Joan Littlewood and “Sparrows Can’t Sing”

The British Film Institute is offering a streaming channel called BFI Players Classics through Roku for $5.99 a month. Mostly on offer are things like Ealing comedies, Hammer horror films, costume dramas, etc. There are a few oddball discoveries though. I was attracted to a film I’d never heard of called Sparrows Can’t Sing, largely because it was directed by Joan Littlewood.

I don’t know many American theater people who know who Littlewood was, but she was quite a phenomenon in postwar English theater. With the company she founded in 1945, Theater Workshop, she began creating devised theater before the term was in popular use. Working in east London, she was less interested in catering to the tastes of middle-class theatergoers than putting together works that reflected working class life. Today she is probably best known for discovering and directing 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s play, A Taste of Honey, and staging O! What a Lovely War! (not to be confused with the film version, which she hated). Sparrows Can’t Sing began as a 1960 theater project she directed based on a story by a merchant seaman named Stephen Lewis. Though Lewis is credited with the script of the stage version, the show was largely based on improvisations under Littlewood’s direction.

In 1963, a film version was released. The script is co-credited to Lewis and Littlewood and Littlewood directed. The story concerns a (surprise) merchant seaman named Charley who returns from a two-year voyage intending to re-connect with his wife, Maggie. He discovers that, in the meantime, Maggie has taken up with a married bus driver named Bert and has maybe had a daughter with him. Charley shrugs this off. He figures Maggie still belongs with him, and he begins a campaign to win her back. He’s a bit of a thug, but Maggie is no doormat and ultimately she’s going to do what she wants to do.

Plot is not very important, however. What makes the film so engaging is the vibrant gallery of characters and how, at any moment, any group of people on the street will chime in like a Greek chorus on the private lives that refuse to stay private. There are songs (one by Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver!) and slapstick and fistfights and boisterous scenes in the local pub. James Booth is Charley and Barbara Windsor is Maggie. Windsor eventually spent much of her career in the Carry On series, in which she usually ended up squealing while she lost her clothing. To see her in Sparrow after seeing a few of the Carry On films is to discover how much more there was to her. (Indeed, a little internet research reveals that she won a British Oscar for her performance in this film.) For fans of Richard Lester, a particular treat is seeing early work by Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear (father of contemporary star Rory Kinnear).

I was most interested in the chance to see something of Littlewood’s work after years of reading about her. It’s the only feature film she directed, and it’s a shame she didn’t continue because she’s a natural film director. The compositions are fresh and the rhythms are infectiously jazzy. And the ensemble of actors, drawn from her troupe, create a vivid community of colorful characters.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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