ONE NIGHT IN SOHO:
- THE POP CAREER
OF ‘SAMMY LEE’
‘THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE’
With Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens,
Wilfred Brambell, Warren Mitchell
(British Lion Films, April 1963, DVD digitally restored
StudioCanal November 2016)
The council sprinkler truck sprays its way past empty market stalls down Soho streets. Parking meters pace the early-morning pavement, where old tenements give way defiantly against new towerblocks. Pigeons scatter and take wing. Kenny Graham’s haunting theme sets the melancholy black-and-white tone. There’s a fast blur drive-past of cosmopolitan eateries, Pakistani, Italian ‘Toscana’ Trattoria, Indian, French ‘Chez Auguste’, ‘Choys’ Chinese, with a sprinkling of lost product names, ‘Players’, ‘Toby Ales’, ‘Senior Service’. Then a fleeting glimpse of ‘The Two I’s’ Coffee Bar, now nothing more than a plaque on the Old Compton Street wall, in 1963 the ‘Birthplace Of British Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and still very much a going concern. The basement where Tommy Steele once strummed, Terry Dene, Cliff Richard and Vince Eager played, where Lionel Bart worked and Larry Parnes talent-spotted. Then the perspective shifts, from dustbin-men emptying garbage outside dodgy ‘Books And Magazines’ shops and the ‘Moulin Rouge’ striptease, to the Cameo Moulin cinema with glamour-model Pamela Green postered for Harrison Marks’ nudie-sexploitation ‘Naked As Nature Intended’
(1961), and ‘Revudeville’ at the famous Windmill Theatre. Although they ‘never closed’ during the war, they would finally shut down 31 October 1964. Leaving this fleeting film reference.
Wide-eyed Patsy (Julia Foster) strolls curiously down the street, in her neat white coat and matching white handbag, carrying her small suitcase as far as the downbeat ‘Peepshow Club’ entrance where there are pin-up photos of the dancing girls in glass cases outside, and one framing club compére Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley). Going inside, she tells the cleaning women she’s looking for Mr Lee. ‘Alright ducks’ she responds wearily. Patsy has made the ‘big exit’ and escaped two-hundred miles down from Bradford to the Smoke, on a vague promise after Sammy fed her some chat-up lines doing Summer Season at a Holiday Camp. As the cleaner knows, Sammy is a chancer. His bachelor pad has a Sammy Davis LP on the record player, ‘Variety’ magazine in the floor, bongos on the side-unit, plus posters of him at the Palace and the Scala.
Born in 1943, a teenage Julia had started out as a student nurse in ‘Emergency Ward Ten’
, one of ITV’s first Soap Opera’s, before a brief uncredited part in school drama ‘Term Of Trial’
(1962), with a pacifist teacher accused of inappropriate behaviour with an underage pupil, then she was ‘Gladys’ in Alan Sillitoe’s classic ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’
(1962) with a sullen and rebellious Tom Courtenay. While appearing with Oliver Reed in ‘The System’
(1964) she would be part of the perfect celebrity couple, married to Lionel Morton of squeaky-clean Popstrels the Four Pennies who topped the chart with “Juliet”.
But, attractively naive and vulnerable, this was Julia’s first major role in what would be an impressive TV and filmography. In club owner Gerry Sullivan’s (Robert Stephens) cluttered office she auditions for him, he impatiently demands ‘are you sure you’re eighteen?’ then talks on the phone as she undresses – urging ‘c’mon, let’s have a look at you,’ her eyes downcast as her bra comes off. He’s sufficiently impressed to offer her a job at £20 a week… just as Sammy bursts in, to advise her ‘you don’t want to work in a dump like this.’
Sammy opens the show with the throwaway ‘well, thank you for that thunderous ovation. Good afternoon, gentlemen, and welcome to the ‘Peepshow Club’… and you’re welcome to it.’ It’s a seedy down-at-heel Soho dive. With his role modelled on real-life ‘Windmill’ compéres such as Bruce Forsythe, Tommy Cooper or Peter Sellers, who valiantly perform to huge indifference bordering on active hostility, between sets by the dancing girls, who are the real attraction. ‘We’ve got a wonderful show here for you today so I want you to forget about the wife and make yourselves comfortable. Not too comfortable there, sir, thank you. We were raided last week. Sit back, relax, enjoy yourselves. We’ve got some really beautiful girls here, some really beautiful girls.’ As an impatient heckler shouts ‘well, let’s see ‘em then!’
‘Keep your seat-belt fastened sir, all in good time’ quips Sammy. The Peepshow Lovelies dance in a ghost of the Windmill’s tableaux vivants where the Lord Chamberlain’s censorial power determined that onstage nudes were forbidden to move, hence they form elaborate immobile presentations as excuses for nudity. There’s a humorous bubble-bath scene for Evette who protests the water is too cold, a dance of The Seven Veils, a Tribal Sacrifice, and a stripper who uses a prop-chair to arch her leg as she removes her black stockings in a slow tease to Dixieland jazz. ‘Waggle it, waggle it’ coaxes the stage manager as they rehearse dance moves. Although, with one cautious eye to certification, there’s no real nudity, with Burlesque nipple-pasties in place as required. ‘Now first of all, there’s Jacky’ announces Sammy. ‘Now Jacky, she’s a really lovely girl. She started off as a fan-dancer, saved up enough money to feather her nest...’ and when there’s no reaction, a dismissive ‘forget it.’
Expanded from a 1958 television play which also united Newley with writer/director Ken Hughes, Sammy Lee is first seen playing Poker in a card school – and losing. He punts on a cert at Newmarket, although he’s over his credit limit and they refuse to accept his bet. The horse loses. Heavily in debt to hoodlums he sees another of their victims in the café, who’s scarred face required twenty-four stitches, and he only owed them £200! Sammy’s £300 doesn’t sound like a great deal now, although at today’s rate it would be more around the £6012 mark. It’s the kind of problem that could easily be resolved with a simple bridging pay-day QuikQuid loan. But after desperate wrangling in the dressing room, he’s given a five-hour extension – they’ll come back at seven, or ‘they’re going to cut me up.’ Time for Sammy’s desperate bid to raise the outstanding cash by any means necessary.
Anthony Newley was the child actor who became the darling of the Las Vegas cabaret circuit. His brief flirtation with Rock ‘n’ Roll happened during his transition period from one to the other. Born in Hackney, London 24 September 1931, his most famous juvenile role was as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s ‘Oliver Twist’
(1948) – a role later played on stage by Phil Collins and Steve Marriott. In 1959, having efficiently bridged the chasm to minor adult roles, he plays a conscripted Rock ‘n’ Roll singer in the John Antrobus-scripted film ‘Idle On Parade’
(1959) – sometimes referred to as ‘Idol On Parade’. It touched several bases. Conscription into military service was a compulsory right-of-passage, a familiarity inspiring TVs ‘The Army Game’ and the debut ‘Carry On’ film – ‘Carry On Sergeant’
(1958), to which Antrobus contributed.
Elvis Presley had become the high-profile victim of the US draft-board, while Terry Dene’s brief run-in with National Service proved a hot newspaper controversy. The combination was irresistible. As spoof cockney Pop singer ‘Jeep Jackson’, Newley sang and co-wrote the title song – ‘I’m a guy who doesn’t dig that stuff’, an infectious Rock number, despite the fact that it was primarily intended as parody. Check out the huge giveaway wink on the cover-photo as well as the amount of vocal-echo on “Sat’day Night Rock-A-Boogie” and “Idle Rock-A-Boogie”. Yet it accidentally launched him into an unlikely recording career. Despite being an EP it entered the ‘NME’
singles chart at no.17 (9 May 1959), then climbed to no.13 as Elvis’ “A Fool Such As I” took over the top slot. His throbbing power-ballad “I’ve Waited So Long” – played during the soundtrack NAAFI scene, was spun-off that same EP – to hit no.3 (6 June 1959) in its own right! Incidentally, this was also one of the first song-writing successes for Jerry Lordan (as Lauden). They’d both go on to greater things.
At that time home-grown Rockers were thin on the ground, Lonnie Donegan was still around, Marty Wilde had already scored a few hits, and a sultry young Cliff Richard was the new upstart on the ‘Oh Boy!’ block. Nevertheless, already the wrong end of his twenties and rubber-faced in a not obvious teen fan-mag way, Newley had his foot in the Pop door. He’d been offered a chance, and he ran with it. The obvious thing to do was to cut a follow-up. So his unconvincing cover of “Personality” found itself in direct competition with Lloyd Price’s US original – and let’s be honest, superior version. Both were in the 4 July 1959 Top Ten with Newley three places higher at no.6.
Then, Frankie Avalon scraped into the Top Twenty with his big American chart-topper “Why”, but Anthony Newley’s more mature cover easily outshines its teen innocence, logging four weeks at no.1 from 6 February 1960, effectively denying Cliff’s “A Voice In The Wilderness” top slot. It was also being played all over the Pop radio shows as Elvis was being demobbed. As critic Patrick Humphries points out, ‘he wasn’t afraid of singing in his natural London voice, instead of opting for a slick mid-Atlantic accent’ (‘Record Hunter’
, May 1991). The catchy finger-snapping “Do You Mind?” – written by Lionel Bart for the movie ‘Let’s Get Married’
(with Newley and stooge Bernie Winters) gave him his second no.1, for the single week of 23 April. Then he saw the year out with two more hits, plaintive ballad “If She Should Come To You” (no.4, July), and the more playful “Strawberry Fair” (no.3 in November), followed into 1961 by “And The Heavens Cried” (no.6, in March).
Never a natural teen idol or Pop Star, it nevertheless gave him profile enough to springboard him into other projects. His surreal six-part TV series ‘The Strange World Of Gurney Slade’
(22 October 1960) saw him wandering off a stylised ATV sit-com set for strange encounters as he meanders through London, with Bernie Winters, a talking dog called ‘Rags’, a conversation with a statue, a dustbin, and a girl from a ‘Klean-O De Luxe’ advertising Hoarding (Una Stubbs). In a similar way, Sammy Lee talks to his reflection in the mirror while shaving, then sticks a paper hat on his head and wishes himself ‘Happy New Year’. Written with Sid Green and Dick Hills of ‘Morcambe And Wise’ fame, ‘Gurney Slade’ was judged too baffling at the time, but has subsequently been reclaimed as a groundbreaking foray into postmodern comedy, part ‘The Prisoner’ in his refusal to be part of a scripted life, while ‘Gurney In Wonderland’ sequences anticipate ‘Hard Days Night’ and the wacky ‘Swinging London’ movies to come, with internal monologue and glimpses into the thoughts of passing strangers. The jazzy Max Harris theme was reconfigured into “Bee Bom” which – coupled with his bizarre reinterpretation of “Pop Goes The Weasel” gave him his last hit, up to no.12 in June 1961.
Three more lesser items, “Gonna Build A Mountain”, “Once In A Lifetime” and “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” (which inexplicably got no higher than no.36 in August 1961, despite being regarded as one his classic compositions), were all mainstays of ‘Stop The World, I Want To Get Off!’
, the innovative stage musical he wrote with Leslie Bricusse in 1961, taking its title from some graffiti he’d noticed on the wall. The show not only broadened and revitalised the regimented structure of the musical, but also established the public image of subsequent Newley personas, of the dynamic, but tortured all-round entertainer. “D-Darling” in January 1962 (no.25) seems like a conscious last shot at replicating the breezy Pop of “Do You Mind”, and then the seriously silly novelty disc “That Noise” in July (no.34) – a subsequent ‘Junior Choice’ favourite, rounds out his chart career. The latter spoofs the recording of “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” with ‘I went down to the studio to record my latest hit, a sentimental ballad that I thought was full of… (pause)… potential.’ As a postscript to his Pop career, David Bowie deliberately imitates Newley’s vocal mannerisms as one of his early models, making Newley inadvertently responsible for “The Laughing Gnome”.
Meanwhile, teamed with assistant Harry (Wilfred Brambell), Sammy Lee desperately scams his way through the seedy London underworld in attempts to raise the outstanding cash, from one potential contact to the next, past the Whitechapel Tube station, down alleys and through the garbage in the street market gutter, to a cool jazz vibraphone soundtrack. He thumbs through his book of contacts. There’s the wonderful pairing of Warren Mitchell with Miriam Karlin as Sammy’s henpecked brother and disapproving sister-in-law. ‘You married me because I was smart and attractive’ she bitches as a reason for not advancing money, ‘I’m just trying to stay that way.’ Then teaming a camp Derek Nimmo with Roy Kinnear as Sammy benefits from broken glassware for their Lucky Seven Club opening. He checks out a black jazz combo to set up a pot score. He sells American Bourbon Whiskey and haggles a box of (allegedly) fifteen-jewelled Swiss watches, with ‘Steptoe’ Brambell delivering in a borrowed van. He finally agrees to sell his mother’s chair.
‘All my bleeding life I’ve been running’ says Sammy, like one of those white mice in a wheel ‘the faster you run the faster you don’t get anywhere.’ Back in his flat with a drummer rehearsing above, he’s in bed with an apparently naked Patsy. Despite her tearful protestations, he advises her to go back to Bradford, and even phones her travel arrangements. He misses the ‘Peepshow’ opening. ‘I know it’s a lousy show, but it’s got to go on’ protests Sullivan. ‘You’d think it was Sunday Night At The bloody Palladium’ he argues back. And – previously only waiting tables, Patsy strips in the ‘Garden Of Allah’ Arabian ‘hysterical… er, historical’ fantasy, to get his job back. ‘Tell your friends, but don’t tell the wife’ Sammy quips to the audience. Until, with his life falling apart around him, he delivers a final withering onstage blast – ‘well, Gentlemen, and I use the word loosely,’ telling how ‘the birds back here hate you, you make them sick’ and the Club is ‘the most second-rate nasty small-minded dirty little show in the West-End, and by the look on your faces it’s exactly what you deserve.’
In the eventual audit, Harry has accepted a cheque in lieu of cash, leaving Sammy well-short of the necessary £300. ‘In my day all the villains wore black hats’ he muses, ‘very smart, snap-brim.’ There are two enforcers. ‘There’s nothing personal in this’ says the older one as he slips his gloves on, and the younger more impatient thug locks the dressing room door. At first he tries to make a break for it. They pursue him. Patsy is catching a coach at Victoria Station. As Sammy gets a ticket to join her, the heavies appear – he pauses, and allows the coach to pull away. He resigns himself to the inevitable. He turns and gets into their waiting car. They drive into a derelict site beneath the railway, and beat him up as cool jazz plays. He ineptly fights back, but they leave him sprawled in the dirt, with his inadequate money-stash intact.
His laughter into the final credits is echoed into manic repetition.
As with ‘Gurney Slade’, Anthony Newley’s ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’
was initially deemed a failure, and lost money at the box-office. Yet has since been reclaimed, not least due to the fascinating glimpses it provides of a bohemian Soho low-life caught and preserved in crisply atmospheric monochrome. Just as the 1959 film ‘Expresso Bongo’
had opened with a long tactile tracking shot through a now time-lost Soho, so real you can smell its odours. This is the Soho that I remember from my late-teenage hitchhiking trips down to London, in all its intoxicating sleaze. The first film to be reviewed by Philip French in his ‘Observer’
column, it has only increased in critical reputation through the years since.
As he moved out of the orbit of his Pop career into more ambitious ventures, up and down, but never afraid of tackling high-risk projects, 1963 was also the year Anthony Newley married Joan Collins. He appeared in ‘Eastenders’
as a disreputable car dealer in 1998. And died aged 67, 14 April 1999.
‘THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE’
(Bryanston Films/ Seven Arts Pictures, through British Lion Films, April 1963) Producer Alec C Snowden. Director and Screenplay Ken Hughes. With Anthony Newley (as Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman), Julia Foster (as Patsy), Robert Stephens (as Gerry Sillivan), Wilfred Brambell (as Harry), Warren Mitchell (as Lou Leeman), Miriam Karlin (as Lou’s wife Milly), Kenneth J Warren and Clive Colin-Bowler (as muscle-men Fred and Johnny), Toni Palmer (as Joan), Harry Locke (as ‘Peepshow’ stage manager), Al Mulock (as Dealer), Cyril Shaps (as Maurice ‘Morrie’ Bellman), Roy Kinnear (as Lucky Dave), Derek Nimmo (as Rembrandt), Alfred Burke (as Big Eddie), Lynda Baron (as Yvette). Music by Kenny Graham. (DVD digitally restored BFI/ StudioCanal November 2016) 107-minutes
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