Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Salvation in Soho? The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)

Even now with chunks of real estate sacrificed to the “progress” of Crossrail and corporate encroachments, Soho is still the place to be in London’s West End. From my first excursions down from Liverpool on school trips, to eighties evenings in the French House, Coach & Horses and Soho Brasserie leading off to subterranean clubs, rare grooves and even the Groucho, it has always been an edgy area defined by an adventurous cool amidst the drab erotica – an area where the capital is not quite in control and strange, illicit events may still occur.

Back in the early Sixties, Soho was in transition with its multi-cultural shopping streets gradually being marked with clip joints and increasingly-brazen strip clubs. It’s a demimonde sensationally captured in Beat Girl and even Espresso Bongo and it is not too much of a stretch to view this far less well known film as the third part of this loose Soho-Trilogy.

As with those films, The Small World of Sammy Lee, uses real locations – including a glimpse of the famed 2i’s Club in which so many folk and rock stars began – along with real strippers, albeit in the fictional Peep Show club built on a Pinewood backlot. It also has perhaps the most gripping and believable narrative as the titular Sammy (a fantastic performance from Anthony Newley) strives to pay his dues in order to avoid a heavy beating and disfigurement.

Sammy 'Lee' Leeman is a compere at the Peep Show Club and chief amongst his many weaknesses is his predilection for gambling.  The film opens following a spectacularly unsuccessful all-night session that leaves him £500 in debt to one of the gangsters running the area, the unseen “Connor”.

Sammy later sees another one of Connor’s customers who has had his face slashed for late payment, it can only mean one thing and he has no option but to try and talk his way out of it.

The sweetest girl in all the world…
Making his way to the Peep Show where he works, he finds that Patsy (Julia Foster – the sweetest girl in all the world…) who he had briefly romanced, has made her way down South to find him. Patsy is young an innocent but tough enough to subject herself to topless inspection by the club’s maniacally hard-chewing manager Gerry Sullivan (Robert Stephens a true British legend); whose eyes pop in appreciation.

After that day’s rehearsal, Sammy receives two of Mr Connors’ heavies in his dressing room: the world-weary older hand, Fred (Kenneth J. Warren) and the excitable young apprentice, Johnny (Clive Colin-Bowler). Not quite John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit but the more I think about it… they’re cut from the same grimy cloth.

For some reason Fred decides to give Sammy a chance… five hours to get the money and avoid the consequences and so begins the chase of Sammy’s life.

At first he tries the easy route and cabs it over to Whitechapel and his brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a delicatessen with long-suffering wife Milly (Miriam Karlin). Pleasantries quickly aside Lou might just lend Sammy the money until Milly intervenes… Perhaps it would be good for Sammy to work this one out for himself she suggests, the guilt of a previous fling hanging over the two in Lou’s oblivious presence.

It’s Sammy’s time to stand up and start counting… with the aid of his slightly befuddled sidekick Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) and in between shifts introducing the dancers at the Peep, he racks up the invention to try and raise the cash. He flogs some dodgy watches, gets glasses for a new club – run by an exasperated Roy Kinnear and a fey Derek Nimmo (harder than he looks, he went to school with my Dad in Liverpool!) -  and pays off one creditor against another.

Mr Newley with Wilfrid Brambell
Running heroically through your actual Soho streets, Sammy is in full flow almost as if it’s more than his life that depends on it… He gets a tip from a shady pal, and goes off to retail some grass, offending his hip black mate rehearsing his jazz in a basement before finding a supplier: some films wouldn’t take the time to pop popular perceptions in this way but, like Sammy himself, this narrative cares to cover a lot of ground.

Meanwhile Patsy has been persuaded to do a turn by sleazy Gerry and Sammy ends up decking him and getting the sack. Julia Foster insisted on doing the routine herself and it adds to our recognition of Sammy’s own disgust: Patsy’s not the kind of girl he wants dragged down in his world and she’s an important part of this day when his small world not only gets turned upside down but he develops a sense of moral responsibility.            

No spoilers…

Time clicks on and Sammy’s almost within reach of his total; he has an offer on the antique chair in which his mother used to sit, he’s loathe to sell it but it may be his only hope. He wants to face up to his debtors and yet the chance to flee up North with Patsy also offers him a way out… 

What’ll it be Sammy Lee?

There’s a fab score composed by Kenny Graham and a soundtrack is available from Trunk Records whilst Sammy is available on Blu-ray – all the better to spot those landmarks, streets and atmospheres that even now persist.

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