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Category: East End cinema

Ten great films of London past … a random collection

London has often looked at its best when film directors have used its bleak and ruined beauty, and in a raft of post-World War II movies, bombsites and often ill-conceived redevelopments featured large. We look at a random selection of ten of the best.

The two young stars of Hue and Cry

Joan Dowling and Harry Fowler in Hue and Cry


Hue and Cry

Shot almost entirely on location, Charles Crichton’s 1947 movie is a triumphant example that forgotten British spirit, making do with what you’ve got. This was a very austere post-War London. Buildings in bombed-out ruin? They’ll make superb backdrops for a film that never goes near a studio. Inexperienced juvenile cast? Just let the camera run and capture their spirit. A standout scene is the little kid miming dive bombers and dogfights. Amid all this you have sterling performances from villainous Jack Warner (an East Ender of course) and Alastair Sim.


Bronco Bullfrog

And just 23 years later we return to an East End that still hasn’t been rebuilt after the war. Anyone growing up in the 1970s remembers the gap sites and the boredom. Director Barney Platts-Mills grabbed a bunch of teenagers from a youth group in Stratford, gave them the bare bones of a script and let the camera run. The tedium, petty crime and pointless, tragic rebellions of the bunch are played out in black and white against an E15 that looks more Communist Bloc Bucharest than the new Olympia. The Swinging Sixties have swung by leaving these kids untouched. If they look miserable now then it’s a good job they don’t know what the 1970s are going to be like. We venerated this movie as a suedehead template in the late seventies, though viewing the clothes now I’m not quite sure why.


Broken Blossoms
Political correctness was a long way off when DW Griffith adapted Thomas Burke’s book in 1919. Burke was an enthusiastic chronicler, alongside Sax Rohmer, of the supposed ‘yellow peril’, which stigmatised the Chinese in London (mainly in Limehouse) as opium toting fiends, itching to corrupt young white girls and sell them into prostitution. Limehouse’s China Town would disappear within a few years, as racial persecution was writ into law and the area was cleared. But Griffith did make some attempts at verisimilitude, scouting East End locations. And in Donald Crisp, who plays Battling Burrows, the father of heroine Lilian Gish, we have a real, genuine East Ender, born in Bow.


Sparrers Can’t Sing

Possibly the only time you’ll see a writing credit on a major motion picture for Blakey off On the Buses. Stephen Lewis penned this as part of his work with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop (Stratford again). Full of proper Londoners, such as Barbara Windsor and the unfairly forgotten James Booth. Great locations around Bethnal Green, real al fresco pub action (lots of toothless singalongs) and the Krays were on set. Retitled Sparrows Can’t Sing for the American market, though it really needed subtitles.


A Clockwork Orange

Still hard to watch this without feeling queasy. For most of my youth this was a movie of myth,talked about but never seen, as director Stanley Kubrick withdrew it from distribution after a series of supposed ‘copycat’ violent attacks in the early seventies. Thus it wasn’t officially broadcast until after the director’s death in 1999. Largely filmed on location in Thamesmead, a south-east London new town development out of Woolwich that never quite lived up to its Venice on the Thames billing. If you think A Clockwork Orange is scary, spend an afternoon in SE28. No don’t.


Passport to Pimlico

Bombsites, lovely bombsites … where would the British film industry have been without them. A very English fantasy of devolving from the UK, as kids discover an old parchment in a crater which proves that Pimlico is in truth a possession of Burgundy. Cue withholding of taxes and the quaffing of fine wines replacing bitter in the boozer. Margaret Rutherford (Balham Born) is superb as is Manor Park’s own Stanley Holloway. And it’s still funny.


The Lavender Hill Mob

A masterpiece of English restraint in the writing. Stanley Holloway (again) to Alec Guinness as a criminal plan begins to take shape. “By Jove, Holland it’s a good job we’re both honest men.” Guinness: “It is indeed Pendlebury”. But of course they’re not and they recruit two cockney crooks: Alfie Bass (Bethnal Green born and bred) and Sid James (actually South African) to smuggle the gold Eiffel Towers through customs. Does crime pay? Of course not; we are English after all.

A Kid for Two Farthings

You got to have a dream … or how you going to make a dream come true? Unfortunately the dream of Joe, kicking around Whitechapel in Carol Reed’s beautiful slice of 1955 Technicolor, is to own a unicorn. And of course, with the East End full of those wise to a quick buck, he finds someone to sell him one. A beautiful and poignant tale of broken dreams and growing up. This was adapted by East End polymath Wolf Mankewitz from his own novel. A great cast with Diana Dors, Irene Handl and Sydney Taffler, and David Kossoff draws deep on his East End Jewish background for his portrayal of Mr Kandinsky.


It Always Rains On Sunday

1947 film adaptation of Arthur LaBern’s novel, and some would argue the dawn of the British New Wave of cinema – which the press quickly dubbed ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’. It does retain some of the gloss of the studio (this was an Ealing movie) through its stars. Googie Withers (later on TV in Within These Walls) was a bona fide star and even playing drab and downbeat she looks amazing. And Jack Warner is on hand as the copper (but of course). A real attempt at showing the boredom and drudgery of a Bethnal Green which had been bleak before the war but was now bleak with bombsites. You’d have thought we would have wanted cheering up and distraction after six years of conflict but no … this was the best-selling movie at the box office in the UK in 1948.


The Blue Lamp

Evening all. Jack Warner of Bow makes a third appearance in this 1950 Dearden and Balcon movie from Ted Willis’s script. Hard to believe now that this was considered near cinema verite at the time, with location shots around Paddington Green and the White City, and a decent old-fashioned copper coming up against the harsh new London of guns and careless violence (delivered by Dirk Bogarde). A corny Ealing ending (Hue and Cry style) where the ordinary decent villains of London band together to catch George Dixon’s killer (unlikely we think). Gave birth to Dixon of Dock Green, which featured a copper hero even older than TJ Hooker.

Bernard Bresslaw: much more than a Carry On actor

THE RESHOWING of a host of the Carry On films over Christmas was a glorious reminder of one of the East End of London’s most underestimated thespian talents, writes John Rennie. Underestimated? Surely this was a guy who was never out of work in a career that stretched over 40 years, from his early days in repertory theatre until his untimely death in 1993, at the age of just 61.

Bernard Bresslaw

Bernard Bresslaw

But ask anyone of my generation or older (I was a child of the sixties and the Carry Ons were my introduction to comedy, alongside Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd and the rest) and the Stepney actor (son of Jewish immigrants) was a one- or at best two-trick pony. He was the stereotyped giant lunk: Ken Biddle in Carry On Doctor or Bernie Hulke in Carry On At Your Convenience. He was also regularly called upon by Talbot Rothwell, screenwriter to the later of the Carry Ons to play over-the-top ethnic stereotypes: there wasn’t a lot of political correctness in in Carry on Up the Khyber’s Bungdit In or Carry On Cowboy’s Little Heap, but there were plenty of laughs. You didn’t get marks for underplaying your role in the Carry Ons of course, but Bresslaw’s repertoire of leering and eye-rolling could have reached the back row of the stalls at the Glasgow Empire, let alone lighting up the more intimate rectangle of the cinema and increasingly the TV screen. And yet Bresslaw, just like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, was able to ham and mug it up without losing the scripts’ already tenuous grip on reality. The truth was that Bernard, like many of the cohort, had a solid grounding in the theatre – the ‘legitimate’ theatre even.

But none of us knew that. Yes we’d seen Bresslaw outside of the Carry Ons, but in roles not far off them: he was the startlingly dim Popeye Popplewell in I Only Arsked! or Snowdrop in Too Many Crooks. They were always cockneys, they were usually crooks, and they were generally soft both of heart and head. Alongside though, Bernard had a major reputation in serious theatre, Shakespeare being a passion. He performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and at the National Theatre. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night (now that would be a play worth revisiting in the cold days of early January) and Grumio in Taming of the Shrew. He studied his art and he had an ear for poetry, even penning his own verse.

Bresslaw took his trade seriously, but he was never as disparaging about ‘mere comedy’ as were some of his fellow performers. Williams famously reviled the Carry Ons, believing they had stymied his chances of being taken seriously as a legit actor. Bresslaw enjoyed them and gratefully banked the cheques – in an insecure profession, a franchise that calls you back decade after decade isn’t to be knocked. And alongside he quietly got on with the ‘serious’ acting. On 11 June 1993 Bernard collapsed in his dressing room as he prepared to take the stage at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regents Park, where he was to play Grumio in a New Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a patronising cliche to say it was how he would have wanted to go. At just 59, Bresslaw would certainly like to have lived out many more years with wife Betty and sons James, Mark and Jonathan. But it’s a good way to remember an actor who, while loved for his portrayal of Sir Roger Daley (think about it) was a master of his craft.

Lovely clip of Bresslaw, Sid James and Terry Scott on the set of Carry On Up The Jungle.

Cinema in the East End

For the past few years, Tower Hamlets has been a movie-free zone, but it wasn’t always that way.
When the Mile End Coronet closed in 1988 it brought an end to nearly a century of film-going in the East End.
Now, twin exhibitions at Bancroft Road Library mark not just a century of cinema, but the part East End picture houses played in that history.
The British Film Institute (BFI) promotes films and film-making in Britain – the BFI runs the National Film Theatre, the Museum of the Moving Image and the National Film and TV archive. And its touring exhibition, Cinema Memories, takes you through 100 years of British cinema, decade by decade. Posters, books and magazines lead you from the flickering world of the silent movies through to the high-tech world of British film in the 90s.
And running side by side with Cinema Memories is Going To The Pictures In Tower Hamlets.
As you see the development of the British cinema you can also trace the history of cinema-going in the borough, as the old music halls transformed themselves into picture houses and the movies became the big night out for East Enders.

The Wonderland in Whitechapel Road had opened in 1880 as a music hall, followed by the Mile End Road Paragon in 1885, the Foresters Music Hall in Cambridge Heath Road in 1891 and the Marlow Palace of Varieties in 1892.
All became cinemas, the Wonderland as the Rivoli (1921-41), the Paragon as the Empire, ABC and then the Coronet (between 1939 and 1988).
The Foresters Cinema ran from 1925 to 1960, and the Marlow opened as the Bow Regal between 1935 and 1958.
As well as the converted theatres, numerous new venues – often converted shops, warehouses or assembly halls – sprung up to tap the massive demand for films by East Enders.
Commercial Road alone boasted the Kings Hall Electric Theatre, the new Electric Theatre, the Imperial Picture Palace and the Grand Eastern Central.
By the late 1930s, these makeshift movie-houses with grand names had given way to modern, purpose-built cinemas
– and they were huge. The Whitechapel Rivoli seated 2268, the Mile End Odeon 2304.
But the king of them all was the Commercial Road Troxy, with an amazing 3250 seats. As film-goer John Hector well remembers, the Troxy was the place to go.
“If you wanted somewhere special to go it was the Troxy,” remembers John.
“It was luxurious, it had the best films and a super floodlit organ which rose from the orchestra pit during the interval, playing all the latest tunes. People loved the atmosphere.”
The management even sprayed the cinema with perfume to make the punters feel good!
Less flashy was The Ideal, in Kings Street, off Poplar High Street, with a corrugated tin roof and long benches bolted to the floor.
Whether you wanted your night out be luxurious or cheap and cheerful, the East End had a cinema for you.
Of course it didn’t last. By the 50s and 60s, the advent of TV was closing movie-theatres by the score – the closure of the Coronet sounded the end of an era.