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|
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)|
|Plenty of Vim from Babs!|
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|
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…
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?
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|
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|
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...|
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|