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cast: Barbara Windsor, James Booth, Roy Kinnear, Victor Spinetti, and Avis Bunnage
director: Joan Littlewood
88 minutes (PG) 1963
Optimum Classic DVD Region 2
review by Andrew Darlington
Sparrows Can't Sing
Barbara Windsor has been a celebrated part of two great British institutions - a spread of Carry On films, and as Peggy Mitchell in BBC-TV's
EastEnders. Her central role as Maggie Gooding in Sparrows Can't Sing positions her pretty much mid-point between the two, or more
tactfully, points up the continuity between the character-parts she's best known for. The scene where she flounce-wiggles down Jamaica Road towards
the Red Lion, as the feral children sitting on the wall wolf-whistle at her is so pure Carry On you expect a leering, guffawing Sid James to
be the taxi driver. While the plot premise, the returning errant husband turning up looking for his equally feckless wife who is shacked-up with a
new, also married man, is pure soap storyline.
Charlie Gooding (James Booth) is the tearaway merchant seaman home from a long voyage - "two years in the wrong ship," who finds his terrace
house has been razed in slum clearance, its demolition site remains left in an island of rubble overlooked by shiny new tower-blocks. He's told that
they pulled them down before they fell down. While the bush-telegraph alert goes around the manor that he's back, intent on warning missing wife Maggie
(Barbara Windsor). She's now living with bus driver Bert Briggs (George Sewell), and Cristobel, a new baby of dubious parentage. A likeable rogue,
Charlie's soon reconnecting around the neighbourhood, although they're all protectively vague about where he'll find Maggie.
There's a conspiracy to conceal the truth. He's misdirected to a rooming house with Sikh and African family-residents, and asks her supposedly former
employers at the Jewish bakery. Meanwhile, Charlie's niece Nellie (Barbara Ferris) and Georgie (Murray Melvin) are tasked with taking the warning
direct to Maggie. At first she's dubious, last she heard of him he was in Venezuela, in the nick, "he won't show up again, not in this manor."
The upsurge of gritty working-class film dramas that shook up the cosy British cinema of the 1950s led off with angry northern based Saturday Night
And Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind Of Loving (1962), and A Taste
Of Honey (1961). If the 1960 play, originally titled Sparrers Can't Sing, is a London retaliation, it's a curiously odd one-off collision
between realism and comedy. There's no trace of dignified leftie idealisation. Instead, it portrays an underclass as deviously disreputable as in
Shameless. Equally, although shot at Merton Park Studios with locations in Newham and Stepney using local residents as walk-ons, with even
Ronnie and Reggie Kray making a cameo appearance, it's also stranded far from the 'swinging London' of myth.
Pundits who blithely talk today of 'austerity' need only glance back at this third-world version of London to see real deprivation. Kids run amok
on the waste-ground beneath the railway arches. Charlie's brother Fred (Roy Kinnear) retreats to the 'music room' - an outside bog across the yard,
with his newspaper. While the kind of tower-block where Maggie now lives, so despised by the 1970s punks, are new all-mod-cons in the sky, rising
above the back-to-back past. The lifts work. And there are Venetian-blinds, ideal for signalling to those below.
There are two confrontations. Both happen in the kind of pubs that have dart-boards on the wall, and where drinkers do knees-ups to the old Joanna.
Charlie waits in the Red Lion for Maggie to show - "or else there'll be trouble," as she gets stranded on a lifting-bridge while heading
for the rendezvous! He's a charmer. "There's only going to be murder, that's all," he threatens - only half-joking, "I can wring your
neck or smash your head in. I'll cut you up into little Oxo-cubes." But he works his way around her, and spends £5 buying her flowers from
"Don't take liberties," she warns him. "You've still got my ring on," he points out. "I've been having a good time while
you've been away," she scolds him. "I've gone off you." They obviously have a volatile history, "if I hadn't liked you I wouldn't
have bashed your head in, would I?" he reasons. And as she later rationalises, apart from the boozing and his going with other birds, he was
"right good to me." While he tells his mates "you can't help but laugh at her, can you..?" And no, you can't.
The cast consists of a tick-list of every reliable character-actor familiar from films and TV sitcoms clear across the period. Written by Stephen
Lewis, he appears as the whining small-minded health-and-safety-obsessed janitor of Maggie's Wickham House tower-block, pretty much the same petty
official that would define his role as Blakey in On The Buses, and later in Last Of The Summer Wine. It's a role that he's rewardingly
reprised throughout his career. The bluff inarticulate Arthur Mullard, as drayman Ted, fills the part that would safely see him through a life's
career. Roy Kinnear has a comic window-cleaning sequence that could have been lifted directly from his Dick Emery Show sketches.
There's Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce of future sitcom George & Mildred, plus Harry H. Corbett, Victor Spinetti, and George Sewell - of
kitchen-sink classics This Sporting Life (1963), Poor Cow (1967), and Get Carter (1971) - all present and reassuringly familiar.
The play was first staged by influential left-wing director Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1960, using her Theatre Workshop
company, the same cast she'd use for the film. And while grounded in Stephen Lewis' script, it works as essentially an ensemble piece, using Littlewood's
innovative improvisational techniques.
The excellent Murray Melvin had already appeared as the supportive gay friend in Littlewood's original stage production of Shelagh Delaney's A
Taste Of Honey, as well as Tony Richardson's subsequent film version. And Littlewood's follow-up project - Sparrers Can't Sing, successfully
transferred to the west end Wyndham's Theatre in 1961. From where it was picked up by producer Don Taylor, who brought in Stanley Black to score the
incidental music, and Lionel Bart to spin the title-song for Barbara Windsor to sing over the credits.
For Joan Littlewood, it was not only her directorial film debut, but her only film as director, returning to theatre work afterwards, and writing
credits for Oh! What A Lovely War (1969). For Barbara Windsor, it would lead to her first Carry On film, Carry On Spying (1964).
Generally well-received, this was the first English language film to be released in the United States with subtitles, leaving the New York Times
to comment "..this isn't a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for language. The gabble of cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible
as the reasoning of those who speak it." Well, maybe.
Charlie spends time drinking in a near-empty Kentucky Club, while Maggie contrives with Bert to get to see Charlie behind his back. She's torn. She
wants to see him, but knows she shouldn't. If she meets him she'll only get involved again. Of course, she does. And they flirt in the park. There's
a final showdown at Queenies, where Georgie sings My Baby Won't Rock with the local band, Eve 'Queen of the Strippers' does a turn for the
boys, and Maggie drinks Babycham. Then Bert walks in, wearing his bus driver's uniform, and the rivals for her attention go face-to-face. When Bert
asks her "what about our baby?" she shrugs, "sorry Bert, you was right first time."
So it's not Bert's kid. But as Charlie's been away two years, it can't be his either. She tells him as much. "Who's the kid?" he demands.
"Well, it ain't yours," she snaps back, protesting "I can't help it if people fancy me." Charlie threatens to go down the bus
depot and let Bert's tyres down. When Charlie drags Maggie outside she attacks him as a fight breaks out inside the pub too. The slapstick brawl
provides a fittingly uproarious knockabout climax. It's obvious that dull reliable Bert has lost out to shifty raffish bad-boy Charlie, but he consoles
himself by saying he was already resigned to going back to his wife anyway. And Charlie has his conjugal rights to look forward to.
It's not a great movie. And if it represented an opportunity for Babs Windsor to prove she had real acting chops, a missed opportunity too. More a
novelty period piece stranded somewhere between the Carry On films, and TV's EastEnders.