Sunday, 29 November 2009


It is true that we sometimes view the past through rose coloured glasses but, despite what some cynics say, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The distillation of memory often results in the preservation of the things that really matter (see Cerpts wonderful invocation of his childhood in New Jersey in THE LAND OF CERPTS AND HONEY) - yesterday's wine of a very fine vintage. Joan Littlewood's SPARROWS CAN'T SING is an important (albeit disgracefully neglected by critics and film historians) film which records an East End of London that was rapidly vanishing even as the film was being shot. Despite slight exaggerations of behaviour this is far removed from the "Mockney" world of Guy Ritchie or the instant depression of EAST ENDERS. More than any other part of the city, East London has its own character and its own mythology - Jack the Ripper, The Kray Brothers, The Elephant Man etc. I'm from North London, rather than East, but I grew up among people not unlike those depicted in this film. The James Booth character could have been my Uncle Bill (coincidentally named Booth) and the Cockney Kneesup in the pub may look a bit contrived and embarassing but I can recall feeling equally embarassed seeing my Aunt Peg dance the Can Can just as Avis Bunnage does in the the film. Although it is no way a crime film one can almost feel the presence of Reggie and Ronnie Kray who visited the set production on several occasions in their never ending quest for rubbing shoulders with show business celebs. The films star, Baraba Windsor, was, of course, married to the Kray's fellow gangster and associate, Ronnie Knight. Barbara Windsor is wonderful in the film, looking gorgeous with, as one writer said, "tits you could impale a charging buffalo on" and playing Maggie whose life is thrown into turmoil by the return of her seafaring husband (Booth). The film perfectly captures the mood of the dying East End where the old homes that formed a real community are being bulldozed and the people squeezed into sterile and impersonal tower blocks. The street where Roy Kinnear lives in the film was actually in the process of being demolished during production.

Besides Windsor, Booth and the aforementioned Roy Kinnear (who nearly steals the film) director Littlewood employs a cornucopia of London talent - Brian Murphy, Avis Bunnage, John Justin, Victor Spinetti, Bob Grant etc - many who had worked for her at her groundbreaking Stratford theatre. I must make special mention of a few players such as Wally Patch who plays a watchman and who was a real life friend of my mother. Patch can be seen in bit parts in countless British films and once played the hero in a series of thrillers featuring Fu Manchu clone Dr. Sin Fang, back in the silent days. Stephen Lewis, who is best remembered as Inspector Blake in ON THE BUSES is the co-writer of the film and contributes a wonderful viginette as an over officious caretaker. Finally there is Queenie Watts as the barmaid in the final scenes of the film - Queenie was a real life pub landlady/actress/pianist. I know Queenie was quite likely to get on stage and belt out a song in a pub but whether the voice we hear in the film delivering a Bessie Smith like blues is hers is difficult to judge as it is badly lip-synched. They should have let the old girl do it live. Arthur Mullard, who plays, the brewery cart driver, was exactly the same off screen as on and towards the end of his life used to hang about a pub near Highbury Station in North London (where I believe he had a share in a Flower stall) and cadge drinks off anybody who would buy them - including me! He was a genuine character. SPARROWS is a treat although I suspect a lot of people will just miss the point. Rating ****

Young Barbara Windsor
"Tits you could impale a charging buffalo on!"


Cerpts said...

You suspect a lot of people will just miss the point?!?!?! How could they miss THOSE points?!?!?! Sure, Barbara Windsor is known for playing Peggy Mitchell on EASTENDERS as well as in this film but I will always remember her as Nurse Sandra May (thanks for the tip) in CARRY ON DOCTOR. Tee hee. She could have the top off my egg any time! Of course, I have never seen SPARROWS CAN'T SING but it sounds like something that's right up my street. I wonder if I'll ever get to see it some day. . . .

Weaverman said...

You will, you will, I'm sure.