, but I was thrilled because at the time, even the fact that it was made in Technicolor was a kick. I didn’t think ever ‘oh, I shouldn’t do a horror film’, you know? You just didn’t think like that in those times. I think I made three or four films that year, going from one to another, with a big smile on my face. I didn’t think in terms of cheap horror, I was just doing a dramatic role in a dramatic film. My agent didn’t say ‘well, it’s a horror film but I think you should do it’, we just took it. Obviously at the time it fitted what I was doing, and doesn’t seem to have done me any harm! I mean, there was a time when actors wouldn’t do panto, or adverts, but now of course they do everything.
"I tried to do both – be a pop star and a film star. In my brain, as a young person, I saw that Sinatra could do both, and I thought I could do both – not realising at the time that I wasn’t Sinatra! Just because he could do it didn’t mean that the popstar across the Atlantic could do it. I think, when I look back, the film one has to be most proud of is The Boys. That struggled at the beginning, though it has become an iconic film now. In many ways, so has Konga!”
Was there a point where Konga came back into your life? Did it disappear and then return as this cult classic?
“Oh yes, it returned with a vengeance! I didn’t think that horror films were so…iconic, is the word. If it were a murder mystery thing, I don’t think we’d be talking about it now. I think the fact the Konga was obviously somebody in a suit, this popstar is in it, you know, it’s got all the ticks to be laughed at, hasn’t it? But even if we laugh at it, it is iconic – and we’re talking about it 60 years later!”
Konga is available to purchase and stream now.