A light-hearted comedy-drama with a pre-Carry On Barbara Windsor and a supporting cast made up of nearly every great British comedy-character actor you can think of? With a theme song written by Lionel Bart and sung by Babs herself? It’s even based on a play by the late-great Stephen “Blakey” Lewis: this should be fun. But strangely enough, it isn’t. The past is not only a foreign country; it can also be a rather dark place (even in HD).
Charlie (James Booth) comes home from two years at sea to discover his East End house has been knocked down and replaced by high-rise blocks. Furthermore, where is his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor)? If that sounds slightly implausible today, remember that over fifty years ago a sailor would have to make quite an effort to stay in touch with his family while operating out of the ports of South America and Charlie isn’t the effort-making sort. In fact, despite the film’s obvious intention of portraying him as a lovable rogue, Charlie would appear to be trouble. His brother (Roy Kinnear) doesn’t appear too happy about his sibling’s return. Not after last time. Just to make matters worse, it turns out Maggie has actually shacked-up with Bert (George Sewell) in one of those high-rise flats. Bert and Maggie have had a baby together and poor old Bert has left his wife, meaning he has two families to support. What is cheeky-Charlie going to make of all this? Well he takes half the film tracking her down through a myriad of cockney characters who don’t seem to be looking forward to the great reunion. They finally do meet and then... well, to a modern audience, things get really weird.
You see, despite the rascal-like appearance of Charlie, we couldn’t help but notice that there was a disturbing undercurrent of violence to his character. There are even thinly-veiled threats to Maggie. Were we missing something here? You certainly don’t end up rooting for him, and when he tries to make out Maggie’s baby might be his own, it’s downright chilling. When she (*SPOILER*) leaves Bert to return to Charlie in the finale, you can’t help thinking she needs her head examining.
But this is an old film that reflects the mores of its day. Actually that’s what makes it so fascinating. This is a time when the Krays were still celebrities (and indeed they apparently have a cameo in here but we didn’t spot it). The representation of London’s new immigrant community is not necessarily out-and-out racist for the time but they’re still racial stereotypes. While it was probably intended as some unholy cross between a kitchen-sinker and a Carry On, it has none of the gravitas of the former and certainly none of the humour of the latter. This is not a film that is still funny.
So you probably think we’re not going to recommend this one. But if you’re the type who likes to peer at the past through the grubby net curtains of history, you actually might find this rather interesting. We did. If only for jaw-dropping moment when the now-dumped Bert says, “I was thinking of going back to the Missus anyway”.
Special Features: Interviews (Peter Rankin, Murray Melvin and Barbara Windsor) / Locations featurette / Stills gallery / Trailer
SPARROWS CAN’T SING (1963) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JOAN LITTLEWOOD / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN LEWIS / STARRING: JAMES BOOTH, BARBARA WINDSOR, ROY KINNEAR, BRIAN MURPHY, GEORGE SEWELL, MURRAY MELVIN, HARRY H. CORBETT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW