Mother of modern theatre Joan Littlewood’s only foray into film came in 1963 with Sparrows Can’t Sing. It was an adaptation of a play of almost the same name – simply replace ‘Sparrows’ with the Cockney translation, ‘Sparrers’ – penned by Stephen Lewis, who would later find TV fame with On the Buses and Last of the Summer Wine. Newly restored for Blue-ray and DVD, it is a masterpiece of early East End cinema and a gorgeous record of everyday life in post-war London.
Littlewood, whose theatre credits include a successful 1955 production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, directed the play in 1960 at her renowned Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. Well received, Sparrers found its way to the West End in 1961, before the director took her talented cast into the streets of Stepney, Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs to remake it for the screen.
The film stars James Booth, a year before his iconic turn as Private Henry Hook in Zulu, and a 26-year-old Barbara Windsor, whose sprightly performance garnered the only BAFTA nomination of her career to date. Roy Kinnear, Murray Melvin, Avis Bunnage, George Sewell, Lewis himself and the Kray Twins – who reportedly hung out on set – also feature, albeit a fleeting appearance by the notorious gangsters.
Booth is Charlie Gooding, a cheeky boozer with a penchant for playing the field. Sparrows begins with Charlie’s return from two years at sea and follows him as he marches home to reclaim the beautiful wife he left behind. He finds his old house in rubble on the ground and learns that Windsor’s character Maggie has relocated but is still about.
What he doesn’t know is that she and her young child are shacked up with a local bus driver, enjoying a rare spell of domestic bliss in one of the new high-rise tower blocks that have begun to pepper the skyline.
Charlie settles down in the Red Lion pub while news of his arrival spreads over town, and soon enough Maggie is on her way. Their re-acquaintance is fraught with complicated history, and as the husband works his charm on his estranged and resistant wife, an underlying control, even violence, unsettles the comedy – which is considerable throughout. Charlie’s chirpy, larger-than-life exterior is chipped away to expose a deeply flawed, real character within.
What follows is a disarmingly bleak, occasionally warm and always brilliant portrayal of a knotty romance. Littlewood prods at the absurdity of the decisions we make and at the same time immortalises a diversifying, fun-loving and morally-questionable community of a bygone era.