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The Night I Kissed Joan Littlewood

June 7, 2017
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 in this frame 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) lived with his mother in the film and here his brother Charlie (James Booth) turned up after two years at sea to ask the whereabouts of his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor), finding that the old terrace in which he lived with Maggie had 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. Perhaps there are too many improvised scenes, yet the film has a rare quality – you feel all the characters have lives beyond the confines of the drama, and there is such spirit and genuine humour in all the performances that it communicates 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 actors who came to dominate television comedy for the next twenty years. Filmed on location around the East End, many locals take turns as extras, including the Krays – Barbara was dating Reggie at the time – who can be seen standing among the customers in the climactic 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. Dan Jones, who lives round the corner in Cable St, told me that this was actually Joan Littlewood’s house where she and Stephen Lewis wrote the screenplay.

I once met Joan Littlewood at an authors’ party hosted by her publisher. She was a frail old lady then but I recognised her immediately by her rakish cap. She was sitting alone in a corner, being ignored by everyone, and looking a little lost. I pointed her out discreetly to a couple of fellow writers but, too awestruck by her reputation, they would not dare approach. Yet I loved her for her work and could not see her neglected, so I walked over and asked if I could kiss her. She consented graciously and, once I had explained why I wanted to kiss her – out of respect and gratitude for her inspirational work  – 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, 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 terrace 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 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 – since nowadays there is a solid wall filling the void and preventing me from ever entering. The arch is to be found 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.


20 Responses leave one →
  1. June 7, 2017

    I think this is the nicest post I’ve read of yours; thank you

  2. Linda permalink
    June 7, 2017

    Flitting time so well caught for us with your simple words. Not so easy to eat breakfast on the point of tears…but thank you.

  3. June 7, 2017

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

  4. Maureen permalink
    June 7, 2017

    I love this film and must have seen it ten times. The atmosphere it creates is superb and I have often considered going to the area to feel that atmosphere. Your writing style is superb and the atmosphere you create is exactly the feeling I get when watching the film. I am sorry the area has changed so much, but your writing keeps the memory consistent. I truly love the last paragraph, it made me want to cry! Fabulous!!!!

  5. Coralie mattys permalink
    June 7, 2017

    What a poignant story. I hope I can get the film on DVD as I want to
    see it after reading this. And, as you say, it’s the only way to find the past. Thank you.

  6. June 7, 2017

    What a wonderful story! Stephen Lewis wrote the original play ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ and is perhaps most famous as Inspector Blakey in the TV sitcom ‘On the Buses’. He lived for many of his later years in the top flat of a townhouse in Greenwich, just along from me. In the long tradition of actors wary of creditors, he instructed the occupant of the ground-floor flat: “If anyone calls for me, I’m not in.”

  7. Milo Bell permalink
    June 7, 2017

    Lovely piece. Melancholic, wistful and nostalgic. All those wonderful actors and only Barbara left…..I used to love Roy Kinnear. He was effortlessly funny and radiated warmth. Luckily Rory is carrying on the tradition.

  8. Eddie Johnson permalink
    June 7, 2017

    Barbara Windsor’s lover was played by George Sewell and he was a bus driver. At that time Joan and the cast frequented the Kentucky club, run by the twins, she was interested in making a film about them and how we all laughed when she suggested James Booth to play Reggie, although Reggie may have been a bit flattered, but it was a lot better choice than the Kemp brothers.

    Happy days.

  9. June 7, 2017

    A brilliant piece of writing. Thank you, GA.

  10. Sparks permalink
    June 7, 2017

    What a lovely anecdote.
    Sparrows can’t Sing is a wonderful film of that era – I’ve not seen it for quite a while but you’ve made me want to watch it again!

  11. Russell permalink
    June 7, 2017

    I can’t add anything to what’s already posted, except to say thank you.

  12. June 7, 2017

    Very enjoyable post! Valerie

  13. Alex Knisely permalink
    June 7, 2017

    I endorse heartily all twelve responses above, and add my own thanks for the lovely moment that reading your post has given me.

  14. June 8, 2017

    Dear Sir:

    Though I’m a devoted reader, I found the lost-world quality of this narrative almost unbearably moving. You have both answered and neutralized a burning question.

  15. June 8, 2017


  16. Barry Smith permalink
    June 8, 2017

    I relate to the memories you describe in this piece. Going back to look for a place to find it gone and all that’s left is your memory of it and a bit of film that refreshes that memory. Cheers.

  17. William Hill permalink
    June 8, 2017

    What a truly lovely piece. I just bought a ‘Vintage Classics DVD of this film, remastered and with additional interviews and a location featurette.

  18. Jules Hussey permalink
    June 8, 2017

    I produced the film ‘Babs’ which of course featured scenes of Sparrows and Zoe W as Joan. Barbara would love to read your piece and I will share it with her when I next see her.

  19. June 8, 2017

    A really touching story of meeting a formidable theatrical icon, whose heart and soul were rooted in the East End.

  20. June 9, 2017

    Lovely story. I kissed Christine Hamilton once!

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