sat 21/05/2022

DVD: Sparrows Can’t Sing | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Sparrows Can’t Sing

DVD: Sparrows Can’t Sing

A not-so-Swinging Sixties in Joan Littlewood’s comedic yet fiercely political critique of so-called progress

As Maggie, Barbara Windsor ministers to George Sewell’s Bert in 'Sparrows Can’t Sing'

Sparrows Can’t Sing can be seen in many ways. The film, completed in 1962 and released to British cinemas in March 1963, features an extraordinary cast which now seems an uncanny roll call of British character and comic actors: James Booth, Avis Bunnage, Yootha Joyce, Roy Kinnear, Stephen Lewis, Murray Melvin, Arthur Mullard, Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor and more. For this alone, Sparrows Can't Sing would be a landmark.

It is also a classic comedy and funny - frequently, extremely so. It was the only film directed by Joan Littlewood, then almost single-handedly effecting a sea change in the nature of British theatre with her work at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Its the only film adaptation of a play written by Stephen Lewis, later ubiquitous on TV as Blakey in the On the Buses and Smiler in Last of the Summer Wine. Filmed on the streets, its an important time capsule of a London still scarred by World War Two. Having evolved from workshops, it is a direct progenitor of Mike Leigh. For better or worse, it features a blink-and-you’ll miss appearance by the regrettably lionised Krays.

While all this means Sparrows Can’t Sing is tremendously significant, it is the film’s unaffected representation of East London and its Londoners which shouts loudest. As Maggie Gooding, Windsor portrays a woman in charge of her own life. She has to be. With a child and the return of her feckless husband Charlie (Booth), she – and she alone – must decide whether to reconcile with him or the man she has moved in with, George Sewell’s bus driver Bert. There is, in Melvin’s Georgie, a character who could be gay. Life is seen as it was with a lighter, more anarchic touch than kitchen sink dramas of the period and with no judgment. But Lewis and Littlewood’s opinions on the dehumanising, community-wrecking tower blocks springing up across the townscape are clear. For them, London’s Le Corbusier-obsessed planners were to be reviled.

The new, restored home cinema release of the unreservedly wonderful Sparrows Can’t Sing is supplemented by a lively recent Q&A with Windsor and Melvin filmed before an audience at the BFI, two other interviews, the trailer, a series of stills and a fascinating short on the film’s locations. This is a must.

Overleaf: Watch the British Pathé newsreel coverage of the 1963 East End premiere of Sparrows Can’t Sing


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