Sparrows Can’t Sing, first English language film to be released in US with subtitles

sparrers-cant-sing-cover-01Roy Kinnear’s stage career took a significant step forward when he appeared in Joan Littlewoood’s acclaimed production of Sparrers Can’t Sing, written by Stephen Lewis.

The story features cockney sailor Charlie who comes home from a long voyage to find his house has been raised and his wife Maggie has gone missing. It turns out that she’s living with bus driver Bert and has a new baby, whose parentage is somewhat in doubt. Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s well-known to have a foul temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they’re reconciled.

The play was first performed at Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1960, using the original cast from the Theatre Workshop, who later appeared in the film. While the script is by Stephen Lewis, the play was developed using improvisational theatre techniques and, as with many of Joan Littlewood’s other directorial pieces, was performed with an accomplished ensemble cast.


In 1962 the production transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and was made into a successful film the following year. The film, with the slightly amended title, Sparrows Can’t Sing, was shot on location in London’s East End, including around Limehouse, the Isle of Dogs and the theatre in Stratford where it was first performed. The Kray twins, who lived nearby, visited the production during filming and made a short cameo appearance in the film. Sparrows Can’t Sing was released in March 1963 and starred British film and television favourites James Booth, Barbara Windsor, Roy Kinnear, Avis Bunnage, Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce.

Sparrows Can’t Sing attempts to represent the diversity of characters and cultures that were prevalent in the East End during the early 1960s, including those typically found in the local pub, as well as local tarts, Jewish tradesmen and spivs. Consequently the dialogue became a mix of rhyming slang, London Yiddish and thieves cant. It is no surprise that it became the first English language film to be released in the US with subtitles.

Roy Kinnear and Anthony Quayle are the subject of RABBIT & SNAIL FILMS’ new documentary, STAGE DIRECTION.