Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Sparrows Can't Sing (1963)

Future On The Buses star Stephen Lewis penned the stage play Sparrers Can't Sing, and this subsequent (correctly spelt) film adaptation directed by British theatre legend Joan Littlewood, her cinematic debut. 


Blakey's, sorry, Lewis'  story is a simple one; a merchant sailor returns home to London's East End after two years away at sea to find life hasn't stood still in his absence and his wife seems to be AWOL, with unsettling rumours that she's shacked up with another man. But in using Littlewood's distinctive and, for the time, bold improv techniques and adopting a freewheeling British new wave air to the proceedings, Sparrows Can't Sing becomes a southern response to A Taste of Honey, the north country new wave play that had also made its debut thanks to Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.


Aside from its kitchen sink credentials ramped up by the extremely heightened new wave playing, the delight of Sparrows Can't Sing is in its wonderful cast of familiar faces. At every turn there's someone you recognise, all regulars of Littlewood's troupe; look there's Yootha Joyce, and now there's Brian Murphy - years before they played George and Mildred. There's Harry H Corbett, Victor Spinetti and A Taste of Honey's Murray Melvin. There's Roy Kinnear, Avis Bunnage and John Junkin. Look there's the slobbering bulldog of a man, Arthur Mullard - and wince as you recall he was a child abuser in his private life, making his daughter's life a misery - and, of course, Queenie Watts. There's future On The Buses star Bob Grant, and there's even Stephen Lewis himself, playing an officious caretaker of the new tower block, chest swelling with pride at what was initially seen as clean, future living - though his script of course knows that even then it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

But best of all, at the film's core is the love triangle played by returning seaman James Booth, his errant wife Barbara Windsor and her lover 'on the buses' (not, yet Blakey!) George Sewell.



Booth delivers a fine essay in sexually charged, rough boy swagger as Charlie. But this isn't Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and he tempers it with some suitably over the top moments in keeping with the frivolous air which makes what grubby realism lurks beneath the exterior all the more bewitching. Sewell, who was one of our finest naturalistic actors, is a quiet and sensitive presence as 'the other man' Bert, but perhaps best of all is Barbara Windsor. Just 24, the pocket rocket with the boobs and bum perpetually sticking out was BAFTA nominated for her performance as Booth's straying wife, Maggie - proof that this was something a little more than the walking wiggle she delivered for a plethora of Carry On films. As Maggie, she is deeply authentic and all too believable, depicting a three dimensional performance that is incredibly funny, incredibly sexy, hard edged yet soft, a little dumb and deeply troubled. 



I also liked that the central love triangle is replicated comedically by the younger characters on the fringes, Maggie's niece Nellie, Georgie and Chunky. You just know they have similar trouble ahead...


As with many films from this era, Sparrows Can't Sing now serves as a valuable historical document. It depicts a 1960s that was just about to swing, its generous location filming allowing us to see a London that was, at that very moment, changing. The slums were being knocked down ("Where are all the houses?" Booth remarks when returning to his street to find it simply isn't there any more) to be replaced by the high rise tower blocks and with it, the community itself is changing; Littlewood doesn't shy away from showing the new ethnic minorities arriving in London, though it's perhaps a shame that the script doesn't allow them to be anything else other than exotic background colour, especially after the groundbreaking A Taste of Honey which ultimately, Sparrows Can't Sing cannot top.


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