Saturday, 30 April 2011

Views of a lost London

Having referred to The Yellow Balloon in the previous, entirely frivolous, post, perhaps now would be a good time to restore a modicum of sanity with the following review of a recentish DVD box set of London-based films. Anthony Newley stars in one, and although Sparrows Can't Sing is not a musical (despite a title song by Lionel Bart) it is, like What a Crazy World, a film adaptation of a Theatre Workshop production.

If you are thinking of buying this box set because, like me, you know one of the films, then I'd say it's worth taking a punt. I bought this primarily for Pool of London, an Ealing Classic which doesn't seem to be on any of the Ealing box sets, but all of the films here are worth seeing (though I haven't yet seen Les Bicyclettes de Belsize). And several appear to be released on DVD for the first time.

Pool of London is regarded by Charles Barr, author of the book Ealing Studios (highly recommended for putting the films in their sociological context), as the single film most representative of Ealing values. A tale of merchant seamen docking in London for a few days, there is a crime subplot, stylishly shot on location, but the heart of the film is the friendship and trust between Bonar Colleano and Earl Cameron, a young Jamaican.

 Cameron's character has a tentative romance with a young white woman, delicately handled, although the film does not shy away from depicting the prejudice of the time, a theme director Basil Dearden explored further in the later Sapphire (not on DVD).

The movement between the various subplots is expertly handled and watch out for brief appearances by Leslie Phillips (too brief) and James Robertson Justice, the ship's captain who refuses to set foot in London, preferring to drink whisky and read poetry. There is a choric element to his character as he explains why: too much filth and degradation in the city.

The Yellow Balloon stars the young Andrew Ray as a terrified boy coerced into helping a petty criminal. It could be seen as a companion piece to director J. Lee Thompson's later Tiger Bay, also about a child being manipulated by an adult to escape the consequence of that adult's actions. In the latter film, however, the relationship between criminal and child subtly shifts, whereas in The Yellow Balloon the villainy is unremitting. But Ray gives a great performance, largely non-verbal, and there is added poignancy in the location filming in buildings torn apart by war and in an apparently unused underground station.

The Small World of Sammy Lee has the simplest of plots: a seedy Soho stripclub compere has until seven o'clock to pay off a longstanding gambling debt; we follow Newley's character as he does what he can to raise the money.

 This loose structure allows us to meet a variety of characters in Soho itself (lots of location filming) and Whitechapel (Warren Mitchell plays Newley's brother).

There is also the complication of one of Newley's naïve provincial conquests (Julia Foster) coming to London to be with him, plus Robert Stephens as a convincingly repellent nightclub owner.

Ken Hughes' earlier film with Newley, Jazz Boat, is not available but is also worth investigation if it ever resurfaces.

Sparrows Can't Sing is adapted from a Theatre Workshop play by Stephen "Blakey" Lewis; Lewis himself (above, centre) plays a milder prototype of his celebrated jobsworth.

 As with Sammy Lee, there is not a huge amount of plot - Barbara Windsor's husband is coming back home after a long absence, unaware she has shacked up with someone else - but this leisurely film is so rich in atmosphere, character and comic moments that you never miss the impetus of a more tightly plotted storyline.

And I don't know how it felt when first released, but watching today the portrayal of a community where everyone is interconnected makes it seem like a world away, though the rubble of demolished houses replaced by new high rise blocks make it clear that London was already in a state of transition to greater impersonality. Oh, and the filming at the end takes place in an actual club - owned by the Krays.

The documentary The London Nobody Knows and the half hour film musical Les Bicyclettes de Belsize are on the same disc; the documentary, based on a book of the same title, has James Mason taking us around the grimier parts of London: abandoned theatres, buskers who were once variety acts, a Salvation Army Hostel etc.

What's interesting is that Mason's narrator figure doesn't mourn the past and reminds us that much was squalid about Victorian London.

There is the suspicion when watching that parts are staged but it doesn't matter: the images make their impact however captured. Les Bicyclettes ... is the only one I haven't yet watched so cannot comment on.

To sum up: films shot between 1952 and 1969 without a huge amount in common except a great deal of location shooting in London, but that is a great deal on its own: enough to convey a sense of a lost world and give an added poignancy to these pieces.

Related posts and links:

 What a Crazy World is covered in several posts, including here (lots of pics) and here (interview with Alan Klein).

You can find two detailed and informative posts by Jez Winship about Sparrows Can't Sing and the Theatre Workshop on the Sparks in Electrical Jelly blog here. The main image from Sparrows Can't Sing was taken from that blog.

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