Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Eastend story… Sparrows Can't Sing (1963)

Directed by theatrical legend Joan Littlewood from a play written by Stephen Lewis – Blakey himself from On the Buses – Sparrows Can’t Sing is a slice of cinema as history showing the East End as it was in the early sixties as well as the unique collaborative style of cast and crew.

Littlewood had mentored Lewis who had originally been a merchant seaman and encouraged him to write the play which she directed before transferring to the screen. Many of the original performers on the boards also took their parts in the film and the warmth and ease of the company is in evidence throughout.

In a rush
Barbara Windsor was initially too upset to join the Q&A after the 2015 BFI screening of this restoration but eventually joined the eternal Murray Melvin to discuss the work of their departed colleagues including Stephen Lewis who had only passed away the week before. Like so many of the streets and buildings, even the “new” ones, the actors have now gone leaving this increasingly precious reminder of their life and times and a part of the world that has changed almost beyond recognition.

Arthur Mullard (who I used to regularly see in Highbury Fields in the 90s) drives a horse and cart aided by Bob Grant (also to work with Lewis on those buses). Queenie Watts is essentially herself as a jazz singing pub landlady, Yootha Joyce is a local chatterbox whilst the man who was to be ‘er George (Brian Murphy) keeps pigeons round the back of Roy Kinnear’s house. Harry H. Corbett is even selling  groceries from a market stall…

James Booth and Yootha Joyce (centre)

Anyone who was already - or was later to become - anyone was in it! And chief among them all are the dynamite duo of James Booth and Barbara Windsor. Booth has the edge and electricity of a John Cassavetes only without the method – it’s just something he has. He can’t sit still or simply be – there’s always an expression on his face and a natural reaction to everything that’s going on around him all expressed in an instant – a genuine motion. At one point, his character, Charlie, is looking in a house where he thinks his ex-wife Maggie (Babs) is supposedly now living – he goes from room-to-room and meets people from different cultures in every room and his reaction is delightful especially when he encounters a room full of Afro-Caribbeans who offer him a replacement Maggie who he looks only too grateful to accept.
Plenty of Vim from Babs!
He’s matched, as he has to be, by Barbara Windor’s Maggie who is every bit as energetic as he and able to turn on an emotional sixpence. She’s the definition of unpredictability and plays off the men in her life using her whiles where Charlie may use his fists.

The story plays out like a great American musical as Barbara belts out the theme tune over the credits.  Then we switch to the docks where it’s Booth and Glynn Edwards strolling away from their ship rather than Sinatra and Gene Kelly: Charlie’s back and it’s been almost two years. But things didn’t end well last time – “there were murders” – the locals recall, endless fights and grief as Charlie stepped way out of line.

Avis Bunnage and the great Roy Kinnear
He’s very much the returning anti-hero and the film takes a picaresque route following his impact on his former neighbours, friends and family as his appearance looks highly likely to spark some unhappy reactions all round. Everybody knows, but no one has the courage to tell him. It’s a simple structure and one that first-time director Littlewood, uses to create a very impressive visual momentum with a plethora of cherry-picker rising shots that show off these fantastic locations to full effect.

And, all of the time, the streets are full of people running, hiding, chasing and generally being in a rush to live their lives. Even Maggie – as we all know – totters about with rhythmic purpose and at full speed creates quite a scene as she heads towards her re-union…

But before all that, we get to meet the neighbourhood as Charlie renews his acquaintance and begins his single-minded search to get back with Maggie.

It begins in poignant disappointment as he finds his old house, the one he grew up in, completely demolished. The pace of change has been relentless and his old manor hasn’t just gone from memory it has been removed entirely: what will he find to reconnect with?

George Sewell
 But what Charlie doesn’t know and everyone wants to stop him knowing is that in his absence, Maggie has moved in with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) and has also had a baby of far from certain parentage…

Brother Fred (Roy Kinnear) tries to hide in the toilet whilst his missus Bridgie (Avis Bunnage) tries to get a message out to Maggie… what good it will do when he finds out we don’t know…

Nellie and the boys
Elsewhere history is kind of repeating itself as the Gooding’s daughter Nellie (Barbara Ferris) is taking her own sweet time choosing between her foreman Georgie (Murray Melvin) and the more earthy charms of layabout Chunky (Griffith Davies): George has a shiny mod suit and fancies himself a singer whilst Chunky is more grounded where he is: if there’s a blade of grass the chew he’ll opt for that.

Nellie manages to get to Maggie and Bert’s new high-rise flat in spite of the officious interruptions of the caretaker – Lewis in proto-Blakey mode. Maggie’s calm, dealing with the bloke in the bush rather than worrying about the one in hand.

Arthur arrives with the beer
Soon Charlie is holed up in The Red Lion with brother Fred under close watch in case he tries to make a break for it before Maggie is found. After a few hours and many drinks Charlie almost cracks and the pub looks on in wonder and fear at what mayhem is about to be unleashed but he holds it in… this time.

Maggie turns up and there’s a nice moment when Charlie smirks and just about prevents himself from looking round as Maggie enters the Lion and charms hello to all the regulars. Then the tango begins as the will-they, won’t-they business gets started. After a few rounds – a draw it seems – the two agree or disagree to meet later…

Show-down at The Red Lion...
What happens next? Ah well, that’d be telling…

Dusty verdict: Sparrows Can't Sing is still a joy and recommended to anyone who wants a slice of contemporary performance from early sixties theatre-cum-cinema. You can almost taste the atmosphere in streets, pubs and houses: a period so vivid it must still exist somewhere… if not in Walford perhaps but near by…

Left holding the baby
The remastered DVD is available from Movie Mail and Amazon. I’ve already chucked my VHS…

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