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In Search Of ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’

December 12, 2020
by the gentle author

Dame Barbara Windsor died on Thursday aged eighty-three. I shall always think of her wistfully as the Spitalfields Life interview that I should love to have done but which never happened. My favourite performance of hers was in Sparrows Can’t Sing, the greatest East End film, and in tribute to her I publish my account of going in search Cowley Gardens, one of the primary locations.

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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 to join them.

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The arch from Sparrows Can’t Sing today

32 Responses leave one →
  1. David Comtesse permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Immersive writing – we’re on the excursion with you. Bravo! …. & thank you.
    Cheers ….. David.

  2. JIll Wilson permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Thank you for your typically original tribute to national treasure Dame Barbara Windsor. I haven’t seen Sparrows Can’t Sing (yet!) but it has been mentioned in many of the accolades of her work as showing that her early acting career was so much more than just her iconic Carry On blonde bimbo performances.

    And her connection to Joan Littlewood was legendary too, and yesterday I heard Barbara’s brilliant description of her audition when she thought Joan was the cleaning lady! All told with Barbara’s characteristic wit and sparkle.

    R.I.P. Dame Barbara – an East End treasure.

  3. December 12, 2020

    The sense you create of those beloved characters just out of reach on the other side of the wall is a powerful one.
    By chance I have just read this sentence in my current Aurelio Zen novel ‘Vendetta’ by Michael Dibdin:
    ‘It was the lateness of the hour that made everything seem strange and threatening now, the time when – according to what his uncle had once told him – a house belongs not to the people who happen to live there now, but to all those who have preceded them over the centuries.’

  4. December 12, 2020

    Marvellous piece; your powers of gentle recall are endless.

  5. Beryl Happe permalink
    December 12, 2020

    What a lovely post, my brother still lives in that area. We along with many other cockneys decamped to Essex many years ago. Thoroughly enjoyed todays essay, Thank You, and RIP Dame Barbara.

  6. December 12, 2020

    ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ was indeed a great East End film and Dame Barbara was perfect for the role she played so well.
    Thank you for this tribute to both Joan Littlewood and Dame Barbara, a National treasure and a true East End girl at heart. R.I.P

  7. Laurence Trister permalink
    December 12, 2020

    I can recall seeing Joan Littlewood directing Barbara Windsor et al during the filming of Sparrows Can’t Sing.

    I was at school in Arbour Square and had to walk from Stepney Green Station. This took me past one of the first tower blocks to be built in the area, surrounded still by scenes of wartime devastation.

    I have vivid memories of seeing Ms.Littlewood, loud hailer to her lips, bellowing instructions at Barbara and her fellow actors as they stood on an upper floor of the block. In my memory they contained a few expletives too!

  8. December 12, 2020

    Such a wonderful, poignant tribute to an iconic team of actors. So much has changed in the decades since then, not only in the East End – the slow, steady dismantling of culture and heritage, some of it inevitable, but a lot of it sheer land-grabbing. Of course we all need to dig out the film now.

    Beautiful writing, thank you!

  9. December 12, 2020

    Such an enjoyable Saturday essay GA..thanks as always.

  10. Richard Smith permalink
    December 12, 2020

    A very poignant and evocative piece GA. The thought of what lies behind the arches is a very compelling thought. Thank you.

  11. Katherine permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Can anyone remember the film A kid for two farthings? About life in the Jewish East End? wolf Mankcwiez wrote it? Great tribute to Joan Littlewood and Dame Babs thank you

  12. December 12, 2020

    I can’t find the right words – so will just say thank you for this moving piece of writing.

  13. Lizebeth permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Oh, if we could only all go through that arch in search of times past! My fondest dream, as well. Thank you for sharing this journey.

  14. Nicholas Borden permalink
    December 12, 2020

    A great film affectionately portraying a part of East London.

  15. Annie S permalink
    December 12, 2020

    A lovely tribute GA.
    I too love the film Sparrows (or should it be Sparrers!) Can’t Sing …. and yes to Katherine, I remember the film Kid for Two Farthings too.

  16. Amanda permalink
    December 12, 2020

    “…just out of reach on the other side of the wall”
    Yes, exactly how I’m feeling now GA – cut off from my very recent past. The distant past appears more tangible in my mind’s eye.

    I bought Sparrows Can’t Sing on DVD because of my attachment to the old East End. Roy Kinnear with his ladder could have been my Boxer stuck coming through the front door with her stick 😬

    I adored Barbara Windsor but cannot define exactly why. Her bustling, wide-eyed convincing delivery. Giggling exuberance, glamour, facial expressions formed a bundle of uniqueness.
    Not forgetting her smile and her thre’pennies.

    I did like her performance in this film yet my very favourite scene of hers was the open air keep fit class in Carry on Camping:

    “In! Out! In! Out!” and her bikini top rocketed into orbit. My favourite because l guffawed at upstaged Hattie Jacques outrage and because l never fathomed how the bra flew off with such speed, even with trick photography.
    Maybe because l wished l had been her in that hilarious scene stealer? Perhaps wishful thinking was why women of that era liked her?

    In whatever way we each remember her, she is an unforgettable treasure.

    Thank you for honouring her.

  17. Linda Granfield permalink
    December 12, 2020

    What a touching tribute to Dame Barbara and Joan Littlewood.

    A thought—perhaps next September 1st, at exactly 11 a.m., you can run straight at that brick wall and pass through it?

    It worked for Harry Potter and his friends on Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station.
    Worth a try?

  18. Mary Connolly permalink
    December 12, 2020

    What a lovely tribute to Dame Barbara Windsor. She will be missed by everyone. Wonderful lady and stress actress. R.I.P Barbara.

  19. paul loften permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Thank you for this interesting history and remembrance of Babs and also Joan Littlewood. I do remember the Theatre Workshop.
    During the 80’s I was very much involved in the attempted resurrection of the Unity Theatre which tragically burned down in Sommers Town in 1975. I used to go to see an occasional performance with my dad. There was a substantial amount from the insurance held by a trust which included the actor Bill Owen ( Compo in Last of the Summer Wine ). My task on the committee was to find a suitable site for the new theatre. One of the most promising locations was the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney which was then in financial trouble and I recall we met with owners on several occasions in the theatre to discuss taking it over. Unfortunately, it was not to be as it was decided by the trustees that the funds from the insurance were not quite enough to meet the cost of a new theatre. It was a perfect site though and I personally think it could have been a tremendous success if it went ahead

  20. December 12, 2020

    Dedicated film buffs are a breed apart. I often find myself turning to snippets of film dialog, or vividly-recalled cinematic images …. and these lingering references capture a moment, or clarify a quandary, etc. And, oh joy, the pleasure of having a friend who also “talks movies”!? It’s one of the greatest kindred connections possible. Methinks. I was taken to my first movie by my Dad ( the ultimate movie fan) and I can still recall how we wore our 3-D glasses as convincing skin divers seemingly floated right over our HEADS in the darkened theater. The film was “Creature of the Black Lagoon”, and I was four. Today, this morning, I can still recall how Dad and I gaped at the illusion of the divers, and then gleefully looked at each other in the dark…….”Wowwwwwwwwwww!” we said in unison. Oh, how grand. Dad initiated me into one of his many manias that day, and for the rest of his life we “talked movies”. With gusto.

  21. Kim permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Bab’s boyfriend was of course a bus driver, not a taxi driver, and played by George Sewell who found fame in later years, generally as a copper or a villain!

  22. December 12, 2020

    Thanks indeed for this beautiful piece and tribute to two bright lights of theatre. The wall image is an evocative one, and sadly there are too many such wallings-off in the East End. One I came up against recently, as I tried to find a site in Shoreditch, blocked me from the last traces of Webb Square, once home to some of my silkweaver ancestors, now walled off by the inevitable construction site.

  23. stephanie pemberton permalink
    December 12, 2020

    This is such a beautiful beautiful piece of writing. Your blog is a daily masterclass in how to listen, hear and tell a story of extraordinary people and buildings from inside the Developpers wasteland. I’ve said it before you deserve an honoury award I recognition for your humanity, passion and patience. Never received a reply to my emails to this effect from the City Hall over the years.

  24. December 12, 2020

    Thank you for your moving tribute. Babs was iconic.
    Another bit of East End gone forever.

  25. Jim M. permalink
    December 12, 2020

    A beautiful tribute; not just to Barbara Windsor but also to a wonderful film in Sparrows Can’t Sing and, for me, most importantly to that absolute colossus of British working-class theatre, Miss Joan Littlewood.

    There is a page on ‘Sparrows …’ at the excellent Reelstreets site that you and your readers may find of interest.

    https://www.reelstreets.com/films/sparrows-cant-sing/

  26. Mark Parsons Colorado US permalink
    December 12, 2020

    When she took your hand and said ‘I knew you’d be here’ my breath caught. Oh, how these gentle passages across time murmur to us. Thank you GA.

  27. December 12, 2020

    A wonderful written piece GA, very poignant with so many things just out of reach… rip Barbara Windsor

  28. Tony line permalink
    December 12, 2020

    I love the thought that life carries on behind the arch in a cs Lewis style, if only !!

  29. Sue permalink
    December 12, 2020

    Beautiful piece.

  30. December 13, 2020

    To Katherine, yes I do remember Kid for Two Farthings – the UNICORN – David Kossoff
    and the beautiful theme music which became quite a hit. Must source it and enjoy again
    but I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes on the television over the next few weeks as part of
    the tributes to Barbara.

  31. December 18, 2020

    Wonderful piece on both Dame Barbara and Sparrows can’t sing.
    The film premiered at what is now the Genesis Cinema on Mile End Road – my auntie and uncle were extras in the film, delighted to recall the story of zooming around on their scooter!
    Bravo for bringing this story to our attention

  32. Cherub permalink
    December 18, 2020

    Many years ago, I think it was the late 90s, I saw Barbara playing Kath in a production of Joe Orton’s black comedy “Entertaining Mr Sloane”. John Challis played her brother who was vying with her for the young Mr Sloane’s attention. All I can say is, she was absolutely marvelous, up there with the late, great Beryl Reid in the 60s film version. Apparently Barbara had been a friend of Orton’s and he told her he wanted her to play Kath at some point in her career. I know she will be forever remembered for the Carry On films, but as an actress she was much more than that.

    As for the Carry Ons, well I laugh out loud at Barbara’s famous Carry on Camping scene every time I see it :))

    Years ago my sister had dinner with a friend at Joe Allen and Barbara was there with her lovely husband Scott and she went to the ladies room. She gave all the ladies in there a cheery “alright ducks” and my sis said she really was lovely, a tiny lady with a big personality.

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