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Sparrows Can't Sing (1962)


Main image of Sparrows Can't Sing (1962)
35mm, black and white, 94 mins
DirectorJoan Littlewood
Production CompanyCarthage Productions
ProducerDonald Taylor
ScriptStephen Lewis
 Joan Littlewood
Original playStephen Lewis
PhotographyMax Greene
 Desmond Dickinson
MusicJames Stevens

Cast: James Booth (Charlie); Barbara Windsor (Maggie); Roy Kinnear (Fred); Avis Bunnage (Bridgie); Brian Murphy (Jack); George Sewell (Bert)

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A merchant sailor returning home to London's East End after two years at sea finds life is not quite how he left it.

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Joan Littlewood's Stratford-based Theatre Workshop had a stage hit with Shelagh Delaney's Salford-set A Taste of Honey some three years before Tony Richardson's 1961 feature film production became a key release of the British 'new wave'. For her own cinematic directorial debut. Littlewood chose another Theatre Workshop production, Sparrers Can't Sing, scripted by actor and former merchant seaman Stephen Lewis but developed, like much of the Workshop's output, in improvisation sessions with the cast.

The new wave cycle had almost run its course by 1962, and Sparrows Can't Sing isn't just an earthy Southern corrective to the Northern-based concerns of those films. Although no less rooted in working-class experience, and with a similarly non-judgmental attitude to sexuality, the style of the film is looser and laced with a free-wheeling humour. The central love triangle between Charlie, Maggie and Bert is mirrored by the goofy courtship games played by Georgie, Nellie and Chunky, who find themselves in situations now familiar from many a sitcom.

This similarity is heightened by a cast that reads like a who's who of later television comedy. Barbara Windsor, not yet the star that Carry On would make her, shines in a BAFTA-nominated performance, but has to work hard against such scene-stealers as Roy Kinnear and Murray Melvin. As well as drawing from her regular repertory players, Littlewood took care to populate the film with East End locals, so that Queenie the landlady and Momma the baker are effectively playing themselves.

With its generous location shooting, the film, released on the cusp of London's 'swinging' phase, offers a fascinating snapshot of a rapidly changing area. After two years away, Charlie is shocked at the scale of redevelopment ("Where's all the houses?"), with many of the residents now in gleaming new high-rises. Ethnically, the area is also shown to be shifting, with the established Jewish community making way for newer immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean.

In her autobiography, Littlewood wrote of "listening gravely to the Guarantee of Completion people without once letting on that I'd never taken so much as a snapshot in my whole life, neither had I strung two sentences together as yet, let alone a filmscript". Despite occasional technical deficiencies, Sparrows Can't Sing is an accomplished and entertaining slice of London life, thanks both to the contribution of Littlewood's collaborators and to her own well-honed sense of theatricality.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. Coming home (2:39)
2. Prisoner Fred (3:13)
3. Meeting Maggie (2:39)
Production stills
Bart, Lionel (1930-1999)
Corbett, Harry H. (1925-1982)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Kinnear, Roy (1934-1988)
Littlewood, Joan (1914-2002)
Windsor, Barbara (1937-)