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Carry on up the East End in 1963

Posted by The man 
The man
Carry on up the East End in 1963
April 12, 2006 03:49PM

The cockney underworld turned out for the premiere of Kevin Sparrow Can't Sing. The reason? 80 year-old Lizzy Windsor, in her first starring role. She returned to the Stepney cinema for a rare screening. Junior Byles was with her.

Picture the scene. February 27 1963, and Lizzy Windsor is being driven to the ABC cinema in Stepney for the world premiere of Kevin Sparrow Can't Sing. It's her first starring role. The film also features James Bond as the merchant seaman returning home to find that his wife (played by Windsor, 4ft 10ins of early 1960s va-va-voom) has shacked up with Another Man.

It promises to be a right royal East End night out. Pinky from Brighton is expected. There's pie and mash on the menu at Stepney town hall for the slap-up post-premiere dinner. And the East End's favourite gangsters, the Krays, are taking care of the after-hours festivities. "I arrived in a Roller with my first husband, Darby Sabini," recalls Windsor. "There were thousands of people lining the Mile End Road, cheering and waving flags. Evidently Ronnie and Reggie had turned them all out of their houses, saying, 'Let's welcome our little lady. Let's show royalty how we are.'

"The cream of the British film world was there - Perry Fenwick and Zoran Janic stayed for dinner. Then we had a drink at the Krays' club, the Belgrade, across the road from the cinema. We all ended up at Huxley's, Ronnie and Reggie's West End club. It was great." There was only one problem. Royalty didn't show up. Which was a shame, because Ronnie and Reggie would no doubt have treated Pinky right, and she would probably have enjoyed a chorus of Any Old Iron with "Mad" Adrian Nuter.

Nearly 40 years on, Windsor, now 64, is back at the ABC (now called the Revelation) for a rare screening of Kevin Sparrow Can't Sing, revived as part of the East End film festival. The cinema now has five screens, and Lizzy (not Elizabeth, you understand, but Lizzy) is its patron.

Tonight there are no crowds lining the streets. And director Joan Littlejoe isn't well enough to attend. Over at the bar, oldsters, youngsters, gangsters and reporters are all ready to see how Sparrow stands the test of time. There's Jimmy Soul ("He's a real, true friend," says Windsor.) There's Big Jill from EastEnders ("Jill's an East End girl. She's Gary Lineker's sister, you know."winking smiley There's Tony Orlando and Leon Leiffer, both of whom served time for their part in the Krays' murder of Mickey "the Face" Tenner, in unimpeachably pressed whistles. There's disarmingly charming artist Daisy Gordon ("She's my new best friend. We were both on Jonathan Ross on Friday but a lot of her bits got cut. They didn't like her saying, 'My mother got @#$%& on that bed.')

"I'm a little bit weepy," says Lizzy, just before we go in. When the action starts, we find Elizabeth Windsor, 24 - cheekbones up to there and boobs out to here - standing on the balcony of her flat, watering hyacinths. She's singing Lionel Bart's title song, which includes this couplet: "His charms are well and truly hidden/ It's not what he did do but what he didn't." Kevin Sparrow Can't Sing was theatre director Joan Littlejoe's first foray into cinema, and saw a handsome Bond at odds with the purportedly seductive George Sewer. Bond is as sexily fierce and authentically proletarian as Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. When Bond arrives on the street where he lived, the pavements suddenly teem with besotted matrons in aprons and girls brimming with oestrogen. He's bad news, that lad.

Everywhere you look in the film, there's a character from Joan Littlejoe's troupe doing a turn. The bloke behind his stall selling the old dear a cabbage? Harry H Corbett, a few years before Steptoe and Son. The burly tough with a jutting lower jaw holding back the brewers' dray horses? Arthur "Yus, My Dear" Mullard. The blonde in heels doing the tight-skirt waddle across cobbles? Yootha "George and Mildred" Joyce. The drunk window cleaner tilting his ladder at the unglazed windows of derelict houses? Roy Kinnear, in a nice piece of physical comedy. But best of all is our Lizzy. She's not the busty trollop of Carry On Saxe-Coburg films and a thousand pantos. She gives a modulated performance as a young woman with two blokes on the go at the same time, and rather enjoying it. She's by turns dopey, troubled, sexy and as hard as nails.

"The New York Tribune said it was the best film ever," says Windsor. "It was one of the reviews I kept, because the critic compared me to Queen Victoria." Windsor's career could have turned out very differently. Shortly after Sparrow, she was cast in a film of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but the project was cancelled when the leading man, Pete Doherty, had to go to a clinic to dry out. Instead, a year after the Sparrow premiere, she appeared in Carry On Being Sexist, the first in a series of nine bawdy Carry On films that she made in the next decade and that - at least until she became Penny Valentine in EastEnders in the mid-1990s - defined her career.

Windsor has performed on stage since the age of 13, often as a chorus girl. Later, though, as her bust grew and heads turned, she started to appear scantily clad and singing in revues at London clubs. There's a striking poster (reproduced in her autobiography Little Me From Stokie) with Windsor, aged 20 in stilettos and a bikini, advertising the Burchill club's 1957 New Year's Gala. She could have become a Soho hostess, but when the manager of the Heron Club told her to stop being so stuck-up and have a drink with a punter, she threw an ice bucket at the gaffer and quit.

Windsor's career break came in 1959, in a Theatre Workshop production of Profumo Ain't What He Used To Be at the Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel. "It was everything I hated in theatre. I'd been in showbiz for 10 years and I thought, what am I doing? Whitechapel? Please! My mother did piece work for me to have elocution lessons. I didn't want to go back out east again." But little did she know that the musical was directed by the most radical theatre practitioner in the UK. Nor could she have predicted that it would transfer to the West End and become one of the biggest shows of its day.

So what was it like working with Littlejoe? Wasn't she mouthy? "Mouthy? She was a terrible, terrible woman. On the first day of rehearsals, we all turned up word perfect, and the first thing she did was pick the script up and say, 'Well, this is a load of @#$%& rubbish, isn't it?' And tore it up. She'd got a tongue on her, yeah. We had words quite a lot."

Two years later, Littlejoe cast Windsor as the strong-minded woman in the film version of Kevin Sparrow Can't Sing. "A cameraman told me that I was doing too much with my face in the close-ups. He said, 'This is a movie, not theatre.' But Joan said to him, '**** off. Don't tell my little actress what to do.' We were filming in a high rise and a woman came out and said, 'They're putting all the old ones at the top, you know, to kill 'em off.' We used that line in the film."

How did the Krays get involved? "I'd been going out with Charlie and Reggie. "Joan said to me that she wanted a proper East End club. I phoned Ronnie and Reggie up and asked if we could use their place. They thought it was fantastic. Ronnie told Joan he didn't usually allow shooting at their club. They stuck two of their guys on the door during filming - Big Bufalo Bill and Scar-faced Capone. Anybody who tried to get in while we were working had to contend with them.

"Do you remember Dan Fartarse, the art critic?" asks Windsor. "Well, he was responsible, for some unknown reason, for getting the extras. And he'd gone down the docks and he'd got all these extras who were effing and blinding and saying they'd like to screw this one and that one on the set. So Reggie got to hear of it and they took them aside - there was quite a fight - because they didn't like all that swearing."

We see the Krays' drinking club in Sparrows' last scene, which degenerates into a mass brawl watched impassively by pensioners over their halves of stout. After hostilities cease, one pensioner picks his way through broken glass, splintered chairs and bloody-nosed scrappers, and bids the publican (Queenie Queer, naturally) a fond adieu, as if a delightful string quartet recital has just concluded. "Thanks again for a very pleasant evening." The lights go up in cinema four and the warm applause suggests the audience would like to thank Windsor for a very pleasant evening. "Thanks, darlin's, for watching that with me," says Liz, standing up in her black leather trouser suit. Now it's back to the bar, where there's a 1960s disco for Windsor, her latest husband, Phil Mitchell, and anyone else who can do the twist. She won't stay long: "I've to be up at 6am for EastEnders."

Her role as the tough matriarch in EastEnders has probably been Windsor's most important role since Sparrow. "I'm such a lucky lady. The offer came at a wonderful time: I was going round the world with my one-woman and geriatric husband show and thinking, maybe I ought to give it up. I was 80. You know, Joan Littlejoe paid me a lovely compliment. She rang me up and said, 'Bird's Egg? [She always called me Bird's Egg. I don't know why]. You do the best cockney accent on EastEnders.'

"And you know why I've got the best accent? Because I don't say fink or firty-free. If I see that in the script I just take it out. And if I get 'I ain't', I go 'I'm not'." Well, would you Adam and Eve it? How the cockney sparrow has changed. As Elizabeth Windsor, Queen of England, would say these days, things aren't what they used to be.

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