By Cathi Unsworth.
The title sequence alone is enough to send you. Hitch a time tunnel ride on the back of a dustbin lorry through the monochrome Soho of 1963; a world that is waking with the traders on Berwick Street market and simultaneously crawling to bed as the spielers kick out their night’s trade onto Old Compton Street. Watch mesmerised, snapping your fingers to Kenny Graham’s swinging jazz score, as the camera sweeps past the legendary 2i’s coffee bar, where Larry Parnes found Tommy, Cliff and Dickie; lingers along the billboard for Harrison Marks’ Naked as Nature Intended; and finally comes to rest on the type of exotic revue bar for which Soho will always be famed. Stumbling through this dawn, fresh from another lost card game, comes our eponymous hero, strip club compere Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman. Still with a spring in his step despite all that lost gelt, sharing a tip with the newspaper hawker, passing it on down the phone to the bookies to the roar of a Gaggia machine. About to find out he’s got just seven hours to pay up the £300 he owes… or face the cosh boy consequences.
Fans of Edmund T Gréville’s 1959 juvenile delinquent classic Beat Girl will find Ken Hughes’ The Small World of Sammy Lee comes as a revelation. It’s set in exactly the same milieu that Gréville populated with Christopher Lee, Adam Faith, Ollie Reed and The John Barry Seven. But its depiction of the caustic strippers, razor-wielding enforcers, wideboy shysters, bored brasses and hepcat jazzers is so much more kosher. It’s not just the exemplary cinematography of Wolfgang Suschitzky, nor Hughes’ direction of his own corking script that brings this world to such vivid life – it’s the towering central performance of Anthony Newley as Sammy.
As with just about every performance of his life, Newley draws deep from his personal well of darkness and moral ambivalence in the portrayal of the fast-talking ladies’ man desperately scamming all angles. Surrounded by some of the era’s finest character actors – Wilfrid Brambell as his bagman Harry, Warren Mitchell as his long-suffering brother Lou, Alfred Burke as a pool shark dead ringer for Derek Raymond, Roy Kinnear as a blustering club owner and Derek Nimmo as his swishy aide — Newley swindles shopkeepers, punts bent Swiss watches and fences maryjane. Even the arrival of the lovestruck Pasty (Julia Foster), down from Bradford on a long-forgotten promise, does little to slow down his fevered mission.
The script is shot through with rich Jewish humour. When he first calls on Lou at the family deli on Petticoat Lane, Sammy’s beleaguered brother despairs: “Five minutes you’ve been in my shop, you haven’t even asked me how’s business.” “How’s business, Lou?” acquiesces Sammy. “Don’t ask!” The undercurrents between Lou’s iceberg wife Milly (Miriam Karlin) and Sammy hint that this bad brother has always been prepared to stop at nothing to get what he wants, and indeed, by the end of the movie, he will be hocking his very soul.
But along way, there is so much fun to be had, particularly in the environs of the strip club, where one girl looks like Amy Winehouse, one girl actually is Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron) and Sammy’s patter gets ever-more nihilistic: “Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, we have in here one of Soho’s lowest, cheapest and downright shoddiest shows, and by the look of you lot, you deserve it.”
The Small World of Sammy Lee is a teeming vista of tenderly-rendered lowlife that totally transcends the exploitation genre it was aimed at and preserves for us every last, lingering detail of the haunting and eternally fascinating post-War, pre-Swinging London.
Paul Goodhead, secretary of the Anthony Newley Appreciation Society, talks to the Sohemians upstairs at The Wheatsheaf, on 8 July. Details to be posted at the Sohemians website.