ISparrows Can't Sing: East End-arama

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Sparrows Can't Sing (Dir: Joan Littlewood, 1962)

From: jamesbooth.org

Sparrows Can't Sing (Dir: Joan Littlewood, 1963)

Excerpts from reviews collected on Diana Blackwell's comprehensive James Booth website...

"A 'lusty, brutally playful' Cockney sailor named Charlie Gooding (James Booth) comes home after a long voyage to find his home torn down and his 'warm blonde doll of a wife' vanished. 

He goes to stay at his mother's East End house while trying to find out what has happened.

Everybody who knows Charlie is sure he'll go ballistic when he finds out the truth. Not even his own family will tell him that Maggie Gooding (Barbara Windsor) has shacked up with a bus driver named Bert (George Sewell). And she has a new baby of uncertain paternity.

After a day of near misses, the two men meet at a neighborhood pub at night...

Buzzing about the principal pair is a chorus of relatives, friendly local tarts, pub friends, Jewish bakers, and a bird-breeding lodger. A constellation of Cockney relatives, friends, and hangers-on.

Director Joan Littlewood who founded the London Theatre Workshop (and helped birth the rumpled works of, among others, Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney) obviously adores Cockney subculture and resents soulless modernism.

Littlewood is not in love with poverty, but she knows that the language, customs, entertainments of English workers had texture and assurance; and she sees them being dissipated by the very benefits of material progress, by commercialized culture, by spreading "middle-classism." 

Underneath the headlong frivolity, Littlewood is intent on showing the vitality, the communal richness of true working-class life. Something valuable is going, along with all that was inhuman, vicious, degrading. 

She presents the East End slums as warm and earthy, teeming with children and abounding in cultural diversity. There is a marked contrast between the crowded, cozy flats in the old streets and the antiseptic modern flats in the council houses; and there is some sharp satire about the regulations and anonymity of the new buildings.

Sparrows Can't Sing covered territory new to the screen; the East End had not yet been the subject of any of the incisive 'new wave' filmmakers then all the rage. (Dan Farson acted as an advisor.)

In a hurly-burly of sight and sound, we're swung from dock to slum to park to pub, all 'on the whirling pinwheel of East London'.

Disorder reigns: in the picture; in the behavior and the general attitude of the people involved; and in the story structure and in the way it is splashed onto the screen.

The trouble with the film is that its light, flitting approach is all method: "what might be called speedy mosaics: a swift current of generally short scenes which, largely dependent on intercutting between simultaneous sequences, gives the picture energy and glitter."

"The film charges into its low-class area, where old slums are being knocked down and glass-and-concrete hives are rising, as if it were spoiling for a brawl, and it flails away at a wisp of story with the untidiness of a drunken sailor in a free-for-all."

Technically, Sparrows Can't Sing is so primitive that it seems like a relic from the silent or early sound period, especially given the broad, stagey style of acting that predominates. (Kinnear's slapstick scene as a drunkard on a ladder could have come from Laurel and Hardy.)

Out of it all emerge some raw chunks of straight Cockney comedy and farce, some bright bits of social observation and a possibly too faint strain of pathos.

Sparrows Can't Sing debuted at the ABC Cinema in Stepney (now The Mile End Genesis). It attracted a large audience of the rich and famous, including the Krays, who had a walk-on part near the end of the film.

Barbara Windsor in particular received a lot of attention. She was feted in New York, appeared on The Tonight Show, and eventually won the 1963 British Film Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Maggie."

Lots of 'Sparrows...' info (and plenty more) on Diana Blackwell's James Booth website...

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