Carry on up the East end In 1963

The cockney underworld turned out for the premiere of Sparrows Can't Sing. The reason? Barbara Windsor, in her first starring role. She returned to the Stepney cinema for a rare screening. Stuart Jeffries was with her.

Friday December 7, 2001 The Guardian
 

Barbara Windsor and Ronnie KrayPicture the scene. February 27 1963, and Barbara Windsor is being driven to the ABC cinema in Stepney for the world premiere of Sparrows Can't Sing. It's her first starring role. The film also features James Booth as the merchant seaman returning home to find that his wife (played by Windsor, 4ft 10ins of early 1960s va-va-voom) has shacked up with Another Man.

It promises to be a right royal East End night out. Princess Margaret is expected. There's pie and mash on the menu at Stepney town hall for the slap-up post-premiere dinner. And the East End's favourite gangsters, the Krays, are taking care of the after-hours festivities. "I arrived in a Roller with my first husband, Ronnie Knight," recalls Windsor. "There were thousands of people lining the Mile End Road, cheering and waving flags. Evidently Ronnie and Reggie had turned them all out of their houses, saying, 'Let's welcome our little lady. Let's show royalty how we are.'

"The cream of the British film world was there - Stanley Baker and Roger Moore stayed for dinner. Then we had a drink at the Krays' club, the Kentucky, across the road from the cinema. We all ended up at Esmeralda's, Ronnie and Reggie's West End club. It was great." There was only one problem. Royalty didn't show up. Which was a shame, because Ronnie and Reggie would no doubt have treated Princess Margaret right, and she would probably have enjoyed a chorus of Any Old Iron with "Mad" Frankie Fraser.

Nearly 40 years on, Windsor, now 64, is back at the ABC (now called the Genesis) for a rare screening of Sparrows Can't Sing, revived as part of the East End film festival. The cinema now has five screens, and Bar (not Babs, you understand, but Bar) is its patron.

Tonight there are no crowds lining the streets. And director Joan Littlewood isn't well enough to attend. Over at the bar, oldsters, youngsters, gangsters and reporters are all ready to see how Sparrows stands the test of time. There's Dale Winton ("He's a real, true friend," says Windsor.) There's Mo from EastEnders ("Mo's an East End girl. She's Gary Oldman's sister, you know.") There's Tony Lambrianou and Frankie Foreman, both of whom served time for their part in the Krays' murder of Jack "the Hat" McVitie, in unimpeachably pressed whistles. There's disarmingly charming artist Tracey Emin ("She's my new best friend. We were both on Jonathan Ross on Friday but a lot of her bits got cut. They didn't like her saying, 'My mother got fucked on that bed.')

"I'm a little bit weepy," says Bar, just before we go in. When the action starts, we find Barbara Windsor, 24 - cheekbones up to there and boobs out to here - standing on the balcony of her flat, watering hyacinths. She's singing Lionel Bart's title song, which includes this couplet: His charms are well and truly hidden/ It's not what he did do but what he didn't. Sparrows Can't Sing was theatre director Joan Littlewood's first foray into cinema, and saw a handsome Booth at odds with the purportedly seductive George Sewell. Booth is as sexily fierce and authentically proletarian as Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. When Booth arrives on the street where he lived, the pavements suddenly teem with besotted matrons in aprons and girls brimming with oestrogen. He's bad news, that lad.

Everywhere you look in the film, there's a character from Joan Littlewood's troupe doing a turn. The bloke behind his stall selling the old dear a cabbage? Harry H Corbett, a few years before Steptoe and Son. The burly tough with a jutting lower jaw holding back the brewers' dray horses? Arthur "Yus, My Dear" Mullard. The blonde in heels doing the tight-skirt waddle across cobbles? Yootha "George and Mildred" Joyce. The drunk window cleaner tilting his ladder at the unglazed windows of derelict houses? Roy Kinnear, in a nice piece of physical comedy. But best of all is our Bar. She's not the busty trollop of Carry On films and a thousand pantos. She gives a modulated performance as a young woman with two blokes on the go at the same time, and rather enjoying it. She's by turns dopey, troubled, sexy and as hard as nails.

"The New York Tribune said it was the best film ever," says Windsor. "It was one of the reviews I kept, because the critic compared me to Judy Holliday." Windsor's career could have turned out very differently. Shortly after Sparrows, she was cast in a film of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but the project was cancelled when the leading man, Tony Hancock, had to go to a clinic to dry out. Instead, a year after the Sparrows premiere, she appeared in Carry on Spying, the first in a series of nine bawdy Carry On films that she made in the next decade and that - at least until she became Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders in the mid-1990s - defined her career.

Windsor has performed on stage since the age of 13, often as a chorus girl. Later, though, as her bust grew and heads turned, she started to appear scantily clad and singing in revues at London clubs. There's a striking poster (reproduced in her autobiography All of Me) with Windsor, aged 20 in stilettos and a bikini, advertising the Winston club's 1957 New Year's Gala. She could have become a Soho hostess, but when the manager of the Stork Club told her to stop being so stuck-up and have a drink with a punter, she threw an ice bucket at the gaffer and quit.

Windsor's career break came in 1959, in a Theatre Workshop production of Fings Ain't What They Used To Be at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. "It was everything I hated in theatre. I'd been in showbiz for 10 years and I thought, what am I doing? Stratford East? Please! My mother did piece work for me to have elocution lessons. I didn't want to go back out east again." But little did she know that the musical was directed by the most radical theatre practitioner in the UK. Nor could she have predicted that it would transfer to the West End and become one of the biggest shows of its day.

So what was it like working with Littlewood? Wasn't she mouthy? "Mouthy? She was a terrible, terrible woman. On the first day of rehearsals, we all turned up word perfect, and the first thing she did was pick the script up and say, 'Well, this is a load of fucking rubbish, isn't it?' And tore it up. She'd got a tongue on her, yeah. We had words quite a lot."

Two years later, Littlewood cast Windsor as the strong-minded woman in the film version of Sparrows Can't Sing. "A cameraman told me that I was doing too much with my face in the close-ups. He said, 'This is a movie, not theatre.' But Joan said to him, 'Fuck off. Don't tell my little actress what to do.' We were filming in a high rise and a woman came out and said, 'They're putting all the old ones at the top, you know, to kill 'em off.' We used that line in the film."

How did the Krays get involved? "I'd been going out with Charlie and Reggie. "Joan said to me that she wanted a proper East End club. I phoned Ronnie and Reggie up and asked if we could use their place. They thought it was fantastic. Ronnie told Joan he didn't usually allow shooting at their club. They stuck two of their guys on the door during filming - Big Scotch Pat and Scar-faced Willy. Anybody who tried to get in while we were working had to contend with them.

"Do you remember Dan Farson, the art critic?" asks Windsor. "Well, he was responsible, for some unknown reason, for getting the extras. And he'd gone down the docks and he'd got all these extras who were effing and blinding and saying they'd like to screw this one and that one on the set. So Reggie got to hear of it and they took them aside - there was quite a fight - because they didn't like all that swearing."

We see the Krays' drinking club in Sparrows' last scene, which degenerates into a mass brawl watched impassively by pensioners over their halves of stout. After hostilities cease, one pensioner picks his way through broken glass, splintered chairs and bloody-nosed scrappers, and bids the publican (Queenie Watts, naturally) a fond adieu, as if a delightful string quartet recital has just concluded. "Thanks again for a very pleasant evening." The lights go up in cinema four and the warm applause suggests the audience would like to thank Windsor for a very pleasant evening. "Thanks, darlin's, for watching that with me," says Bar, standing up in her black leather trouser suit. Now it's back to the bar, where there's a 1960s disco for Windsor, her latest husband, Scott Mitchell, and anyone else who can do the twist. She won't stay long: "I've to be up at 6am for EastEnders."

Her role as the tough matriarch in EastEnders has probably been Windsor's most important role since Sparrows. "I'm such a lucky lady. The offer came at a wonderful time: I was going round Britain with my one-woman show and thinking, maybe I ought to give it up. I was 57. You know, Joan Littlewood paid me a lovely compliment. She rang me up and said, 'Bird's Egg? [She always called me Bird's Egg. I don't know why]. You do the best cockney accent on EastEnders.'

"And you know why I've got the best accent? Because I don't say fink or firty-free. If I see that in the script I just take it out. And if I get 'I ain't', I go 'I'm not'." Well, would you Adam and Eve it? How the cockney sparrow has changed. As Barbara Windsor MBE would say these days, things aren't what they used to be.
 


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