It’s interesting to watch an old film and spot a future star in a small role. I noticed some of Hollywood’s biggest names when I rewatched Annie Hall, and recently I enjoyed a whole cast of soon-to-be-big actors in the British comedy-drama Sparrows Can’t Sing.
This is a fascinating film in many ways. I hadn’t seen it for decades, and (as so often) it was thanks to Talking Pictures TV, that I got the chance again.
Originally entitled Sparrers Can’t Sing, this 1963 production tells the story of a sailor (James Booth), returning to his home in the East End of London to find the house demolished as part of a slum clearance programme.
He sets off to look for his wife (Barbara Windsor), but friends and neighbours try to hinder his search, because they know he has a short temper and a violent streak, and she has moved into a new council flat with a married bus driver (George Sewell) and her baby, of unknown parentage.
Windsor (before her Carry On fame) is a revelation. She earned a BAFTA nomination for her convincing and sympathetic performance as a confident young woman, finding ways to cope in a rapidly-changing, but still male-dominated society.
I loved her in the Carry Ons, but watching this again made me wish she’d done a greater range of roles on film.
Sparrows Can’t Sing arose from a semi-improvised play, written by Stephen Lewis (later to be ‘Blakey’ in TV’s On The Buses) for Joan Littlewood’s radical Theatre Workshop.
It’s also notable as Littlewood’s only movie as director, and for Lewis appearing as a kind of Blakey Junior – a jobsworth council official, barking orders at tenants and visitors at one of the new tower blocks.
One of Lewis’s On The Buses co-stars Bob Grant is also here, along with Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce (who became a familiar sitcom couple), Victor Spinetti, Harry H. Corbett, John Junkin, Arthur Mullard, Queenie Watts, Murray Melvin, and Glynn Edwards.
It’s an incredible array of acting talent, which would go on to find fame on stage and screen.
It’s also worth mentioning that the notorious Kray twins make a brief appearance as a couple of dubious nightclub owners.
Filmed on location, Sparrows offers a fascinating look at life in the East End in the early ’60s. And, although it has the feel of a gritty kitchen sink drama at times, it also has a lot of laughs – even if they are (uneasily to modern eyes) sometimes based around the threat of violence.
Thank you again, Talking Pictures.
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