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The London Collection [DVD]
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This collection brings together six films, all produced in and showing various locations in post-war London and covering a range of themes from blackmail in a bombed out slum in the East End to dockside smuggling and robbery. In 'Pool of London' (1951) a group of sailors, including Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), a charmer who dabbles in smuggling and Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), a quiet and reserved Jamaican, arrive in London. Along the way MacDonald finds himself seriously set up by a gang of diamond smugglers and Johnny falls in love with a white girl. The film is noted as being the first British picture to deal with interracial relationships in the post-Windrush years. In 'The Small World of Sammy Lee' (1963), small time criminal and strip joint compere Sammy (Anthony Newley) has five hours to come up with the money he owes to a group of gangsters. Set in the back streets of Soho, the film follows Sammy trying to come up with a scheme to make some fast cash. 'The Yellow Balloon' (1953) is a tense tale of a young boy, Frankie (Andrew Ray), who is used and deceived by a crook. While playing in a bombed part of their neighbourhood, Frankie's friend falls to his death. When Frankie climbs down to help him he finds Len (William Sylvester) who is in hiding after committing a murder while robbing a pub. Len blackmails Frankie into helping him evade capture, but when he feels Frankie knows too much he sets about trying to get rid of him. In 'The London Nobody Knows' (1967), James Mason narrates as the viewer is taken on a tour round a side of London the tourists don't see. Documenting the street vendors and local characters, and giving a fascinating glimpse of a culture soon to disappear, the film contrasts starkly with the 'swinging sixties' vision of London at the time. In the short musical 'Les Bicyclettes De Belsize' (1969), a young man falls in love with a fashion model after seeing her photograph. Most of the film involves following the characters, on bicycle, around the Hampstead area of London, to the accompaniment of a musical soundtrack. In the comedy/drama 'Sparrows Can't Sing' (1963) Charlie (James Booth) returns home from sea to the East End of London expecting to come home to his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor), but soon finds the house is gone and she has moved in with a married bus driver and has a child. Charlie quickly sets about trying to sort things out while neighbours eagerly watch the ensuing chaos.
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Pool of London is regarded by Charles Barr, author of the book Ealing Studios (highly recommended for putting the films in their sociological context), as the single film most representative of Ealing values. A tale of merchant seamen docking in London for a few days, there is a crime subplot, stylishly shot on location, but the heart of the film is the friendship and trust between Bonar Colleano and Earl Cameron, a young Jamaican. Cameron's character has a tentative romance with a young white woman, delicately handled, although the film does not shy away from depicting the prejudice of the time, a theme director Basil Dearden explored further in the later Sapphire (not on DVD). The movement between the various subplots is expertly handled and watch out for brief appearances by Leslie Phillips (too brief) and James Robertson Justice, the ship's captain who refuses to set foot in London, preferring to drink whisky and read poetry. There is a choric element to his character as he explains why: too much filth and degradation in the city.
The Yellow Balloon stars the young Andrew Ray as a terrified boy coerced into helping a petty criminal. It could be seen as a companion piece to director J. Lee Thompson's later Tiger Bay, also about a child being manipulated by an adult to escape the consequence of that adult's actions. In the latter film, however, the relationship between criminal and child subtly shifts, whereas in The Yellow Balloon the villainy is unremitting. But Ray gives a great performance, largely non-verbal, and there is added poignancy in the location filming in buildings torn apart by war and in an apparently unused underground station.
The Small World of Sammy Lee has the simplest of plots: a seedy Soho stripclub compere has until seven o'clock to pay off a longstanding gambling debt; we follow Newley's character as he does what he can to raise the money. This loose structure allows us to meet a variety of characters in Soho itself (lots of location filming) and Whitechapel (Warren Mitchell plays Newley's brother). There is also the complication of one of Newley's naïve provincial conquests (Julia Foster) coming to London to be with him, plus Robert Stephens as a convincingly repellent nightclub owner. Ken Hughes' earlier film with Newley, Jazz Boat, is not available but is also worth investigation if it ever resurfaces.
Sparrows Can't Sing is adapted from a Theatre Workshop play by Stephen "Blakey" Lewis; Lewis himself plays a milder prototype of his celebrated jobsworth. As with Sammy Lee, there is not a huge amount of plot - Barbara Windsor's husband is coming back home after a long absence, unaware she has shacked up with someone else - but this leisurely film is so rich in atmosphere, character and comic moments that you never miss the impetus of a more tightly plotted storyline. And I don't know how it felt when first released, but watching today the portrayal of a community where everyone is interconnected makes it seem like a world away, though the rubble of demolished houses replaced by new high rise blocks make it clear that London was already in a state of transition to greater impersonality. Oh, and the filming at the end takes place in an actual pub - owned by the Krays.
The documentary The London Nobody Knows and the half hour film musical Les Bicyclettes de Belsize are on the same disc; the documentary, based on a book of the same title, has James Mason taking us around the grimier parts of London: abandoned theatres, buskers who were once variety acts, a Salvation Army Hostel etc. What's interesting is that Mason's narrator figure doesn't mourn the past and reminds us that much was squalid about Victorian London. There is the suspicion when watching that parts are staged but it doesn't matter: the images make their impact however captured. Les Bicyclettes ... is the only one I haven't yet watched so cannot comment on.
To sum up: films shot between 1952 and 1969 without a huge amount in common except a great deal of location shooting in London, but that is a great deal on its own: enough to convey a sense of a lost world and give an added poignancy to these pieces.
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