British Cinema - The London Collection.

The London Collection is a box set of six forgotten gems of the British cinema that are witness to the life and changing culture between 1951 and 1969. Film, be it documentary or feature, is a great way of preserving the history of a great city. (See also Terence Davies Of Time and the City 2008) This set does it brilliantly taking the viewer on a nostalgic trip through the vibrant neighbourhoods of the East End, the seedy streets of Soho and what were the lively docks of the River Thames.

Movie Poster.
There can’t be many movies that can boast Ronnie and Reggie Kray as extra’s Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963) can. The best-known film of the set was shot in and around the East End of London, including Limehouse, Stepney and Stratford. Littlewoods Theatre Workshop originally performed it as a play at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1960. The influential theatre producer went on to direct and co-write the screenplay with Stephan Lewis (Blakey of On The Buses) who also appears in the film. Many of the theatre group went on to perform in the film. Barbara Windsor, 25 at the time, was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film Actress for her role as Maggie, wife of Charlie Gooding. Charlie played by James Booth (Hooky in 1964s Zulu) returns home after 2 years at sea attempting to take up where he left off. Discovering that Maggie is now living with a bus driver named Bert (George Sewell) he sets out to win her back. This certainly is a nostalgic journey through what was left of the East End community before it was demolished and subsequently lost in giant tower blocks that would eventually dominate London’s skyline.

The next best-known film in the collection is Ken Hughes cinematic ode to 1960,s Soho The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963). This fast moving drama was expanded from a BBC TV play, Sammy, which in turn was subject of a prize-winning short that Hughes made as an amateur in 1943. Sammy Lee is a compare at the Peep Show a strip joint, one of many in the locale. He likes to play cards for high stakes and back “gee gees” that have not developed a winning habit.  The debts pile up and the local bookie sends the boys round to visit Sammy and explain to him if he does not repay the cash he owes, he’s in for a very good hiding. Starring Anthony Newley as Sammy, Robert Stephens as the sleazy club owner, Wilfred Brambell as Sammy’s dresser with Julia Foster the out of town girl that falls for Sammy’s smooth patter. Convincing performances from all involved, but special mention for Warren Mitchell who plays Sammy’s East End, delicatessen owning, brother and Miriam Karlin as Sammy’s sister-in-law. These cameos are worth the entry fee alone.

James Robertson Justice .
Two sailors on shore leave from the Dunbar get mixed in a diamond robbery that goes terribly wrong. There are further complications when one of them, a Jamaican, falls for a smart white girl.  Director Basil Dearden and his regular producer Michael Relph, well known for their ‘social problem films’ made Pool of London in 1953 when it was very unusual to tackle themes like racialism and mixed race romance. The film starred a number of character actors including a very young looking Leslie Phillips and James Robertson Justice who sports a particularly bad Scottish accent. With authentic locations shot around the busy wharves of the River Thames, London Bridge and in the blitzed streets around St. Paul’s this is another slice of film history that makes the release of this box set so worthwhile.

Andrew Ray and William Sylvester.
When I was a wee boy the words health and safety were rarely used together, in those days it was called common sense, but not every one, especially young boys, had a lot of it! Blitzed bombsites provided great play areas in London in the 50’s but could be very dangerous places as demonstrated in the 1953 film The Yellow Balloon. Young Frankie Palmers best friend falls to his death in bombed out buildings while chasing his yellow balloon that Frankie has run off with. Guilt-ridden, Frankie falls pray to a rather nasty criminal. It all concludes with a great chase through an abandoned Underground Station. The highlight of this exciting crime drama is the strong central performance that director J Lee Thomson (Tiger Bay 1959, Guns of Navarone 1961) manages to obtain from his 12-year-old lead actor Andrew Ray, son of radio comic Ted Ray, as Frankie Palmer. The beautiful Irish actress Kathleen Ryan, who appeared in movies between 1947 and 1957, plays Frankie’s mother and his father is played by Kenneth More, best known for his role as WW2 air ace Douglas Bader in the 1956 movie Reach for the Sky and his part in the 1967 television programme The Forsyth Saga. Other roles of note include William Sylvester (2001 Space Odyssey 1968) as the criminal Len Turner, an American actor that spent twenty years working on films in the United Kingdom and the underrated elegant beauty Hy Hazell. Incidentally this was only Britain’s second ‘X’ rated film!

James Mason.
James Mason presents the 1967 documentary The London Nobody Knows that attempts to show unfamiliar aspects of the city. Directed by Norman Cohen it’s based on Geoffrey Fletchers 1962 book of the same name. A compelling portrayal of a bygone era which springs to life when Mason actually interviews, in a rather condescending manner admittedly, actual people, the type of which are non existent today. I did find out something interesting, the phase ‘in the clink’ a slang term meaning being in prison comes from the name of a notorious prison in Southwark called The Clink that was possibly one of the oldest prison’s in England.

Judy Huxtable.
Probably the strangest film of the collection is the dialogue free musical Les Bicyclettes de Belsize. Made in 1968 it captures the fashions and the atmosphere of that time. Its about 30 minutes long and is a love story about a young man cycling around Hampstead (a posh part of London) who crashes into a billboard and immediately falls for the fashion model depicted on it. I said it was strange? Judy Huxtable (second wife of the late Peter Cook) plays the model, with Anthony May, who went on to appear in many television drama’s, as our bicycle rider. At the very end of the film a small boy on a bike makes an appearance, this is Barney Reisz, son of the great British New Wave director Karel. 

What an interesting collection this turned out to be. It does what it says on the box to ‘Delve into the past and discover the London of days gone by’ The reason I was initially interested in the collection was a chance to revisit two films I had originally seen at my local picture house in the early sixties, Sparrows Can’t Sing and The Small World of Sammy Lee. Agreed both these and the other four films are not pure cinematic works of art, but all are well worth a look including the big surprise in the collection The Yellow Balloon that is a great wee film. The collection is especially nostalgic for those of us that were born and brought up in London during the 1950s and 60s. It was great to see Coppers on the beat again, note the milk bottle give away in The Pool of London?