Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Street theatre... The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), BFI London After Dark Season

Even now with chunks of real estate sacrificed to the “progress” of Crossrail and corporate encroachment, Soho is still the place to be in London’s West End. My first decade in London was dominated by evenings in the French House, Coach & Horses and Soho Brasserie leading off to subterranean clubs, rare grooves and, yes, even the Groucho, before a pick me up at the Bar Italia and the night bus home. It has always been an area defined by an adventurous edge amidst the drab erotica – a place where the capital is not quite in control, commercially or morally.

Back before my time, 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 Espresso Bongo yet whilst Sammy Lee is part of this loose sub-genre of Soho films it's also far more aligned with the social realist films of the period and British noir. Which is exactly why Edgar Wright has included it in this season of London films that influenced his Last Night in Soho.

Even more than those earlier films, The Small World of Sammy Lee, uses real Soho 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 easily the most gripping and believable narrative as the titular Sammy (a truly fantastic performance from Anthony Newley) strives to pay his dues in order to avoid a heavy beating and disfigurement.

I’ve only ever seen this film on the small screen and watching it again I could identify nearly every street as Sammy’s search for cash takes him up Berwick Street, through Old Compton Street, down Gerrard Street and by cab over to Whitechapel and even Victoria Coach Station in its pomp… a place of low-budget, comings and goings. It’s a breathless travelogue north and south of Shaftsbury Avenue as well as a tribute to the communities of retailers and, yes, even adult entertainers, just about getting by.

Towards the end, Sammy’s ready to stop his perfunctory stand-up and turns on his audience in a way they don’t understand… there’s no “love” in the Peep Show Club and there’s certainly no actual sex, just a fantasy presented to an audience of sad men by a group of women who “hate their guts”. But it’s not just the women who are stuck… everyone is looking for something they don’t have, the girls, even the club’s owner, Sammy and his sweetheart, Patsy. What will it take to break away?

Sammy 'Lee' Leeman is a compere at the Peep Show Club (located in a basement in Gerrard Street according to the essential Reel Streets) and chief amongst his many weaknesses is his predilection for gambling. The film opens following a spectacularly unsuccessful all-night session that leaves him £300 in debt to one of the gangsters running the area, the unseen but ever-present, “Connor”.

Not so sharp with the cards...

Making his way to the club, he finds that Patsy played by Julia Foster simply one of my favourite actors and if you want to see her in excelsis, seek out Mr Axelford’s Angel – I have a spare copy should anyone want it! The two had enjoyed a brief romance when Sammy was playing the Northern circuit and the 18-year-old has left home and 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), whose eyes pop in appreciation. Stephens is always great value and one of my regrets is not seeing his Lear although I did once spend an afternoon with him being beery in a pub just off Primrose Hill.


Even on the Pinewood soundstage, the Peep Show is drab and depressing yet Sammy has an energy that belies his circumstances but you get the feeling that he’s running on empty. He’s perpetual motion but hardly unstoppable as the arrival of two of Mr Connors’ heavies in his dressing room is about to prove. They’re quite the couple, old hand Fred (Kenneth J. Warren), who has his own inscrutable sense of decency and the excitable young apprentice, Johnny (Clive Colin-Bowler). Not quite John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit but there’s something about Sammy that touches Fred and he decides to give Sammy a chance… five hours to get all the money, in cash and avoid the consequences. So begins the chase of Sammy’s life.

(Should be) Dame Julia Foster

His first thought is to try the easy route and he 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.

Maybe it is 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.

Running heroically through the Soho streets, Sammy is in full flow, 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 – having been played by Hughes whose stand in for her was rather heavier, persuading her that she had no alternative but to put her best foot forward. It is an uncomfortable watch – the actress was just 20 and in her first major role even if 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; today is the time for stick or twist, run or stay and the fear of Frank’s fists grows with every passing minute…What’ll it be Sammy Lee?

Ken Hughes directs his own script with focus, maintaining the flow even with so moany stop off points along Sammy’s five-hour dash. He also wasn’t averse to using a few tricks or two to bring out the best in his cast with Foster saying recently that he’d told her later that he’d deliberately set out to make her feel vulnerable throughout the shoot. Cameraman, Wolfgang Suschitzky came from a documentary background and he captures London in such a forensic way this film is surely one of the best records of the era. There’s also a fab score composed by Kenny Graham and the soundtrack is available, of course, from Trunk Records.

Johnny and Fred pay Sammy a visit

Sammy Lee is on Blu-ray with extras including an interview with Julia Foster, Mike Hodges – influenced by the film on Get Carter – and a location guide to help you spot those landmarks, streets and atmospheres that persist even as they slowly fade away…

You can buy it from the BFI shop online.

There was also a fab short, Look at Life: In Gear (1967) which took us down Kings Road and Carnaby Street in search of Swinging London. Michael Ingrams’ sardonic commentary tells us that we’ll be missing the point if we take it too seriously but we do get to see inside Granny Takes a Trip, Hung on You, The Antique Supermarket, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet – for your genuine ex-military braided jackets - Biba… clubs like Tiles, The Bag ‘o Nails and other venues were Syd’s Floyd, Jimi and The Soft Machine could be found! Ingrams takes his tongue out of his cheek long enough to point out that these shops were breaking the mould and inventing their own fashions, in that sense independent Britain maybe still swings here and there…

Rupert Court with the Blue Posts in the background, that and the one in Berwick Street are still open.

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