Sunday 20 February 2011

Sparrows Can't Sing, Portrait of Queenie and the Theatre Workshop


Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963) was a filmed version of Stephen Lewis’ play, de-cockneyfied from its original title Sparrers Can’t Sing, which was put on by the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in 1960. The Theatre Workshop was an idealistic outfit run by Joan Littlewood and her lifelong partner Gerry Raffles which sought to produce an alternative to mainstream theatre, and to connect more with the local community, producing work which would mean more to ordinary men and women. The film was recently included in the London Collection dvd boxset alongside Norman Cohen’s documentary of Geoffrey Fletcher’s explorations into The London Nobody Knows and other fascinating period pieces from the post-war capital. It’s hugely enjoyable on a number of levels. It captures the East End area of Stratford when it was on the cusp of a complete transformation, which would sweep away many of the old streets and the atmosphere and grime which they had accumulated over the years. The scenes set in and around the docks now have a documentary value, their life as a working area having long since ceased and any remnants of machineries or functional objects incorporated as decorative features in the exclusive redeveloped residential landscape. The film features a gallery of faces familiar from TV and film supporting roles, giving voice to a regular chorus of ‘ooh look, it’s so and so, wasn’t she in such and such’. It’s a testament to the rich repertory cast nurtured by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Workshop. There’s a definite sense that the actors are given the space to display their particular talents, and there are plenty of diversions from the main narrative. The loose and rambling structure of the film, much of which is taken up with wandering and waiting, allows for all to have their moment and there are many performances to treasure here.

Balcony lament - Barbara sings the title song
The story is a fairly flimsy framework within which we observe the various characters hovering around the orbit of the Gooding family. The wayward son, Charlie, is returning from a couple of seemingly impulsively impromptu years at sea, and word soon gets around that he is coming home. Everybody is stirred into a scurrying bustle of activity, some excited at the prospect of his return, others filled with trepidation. It’s clear from these polarised reactions that Charlie is both a rogue and a charmer. Having shared a taxi from the docks to his old stamping grounds with a shipmate played by Glynn Edwards, best known as Dave, the long-suffering barman of the Winchester Club in Minder. He was married to fellow Theatre Workshop actor Yootha Joyce, who also appears in the film, at the time. Here, he attempts a Scottish accent with little success. Charlie sets about looking for his wife, Maggie, receiving misleading directions which send him on a tour of the area. Everyone anticipates a combustible encounter, since Maggie is now living with Bert, a bus driver, and has a baby daughter. A meeting is engineered at a local pub, and when Maggie eventually arrives, Charlie turns on the charm. There is a bit of verbal sparring, with Maggie reminding him of the old days when he used to have different birds every night and come back from the pub ‘bashin’ the door down, let alone bashin’ me ‘ed in’. But there is an undertow of attraction and playful affection beneath the to and fro, and she leaves him with a verbal ‘might do’ shrug at his proposed rendezvous later that day. Back with Bert, she contemplates the two alternatives offered by her men: the stability of life he offers, with his steady job and their clean new flat; or the cheerful chaos and unpredictability of Charlie and his clan. Bert nearly throws a spanner in the works by staying home sick from work, but Maggie goes out anyway, and she and Charlie reminisce over the old times in the park. She goes out with him to the pub that evening, with Charlie acting like the cock of the walk, greeted by all his old mates and behaving as if all is back to normal. Everything comes to a head when Bert comes in, and both he and Charlie face up to one another. Maggie is forced to make a choice then and there. All ends in brawling chaos, with Maggie and Charlie leaving by the back door and having their own private scrap. Each gives as good as they get. They walk off still having a go at each other, and the final frame freezes with the words ….and so on, which suggests that this pretty much sets the pattern for the rest of their lives.

Barbara lands a good one - Maggie and Charlie work things out
Charlie and Maggie are played with enormous vitality and charisma by James Booth and Barbara Windsor. Booth manages to convey both Charlie’s energetic charm and his wayward fecklessness, along with his potential for sudden weather changes in mood and tendency towards violent reaction. He behaves like an over-exuberant child who expects to get his way and grows sullen and truculent if he doesn’t. From what Joan Littlewood says in her anecdotal autobiography Joan’s Book, these were characteristics shared by Booth himself. She relates an incident which occurred whilst shooting the pub scene. Booth suddenly turned around and hurled a glass at a group standing at the bar. This wasn’t in the script and was clearly highly dangerous, and she told him he shouldn’t have done it, and that anyway it wasn’t something his character would do. He wouldn’t need to get their attention in such a violent manner. She writes that ‘he promptly walked off, threatening to turn in the part. It took another outburst and a lot of soothing syrup before he would consent even to try the take without the glass smashing, but when he did, it was good’. This kind of behaviour may go some way towards explaining why Booth, who was at the time tipped for great things, never made it to the same degree that fellow Londoners Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, also emerging at this time, did. It should be pointed out that Booth, whilst he tended to be cast in chirpy Cockney roles, was actually born in Croydon, way beyond the reach of even the faintest reverberations of Bow Bells. The shadows of what might have been are evident in the fact that he appeared in Zulu alongside Michael Caine and was subsequently offered the part of Alfie, which he turned down. Caine also did his time in the Theatre Workshop, although his was an extremely brief tenure, and he never made his mark there as Booth did.

Charlie comes home - James Booth on the docks
If this were a different film, with a different tone and a different actor in the lead role, then Charlie could be a threatening and violently domineering character. He does reassert his position and expect life to continue much as it did before he left, and causes a great deal of disruption in the lives of those around him, who seem slightly cowed by his presence. Ultimately, perhaps because of Booth’s portrayal, he comes across more as likeable rogue than seductive bastard. Charlie may cause Arnold, played with typically febrile neuroticism by Victor Spinetti, to crush several of his strudels in fearful overreaction to his presence in the Jewish bakery where Maggie is supposed to be working. But the extent of his menace is displayed in his chilling parting threat that he’ll shop at Kominsky’s, a rival cake shop. James Booth’s wide, Satchmo grin splits his face with natural ease, lighting it up like a benevolent jack o’lantern (albeit one which retains a certain wicked glint). Even when not there, it seems latent, waiting for the slightest excuse to spread again. Once it has, it looks like it would require a muscular effort to collapse it once more.

Pub games - Charlie takes the direct approach
Barbara Windsor portrays Maggie as both self-assertive and tough, and at the same time sentimental and tender-hearted, with a tendency to forgive if not necessarily to forget. Her performance in the pub scene, in which she finally meets up with Charlie, is particularly fine. She manages to express Maggie’s reactive shifts from resistance and feigned indifference through accusation and hostility to veiled pleasure and half-hidden smiles, all culminating in a tender backward look as she goes out of the door. In the pub scene, she makes it clear that Maggie has the full measure of Charlie. She sees through his transparent charms, but enjoys them anyway, and has fun both encouraging and mildly rebuffing his larky advances. Her breathless run down the streets towards the pub, face filled with happy anticipation, is Windsor’s enactment of her own localised version of Marilyn’s run to meet Tony Curtis at the end of Some Like It Hot, or of Shirley MacLaine racing back to Jack Lemmon in the final scenes of The Apartment. In her domestic scenes with Bert, which are by their nature quiet and fairly static, she conveys the attractions of a steady and stable home life for Maggie, but also her yearning for something more exciting. After her meeting with Charlie, her wistful and reflective manner reveal her inner state, her weighing up of the choices offered to her; the divergent lifestyles associated with the two men laying claim to her affections between which she must now choose. Windsor fully deserved her nomination for the best actress BAFTA. Although she’d appeared as a supporting actress in films for some years, going back to an uncredited appearance in the Belles of St Trinians in 1954, and had made her mark on TV in The Rag Trade, Sparrows Can’t Sing was her first big screen break. The next year would see her appearing in Carry On Spying, and, for better or worse, she would become a fixture of the team which came to define her screen character from then on. Her performance in Sparrows Can’t Sing gives a glimpse of her abilities before the broader, nudging and winking style of her Carry On persona took over with a giggled ‘ooh, saucy!’

Charlie amongst the ruins
Maggie’s choices partly reflect the changing character of the Stratford area, and the East End in general, at the time. She lives with Bert in a tidy, ordered flat near the top of a newly erected tower block. The play’s author and the co-writer with Joan Littlewood of the screenplay, Stephen Smith, portrays a comical busybody of a caretaker, a bureaucratic Napoleon leaning on his rake and surveying his small empire. He comes out with a steady stream of ‘you can’t do thats’, a speaking book of endless by-laws. Bicycles seem to particularly get his goat, and he sends Chunky in confused and wobbling circles as he tells him ‘don’t lean that hieroglyphics, mate – and don’t park it on the portico neither’. The caretaker is the mouthpiece of an architecture planned for social engineering, moulding behaviour and attempting to order every aspect of people’s lives. ‘We’re trying to civilise people like you’, he yells as Nellie and Chunky escape into the lifts, ‘don’t you understand that’. When they finally get up to see ‘Auntie’ Maggie to tell her that Charlie’s back, she initially hesitates to answer the door. She imagines all the unwelcome visits from officialdom which the knock might herald. It’s an environment in which such fearful reactions are fostered, and the idea of people just dropping by has become more remote. Whilst Nellie and Chunky (so-named by his friend Georgie because he thinks his head looks like a pineapple) wait outside, the old lady who lives opposite unloads her meagre gossip about Maggie and Bert. She lingers for an age fumbling about for her key, seeming reluctant to go into her flat. Before she moved her, she would have stood on her doorstep or leaned out of the window and nattered away without the need for an excuse. The plight of old people suddenly isolated in these newly-built tower blocks is sparely and movingly depicted in John Krish’s contemporaneous 1964 documentary portrait I Think They Called Him John, included in the recent bfi Shadows of Progress box set. When Charlie arrives back in town from his sea voyage he is perplexed and disorientated by these new edifices which have thrust up through the rubble of the old streets he knew. Yootha Joyce and her two girlfriends who bump into Charlie as he wonders around in confusion mordantly observe that they stick the pensioners up on the top floor as a form of euthanasia. They also cheerily observe that the lifts are out of order half the time. With Maggie’s Sherman tank of a pram, negotiating the stairwells would be no laughing matter.

The new flats, with their hermetically sealed living spaces shutting their occupants off from the outside world, are contrasted with the street in which the Gooding family live, and to which Charlie eventually returns after his search for Maggie proves fruitless. This is bracketed by a church at one end and a railway bridge at the other, the spiritual and temporal worlds combined. People are constantly leaning from upper floor balconies to shout down at those below, and there is a plentiful supply of local urchinry running to and fro to give a kinetic feel to the area. Planks in the garden fence are either missing or movable, providing alternative apertures for more secretive gossip. If it all gets too much, as it often seems to for Roy Kinnear’s Fred, you can always retreat to the backyard bog, or ‘music room’ as he refers to it, with its handy newspaper hanging from an outside hook. Read ‘em and wipe. The street is full of the communal chaos and noisy bustle of extrovert life, as opposed to the quiet order and discrete separation of the new flats. In the end, Maggie’s decision as to whether to stay with Bert or start afresh with Charlie is as much a choice between these different locales, old and new, and the associated ways of life.

Charlie in the brave new world
The rambling nature of the film, with its regular excursions down tributaries and side roads winding away from the main course of the story, allows for a thorough exploration of local surroundings. Maggie’s perambulations with her pram take her along Angel Lane and its surrounding streets. This was the area in which the Theatre Workshop was based (the Theatre Royal being situated on Angel Lane), as was the Café L’Ange, which gave sustenance to its starving and penniless players over many a year. She also wanders across the Regent’s Canal, and gets stuck on a swing bridge which opens whilst she’s on it. Further canal scenes, possibly set along the Limehouse Cut, form the backdrop of Avis Bunnage’s Bridgie’s search for Nellie. The new buildings with which Charlie is confronted upon his return were part of the Stifford Estate. He is hemmed in by Ewhurst House on one side and Wickham House on the other. Both have already been consigned to the rubble of history, having been demolished in 1999. The street in which the Goodings live was Cowley Gardens, with the gothic arched windows of St Mary and St Michael’s Church rising prominently at its end. The park in which Maggie and Charlie meet and reminisce over the good times they used to have is, I think, Victoria Park, although the walls and road when they leave look more like the outside of Greenwich Park. The website Reel Streets has gathered much valuable information about these locations, and more, and has some interesting accompanying then and now photos.

Larks in the park
Other locations draw on Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ close connections with the surrounding community and offer the chance for local people, some of whom had been extremely generous in the help they had extended to the Theatre Workshop in the depths of their penury, to have their moment of onscreen glory. Littlewood mentions May from the Angel Café in her autobiography, although she doesn’t seem to have made it to the final cut. Rosie from Goide’s Bakery has, however, and puts in a natural and very characterful performance which amounts, you suspect, to just being herself. For those drawn to the dubious allure of the Kray Twins, the use of their Kentucky Club as a location will be of interest. Charlie retreats into its rather dingy interior during the daytime whilst he waits for his rendezvous with Maggie. And there are Ron and Reg, staring at him with sullen and somnolent inexpressiveness, not exactly providing the sunniest of greetings to their pleasure den. Their vanity and desire for self-publicity wouldn’t allow them to let such an opportunity for a big screen appearance go wanting. According to Littlewood, they made their presence felt from the outset, presumably attaching themselves to the production through the connection with Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Knight (although they didn’t seem in the slightest bit interested in Littlewood’s theatrical productions in which Windsor played a part). They turned up at the launch party which she held to mark the start of filming, along with a minder who rejoiced in the Cockney Cagney monicker of Limehouse Willie. He is apparently the fellow seen polishing an antique tray in Angel Lane as Maggie pushes her pram along, Charlie skipping along beside and impeding her progress all the way.

Dodgy geezer
Gerry Raffles strongly disapproved of their presence, which, as a principled socialist, was a natural standpoint, the Krays representing the blunt and brutal end of individualistic capitalism. Littlewood evidently took the route of appeasement, a more pragmatic and perhaps even realistic approach. The Kentucky Club scene is largely redundant in the film, its only real interest now being as a cultural curio of a particular time and place. Perhaps it can be seen as a minor concession to the twins. The presence of their underworld environment also points to another direction the film might have taken, with Charlie as a crafty chancer involved on the edges of the criminal world. This would have anticipated the recent regurgitated slew of almost entirely woeful gangster geezer pictures, films in which sadistic thuggery is played for laughs. Thankfully, a few drinks and some moody looks rehearsed endlessly in the mirror and it’s all over. When the film received its premiere at the ABC Cinema in Mile End Road, the Krays strung up a banner loudly announcing ‘the Kentucky Club welcomes Princess Margaret to the East End’. As soon as he saw it, Gerry Raffles turned his car around and drove himself and Joan Littlewood straight back to the theatre to carry on with their preparations for their new production there. It’s an emblematic moment, in a way. The select circle which comprised swinging London brought certain sections of the criminal, aristocratic, political and pop cultural worlds together, linked by bonds of mutual fascination and symbiotic narcissism. But Littlewood and Raffles, filled with righteous radicalism and egalitarian notions turned their back on such a tempting milieu and rejected (by and large) the connections which it offered. As a result, their work carried a certain aura of integrity, even if they were stony broke most of the time.

Much more exciting than her brief encounters with opportunist bullies was Littllewood’s chance encounter with the great Jacques Tati. He had been brought along by someone in the film world to an earlier screening at the ABC put on for the benefit of the censors. She heard him comment ‘I like the way she mixes naturals with her actors…my own technique exactly’. Littlewood got on well with him, and he invited her to use his studios at Charenton, although she doesn't mention whether she took him up on his offer. This would have been around the time when he was gearing up to make Playtime, his extravagant comedy satirising the dehumanising effects of modern architecture and planning, and celebrating the way in which the inherent anarchy of human nature tends to derail such efforts at control. Tati’s film was meticulously planned, and involved the construction of the mini-metropolis of ‘Tativille’ on the outskirts of Paris. As such, it is the polar opposite in style and directorial approcach (and in its resolute Frenchness) to the fast and loose approach of Littlewood, but it shares some of the spirit of Sparrows Can’t Sing.

continued in part two

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