Friday 5 April 2019

Why Barbara Shines in Sparrows Can't Sing

The other day I caught the 1963 film Sparrows Can't Sing for the very first time. Of course I was aware of it, mainly through Barbara Windsor's starring role and the fact it came from the legendary Joan Littlewood's Stratford East stable. Anyway, finding the time to actually sit down and watch it I quickly became hooked. It's magnificent. 

Sparrows tells the story of the East End of London in flux. The old traditions are all on display: the culture, the language, the range of ethnicities and backgrounds and the pride in who the characters are despite the obvious poverty. The early 1960s saw a great deal of change as this area began to recover from the ravages of the war. Bomb sites are still in evidence although the slums were being cleared and brand spanking new high rise blocks of flats were climbing into the sky. Joan Littlewood notoriously hated all the change, loving the old community feel of the East End. I can see the pros and cons of both sides of that argument but fast forward several decades and we can see how successful some of those new developments were in reality. Breaking up tight communities is never a good thing.

Anyway, the social commentary is the backdrop to this story but it's really important and fascinating for me. The film sprang to life thanks to a script from Stephen Lewis, the man behind Blakey in On The Buses. However the original premise came from Joan's revolutionary improvisational theatre techniques. The original play premiered at Joan's Theatre Royal, Stratford East three years earlier and the success of it led to it transferring to the West End amid much fanfare in 1961. Being loyal and with a beady eye for raw talent, Joan brought most of the cast from her theatre workshop production to the big screen and directed the film herself. 

The cast of characters are loud, proud and vivid. And the actors are thoroughly legendary. While James Booth and Barbara Windsor play the leading parts, the rogues gallery includes the likes of Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy, Harry H Corbett, Arthur Mullard, Yootha Joyce, Victor Spinetti, Bob Grant, Murray Melvin, George Sewell, Barbara Ferris and Avis Bunnage. Littlewood certainly knew what she was doing and she nurtured each of these individual talents over countless productions. 

The main plot of the film sees Cockney sailor Charlie (Booth) return from a long trip overseas to find a great number of numbing changes to his old life. His home has been demolished and his wife Maggie (Windsor) is nowhere to be found. The film follows Charlie as he reconnects with old faces, friends and family in search of his wayward wife. This allows us to see large swathes of the authentic East End and meet many very typical characters, portrayed honestly but also with great affection. We quickly learn that Maggie isn't missing, she's now living in one of the new high-rise blocks with another man, a bus driver called Bert and a child or indeterminable parentage! While little of this is particularly shocking or out of the ordinary nowadays, portraying ordinary people with such real life issues was novel and added to the groundswell of so-called 'kitchen sink' drama. The rest of the film sees Charlie try to woo his wife back in typically colourful, memorable fashion.

James Booth was new to me, although I had seen him years ago in Zulu. He's magnificent in this film though - brooding, handsome, very much of his time. Deeply charismatic with a terrific screen presence. I think many will agree that the real star of the film however, is Barbara. Barbara had been acting for nearly a decade by this point, mainly in small film parts and television guest roles. She was experiencing her first taste of fame already though, on the small screen. The year before Sparrows was filmed Barbara had starred in the first series of The Rag Trade, a BBC sitcom. Her association with Joan Littlewood at Stratford East would make her a star, and this film launched her film career. 

Windsor is simply brilliant throughout the film. She can sing, she can do comedy and tug at the heart strings. Most of all, she's real. This is the Barbara I love and the Barbara that became somewhat lost on the big screen as she became more deeply involved in the Carry Ons. We saw her true talent re-emerge many years later in EastEnders thankfully, but I can't help but wish, having watched Sparrows Can't Sing, is that she'd made a few more films like this before launching herself fully into the Carry Ons. There was certainly a buzz around Babs immediately after Sparrows came out. The premiere of the film attracted a wealth of publicity and many celebrities attended. Barbara was nominated for a BAFTA and was courted by American agents, making appearances on U.S chat shows. Of course, there was a certain notoriety linked to the fame, as the Kray twins were always there or thereabouts as the film was made, with some even suggesting they can be glimpsed in the film itself. Cutting all that circus away though and it's clear to me just how talented Barbara was. Her star quality and natural confidence just burst out of the screen and she's a joy to watch.

So if you haven't seen Sparrows Can't Sing, look it up next time it's scheduled on the brilliant Talking Pictures TV. And if you're already a fan, why not brighten up your life with some pop art with a Theatre Workshop theme? Art & Hue has a wonderful range of 'From Stage to Screen' prints and Sparrows Can't Sing features amongst them. Find out more here:

And of course the Theatre Royal, Stratford East is still going strong and thriving in 2019. You can find out more about the theatre and its current productions right here:

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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