Films and Filming, March 1963, p. 29
Gordon Gow gives Joan Littlewood the bird...
On a singularly sunny day in Stepney, a virile young Cockney strides along the docks, back from two years at sea and eager to be with his wife again. He goes home, but his home has been demolished. Sparkling semi-skyscraper blocks of flats are replacing the dwellings of London's East End, and amid the glitter and affluence of this changing landscape life is chirpy but somehow unsettled. His wife, blonde, perky, and wide-eyed, has taken up residence in one of the new flats with a 'bus drive. Apprehensive relatives and neighbours try to protect her from the wrath of the returning seaman, but, after a profusion of character cameos have whizzed across the screen, things mount to crisis point in the local pub.
Joan Littlewood, whose vitality at the East End's Theatre Royal has had a marked and stimulating influence on Britain's theatrical activity over the past few years, is making her first essay in film direction with Sparrows Can't Sing. She treats her native Cockney stock to a superfically tough, fundamentally sentimental tribute to a welter of darting pictures that lead the eye compulsively from point to point, from scene to scene, but never dazzle the mind sufficiently to disguise a nagging shortage of substance.
Sparrows Can't Sing is a comedy with aspirations toward realism. Certainly the settings, and the natural background noises, are real, and so are the characters, all played with enthusiasm by actors from Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop group. but the script, which Joan Littlewood has written in conjunction with the author of the original stage play, Stephen Lewis, never give the simple situation enough depth. In its own individual way, this should have been as sad a comedy as Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Part of the trouble might be that Joan Littlewood is too close to her subject. Her affection for these Cockneys is manifest and I can warm to it readily enough, but an outsider, looking in on the East End for a time and assessing it, might have made things more explicit for the uninitiated. It isn't merely that the language spoken, at a rapid rate, is often so special as to stand in urgent need of subtitles. The whole attitude is so darned take it or leave it. These are Cockneys, the films seems to say, find them funny by all means, but jolly well understand them at the same time and don't expect much help in that respect.
Of course the actors, and Joan Littlewood's direction of the actors, help some. Barbara Windsor as the partridge-plump young wife makes her defensive line, 'I can't help it if people fancy me," a key to her entire zestful, amusingly vapid, but never sufficiently sad, characterisation. Chirpy, endearing, proposterously blonde, with a face that is a gift to the camera, she still isn't enough. She could have been; she was permitted to be sadder when she sang 'Where do Little Birds Go To In the Wintertime' in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. But that was satire. This isn't. Is it?
No. Affectionate humour with a core of truth is surely the objective. These people, moving about the new, tall, sharp cornered world that is heaving itself into position around them, occasionally provide a fleeting Antonioni-type imagery that bespeaks the impulse to make some kind of social comment. Little Miss Windsor, close to the camera in the lower right hand corner of the screen, looks up at the high balcony in the modern block from whence her bus driver calls, "Fetch us back a couple lemons." What does Joan Littlewood mean to impart to us as we watch this eye-catching composition? Some kind of statement about the earthy inhabitants of this new-found environment? Something about change without decay? All that emerges is a joke, a diverting incongruity.
Likewise the lively choppy cutting from scene to scene, street market, supermarket, park for romping reunion between wandering husband and wayward wife, deserted fairground for a transient hint of melancholy. None of it adds up to more than a saucy jest. When Barbara Windsor, small but buxom in her underwear, sits on her child's cot and gazes reproachfully into her hand mirror, she is still amusing. At that moment, she ought to be pathetic.
Compliments to all the actors, especially James Booth and Avis Bunnage, and especially to the good intentions. They don't come off; but Joan Littlewood has made an interesting try. She should try again at the earliest opportunity, applying her zest for cinema to a subject and a place she doesn't know so much about, perhaps. On this occasion, she has overestimated the outside world's understanding. Well, mine, anyway.