Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Sapphire (1959)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Sapphire (1959)
35mm, colour, 92 mins
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyArtna Films
ProducerMichael Relph
ScreenplayJanet Green
Additional DialogueLukas Heller
PhotographyHarry Waxman
MusicPhilip Green

Nigel Patrick (Superintendent Robert Hazard); Michael Craig (Inspector Phil Learoyd); Yvonne Mitchell (Mildred); Paul Massie (David Harris); Bernard Miles (Ted Harris); Earl Cameron (Dr Robbins)

Show full cast and credits

Investigations into the mysterious murder of a young female student reveal a world of racism and bigotry.

Show full synopsis

Sapphire (d. Basil Dearden, 1959) is a graphic portrayal of ethnic tensions in 1950s London, much more widespread and malign than was represented in Dearden's Pool of London (1951), eight years earlier. The film presents a multifaceted and frequently surprising portrait that involves not just "the usual suspects", but is able to reveal underlying insecurities and fears of ordinary people. Sapphire is also notable for showing a successful, middle-class black community - unusual even in today's British films.

Dearden deftly manipulates tension with the drip-drip of revelations about the murdered girl's life. Sapphire is at first assumed to be white, so the appearance of her black brother Dr Robbins (Earl Cameron) is genuinely astonishing, provoking involuntary reactions from those he meets, and ultimately exposing the real killer. Small incidents of civility and kindness, such as that by a small child on a scooter to Dr Robbins, add light to a very dark film.

Earl Cameron reprises a role for which he was famous, of the decent and dignified black man, well aware of the burden of his colour. His character is in stark contrast to the gangster caricature of Horace Big Cigar (Robert Adams), or the violent presence of Johnnie Fiddle (Harry Baird). Gordon Heath, a star of stage and screen, gives a scene-stealing performance as dandy Paul Slade.

Despite his intelligent handling of the issues, Dearden is not immune to prevailing prejudices, equating a young woman living alone in London with promiscuity, and seeing an enthusiasm for jazz as evidence of dubious character. The film is littered with casual, unchallenged racism: sexy petticoats found in Sapphire's room are evidence of "the black under the white". A landlady justifies evicting Sapphire by saying "Would you be pleased, Inspector, if someone gave you a brass sovereign?"

It is easy to criticise attitudes from a distant past. Sapphire was made shortly after the 1958 Notting Hill riots. The film was also on the cusp of the more permissive 60s. As such it is a cultural and social litmus of the age. Though critic Nina Hibbin writing about Sapphire in the Daily Worker (9 May 1959) expected more from a director signed up to the liberal cause:

"You can't fight the colour bar merely by telling people it exists. You have to attack it, with passion and conviction. Commit yourself up to the hilt. Otherwise you're in danger of fanning the flames"

Ann Ogidi

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Dr Robbins interview (3:15)
2. Landlady's prejudice (1:54)
3. Paul Slade interview (2:38)
4. Police raid Tulips (4:10)
Original Poster
Production Stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Wind of Change (1961)
Cameron, Earl (1917- )
Day, Tilly (1903-1994)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Harris, Julie (1921-)
Heath, Gordon (1918-1991)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
Waxman, Harry (1912-1984)
Black British Film
Social Problem Films
Social Realism