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The Night I Kissed Joan Littlewood

June 15, 2023
by the gentle author


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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.


13 Responses leave one →
  1. BPL permalink
    June 15, 2023

    What a lovely, poetic read. So much of the East End is full of poignancy to me. I have been spending time in Hackney lately, walking streets I used to live or work near, some twenty years ago and more. And in my mind’s eye, I see the ghosts of all the old buildings and shop signs from those days. So much keeps changing, it’s impossible to hold onto time. My husband and I walked down Approach Rd last night and he remembered a little old lady who used to lean on her garden gate there waving at passersby some fifty years ago now when he was a child. And we wondered, where is she now? Where are they all now? These ghosts of the East End.

  2. Andy permalink
    June 15, 2023

    What a lovely article. So beautiful.

  3. Peter H permalink
    June 15, 2023

    Thank you for your further insight into this career defining film for Barbara Windsor. I’ve enjoyed watching it several times and, having the dvd, will do so again with renewed interest.

    Thanks again

  4. Lorraine permalink
    June 15, 2023

    I love ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ as it takes me back to my late 50s/early 60s childhood, having been born in Stepney and lived just off Cannon Street Road. My aunty lived in the tower block used for many of the outside scenes – Wickham House. But more than that, it is a vision of a life we had that is no more and I miss it (well, some of it; the rest being seen now through misty blurred aged rose-tinted spectacles).

  5. Bethea Jenner permalink
    June 15, 2023

    That is such a poignant post. Thanks for your beautiful writing and insights.

  6. June 15, 2023

    What a marvelous article! Admirable Joan Littlewood. Thank you.

  7. June 15, 2023

    Great piece. Is the film available anywhere?

  8. Milo permalink
    June 15, 2023

    Lovely piece. You brought both the place and the film alive. One niggle though: shouldn’t it be “sparrers”?

  9. Steve Shinners permalink
    June 15, 2023

    Beautiful Story , taking the reader back in time. I will have to watch out for the film on Talking pictures hopefully it will be on there sometime this year.
    Final thought- let’s get the Arch reopened they are timepieces in themselves.

  10. Marie Nicholson permalink
    June 15, 2023

    I, too, love Sparrows Can’t Sing and your recollection of Joan Littlewood makes me want to see it again, but without the DVD – or a player – where can I see this? I shall trying searching. I remember those days well, and the Littlewood Days at Stratford (I’ve blogged about The Quare Fellow and Brendan Behan before) as I was living in Highbury in the early fifties and haunted the place. Highbury which hasn’t seen too many changes, but the East End has changed beyond all recognition.

  11. June 15, 2023

    You had me at “kissed”. Memories connected to kisses are eternally wonderful.
    Kisses bring us into tight proximity with others, and we can inhale their uniqueness.
    More tender than a stare, more memorable than a hug.

    “To think that Spring had depended on merely this………a look …….. a kiss.”
    One of my favorite lyrics.

    Thank you, GA.

  12. June 15, 2023

    What a lovely story!
    Not a sparrow, but this morning I saw a house wren trying to fit a long twig into the hole in the birdhouse, and it reminded me of your ladder photo. (He managed it, eventually!)

  13. Saba permalink
    June 15, 2023

    “I knew you’d be here.” I cannot know exactly what she meant but can guess that she might have referenced your reaching out to her, your show of affection for her, or your willingness to push beyond the shyness that others apparently experienced. I also think that she might have wanted to show her gratitude for your display of empathy towards her.

    For me, the comment goes to the heart of a personal quest to find my tribe, even when others did not understand. I’m going to put her comment up on a sign in my apartment.

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