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When Roy Kinnear got his ladder stuck in Shadwell

November 3, 2009
by the gentle author


This is what happens when you try to carry a ladder the wrong way down a narrow alley, as Roy Kinnear is discovering here. In this still from Joan Littlewood’s film Sparrows Can’t Sing, you can see through the arch to Cowley Gardens in Stepney as it was in 1962. This is where Fred (Roy Kinnear’s character) lives with his mother in the film and here his brother Charlie (James Booth) turns up after two years at sea to ask the whereabouts of his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor), now that the old terrace in which he lived with Maggie has been demolished in his absence.

The drama revolves around Charlie’s discovery that Maggie has moved into a new tower block with a new man, and his attempts to woo her back. It may be clunky, with too many improvised scenes, yet in spite of this the film has a rare quality – you feel all the characters have lives beyond the confines of the drama. So, although some characterisations are broad, there is such spirit and genuine humour to all the performances that it successfully represents the emotional vitality of the society it portrays with great persuasion. In supporting roles, there is Harry H. Corbett, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy and several other superb working class actors who came to dominate television comedy for the next twenty years. Filmed on locations around Stepney and the East End, many locals take turns as extras, including the Kray twins (Barbara was dating Reggie at the time) who can clearly be seen standing among the customers in the final bar room scenes.

My favourite moment in the film is when Charlie searches for Maggie in an old house at the bottom of Cannon St Rd. On the ground floor in an empty room sits an Indian at prayer with his little son, on the first floor some Afro-Caribbeans welcome Charlie into their party and on the top floor Italians are celebrating too. These characters have their own space in the film and appear on the screen with a poetry that is all their own.

I once met Joan Littlewood at an authors’ party hosted by a publisher. She was a frail old lady then but I recognised her immediately by her rakish cap. She was sitting alone in a corner and I pointed her out discreetly to a couple of fellow writers. Too awestruck by her reputation, they would not dare approach but I loved her for her work and could not see her neglected, so I walked right over and asked if I could kiss her. She consented graciously, and once I had explained why I wanted to kiss her, I waved my pals over. We enjoyed a lively conversation but all I remember is that as we said our goodbyes, she took my hand in hers and said “I knew you’d be here”. Although she did not know me or my writing, I understood what she meant and I shall always remember the night I kissed Joan Littlewood.

Watching “Sparrows Can’t Sing” again recently (now reissued on DVD), I decided to go in search of Cowley Gardens only to discover that it is gone. The street plan has been altered so that where it stood there is not even a road anymore. Just as James Booth’s character returned from sea to find his nineteenth century street gone, the twentieth century tower where Barbara Windsor’s character shacked up with the taxi driver has itself also gone, demolished in 1999.  Thus, the whole cycle of social and architectural change recorded in this film has been entirely erased.

I hope you can understand why I personally identify with Roy Kinnear and his ladder problem, it is because I too want to go through this same arch and I am also frustrated in my desire – because nowadays (as you can see below) there is a solid wall filling the void and preventing me from ever passing through. You can find the arch yourself beneath the Docklands Light Railway, between Sutton St and Lukin St. Behind this brick wall, which has been constructed between the past and the present, Barbara Windsor and all the residents of Cowley Gardens are waiting. Now only the magic of cinema can take me there.


6 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan Lendroth permalink
    November 3, 2009

    Loved this post from start to finish.  Thanks for taking me beyond the brick wall and showing me what once lay past it. You raise the bar high for fellow writers!


  2. Lisa West permalink
    January 30, 2010

    My Great Grandparents lived in Cowley Gardens and it was lovely to see the street in the Sparrows Can’t Sing film.

    My Great Grandfather died during WW2 during a bombing raid on London and i was told that he was standing under the railway arches and was hit by debris.

    I’ve never been able to find records to confirm this though.

  3. January 5, 2011

    i’ve always had a fascination for immigrant life in london
    you’ve just convinced me to order this dvd

  4. September 1, 2011

    Very enjoyable. Reminds me of some lines in a poem by Kingsley Amis:

    “The past” is a name for what’s all over: you can’t, in fact return
    To what isn’t a place.

    I have also written about Sparrows Can’t Sing in the context of a review of five London films on a DVD box set:

    There are two excellent and far more detailed posts about the film and Joan Littlewood on the Sparks in Electrical Jelly site here:

  5. Marjorie Page permalink
    December 23, 2012

    My grandmother Anne Gill lived at number 17 Cowley gardens E1 I lived there with my mother Marjorie Gill until I was about 3 or 4.I always visited my nan and often stayed with her.Even when I worked in Kelrose clothing factory off Jubilee St. I would stay with her. There was a corner shop at the beginning of Cowley Gardens I worked in for a couple of hours.they used to go hopping from there.My father Sidney Hall and his parents lived at the bottom of Cowley Gardens where the film was made.St Marys and St Micheals always had the Processions with the girls dressed in white and boys.It really was wonderful to watch.The East End life was something I will never forget.It was the happiest time of my life.

  6. charlie permalink
    May 13, 2013

    i thought the film was brilliant, i read the krays made a cameo appearances, i think reg was playing the drums but i couldnt see ronnie, where in the film does ronnie kray appear?

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