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)
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”.
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!’
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.