Friday, 26 April 2013

Sparrows Can't Sing

'Sparrows Can't Sing' ('Sparrers Can't Sing', originally) is a film by celebrated theatre director, Joan Littlewood. Joan ran the Theatre Workshop, a company designed to make drama a 'living event', i.e something any audience could relate to and get involved with. To this end, she recruited working class actors to give her productions energy and immediacy, later establishing her own theatre in Stratford East.

Littlewood's only feature film is a loose, semi-improvised story filmed on location in the East End featuring a love triangle between cockney's Charlie, Maggie and Bert. Charlie (James Booth) is a merchant seaman who has been away for two years. In his absence (he hasn't bothered to write) his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor, very sweet) has moved in with Bert (George Sewell), a married bus driver. When Charlie comes home with a suitcase full of exotic presents from his travels, he is dismayed to find that his house has been knocked down and that his wife and kids are nowhere to be found.    

The Rovers Return.
Maggie and Bert and the kids live in a brand new flat in a high rise. When Charlie finds this out he demands to see Maggie, so he can have his 'conjugal rights'. After a load of running around, some tense scenes and some high farce, Maggie eventually goes back to Charlie as she'd always planned to do, and Bert goes back to his wife as he'd always planned to do. It's a funny old life being bottom of the pile, the message seems to be, so take your pleasures where you can, expect some ups and downs and no hard feelings. It's a fair snapshot of of the complex and occasionally chaotic lives of some ordinary people, and it's told warmly and affectionately, without any sense of snobbery or sneering or moral superiority.   

I like everything about this picture.

The film is also a great historical document, and the glimpses of the old and the new East End it provides are priceless. Much of the action revolves around the Stifford Estate, Stepney, built in the same year as the film was made. It's amazing to see the estate in its pristine, just opened state. It looks clean and spacious and modern - and none of the numerous pieces of public art have been vandalised.

Wickham House, Stifford Estate, Stepney, built 1963.

Exterior Mural.

Interior Mural, with Murray Melvin.

Interior Corridor, with Murray Melvin.

Low Rise Flats, Stifford Estate.

The Estate was demolished in 1999, although the magnificent, fat arsed Henry Moore statue ('A Seated, Draped Woman') which once adorned its approach had been removed two years previously and taken to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Last year, it was controversially announced that Tower Hamlets Council wanted to auction off 'Old Flo' (as it is informally known) to help towards a deficit caused by public spending cuts, although it was withdrawn from sale in December because of a dispute over which local authority actually owns it.  

'A Seated, Draped Woman' in situ at the Stifford, 1963.
The film has an extraordinary cast, all Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop alumni. Alongside Booth, Windsor and Sewell you will also spot Roy Kinnear, Jack the sleazy Conducter and Blakey the Inspector from 'On The Buses' (who also wrote the play the film was based on), the fantastically arch Murray Melvin, Queenie Watts, George AND Mildred, Dave out of 'Minder', George A. Cooper, Victor Spinetti and Harry H. Corbett.   

The East End version of 'Grease'was not well received...

George Sewell glowers.

Murray Melvin tits about.
I love Murray Melvin, he makes everything he's in instantly camper and more interesting. As a penultimate note, it is worth mentioning that, for the US market, this English language film was given subtitles, but I'll bet that Ethel and Abner must still have wondered what the heck was going on.

The last shot, just after Charlie and Maggie toddle off, reconciled but still arguing, seems to hint that this is the end of a chapter, not the last page. Charlie will go off to sea again, and Maggie will find another Bert, on and on into middle age when they'll get too old to keep at it and finally plonk themselves down on whatever they've got when the music stops, like a game of emotional musical chairs. East Enders, eh? What a Soap Opera.

The final shot.

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