The 1963 film The Small World of Sammy Lee has been restored by the BFI and is currently having a few screenings here and there. It is quite something.
Both the film and the incredible jazz score.
Here is what the BFI has to say about the film
The Small World of Sammy Lee worked brilliantly. See this superb film (screening in the BFI London Film Festival in a 2K digital film restoration) and you will witness precisely the acute creative on-screen energy that – when tightly harnessed, channelled, and controlled, in this case by Ken Hughes’ spiky script and taut direction – made Anthony Newley so extra special.
The Small World of Sammy Lee originated as a claustrophobic one-man television play, Sammy (1958), written by Hughes, centring around Newley’s titular Soho wide-boy on the blower desperately trying to scare up £200 for the bookie before burly bully-boys arrive to collect.
Bolstered by the recent successes of Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Newley’s well-received stage show, Sammy was expanded to become a feature film. With gifted Wolfgang Suschitzky aboard as cinematographer, this talented team delivered a gloriously grimy, gritty, downbeat London gangland classic.
Largely shot on the streets of Soho, it sees Newley – again exceptional as Sammy, now a strip-club compere – frantically chasing cash across town before time runs out, surrounded by a crackerjack cast including Julia Foster (as an old flame who’ll do anything to win Sammy back), Miriam Karlin, Wilfrid Brambell, Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell.
Now that seamy Soho seems to have vanished before our very eyes, the lewd London glimpsed so effectively as the backdrop to Sammy Lee also eerily emerges as valuable documentary evidence of a largely unsung urban panorama. Captured by Suschitzky’s lens are narrow streets and shop-fronts that speak evocatively of a grime-encrusted Soho, circa 1960, a little run-down and slightly seedy perhaps, but oozing with individuality, character and atmosphere – a Soho now largely being supplanted by interchangeable retail chains, office blocks, and harshly angular vistas of chrome, plastic and glass.
As Sammy dashes about the curvy, cobbly, intricate, increasingly distant streets of long-ago London town, seeking financial salvation, despite the hustle and bustle of the crowd he strikes a lonely figure. Hard-hitting, gripping, achingly melancholy in tone, but sharply spiced with the hopelessly piquant pepper of Sammy’s cynical wisecracks, The Small World of Sammy Lee reminds us that the loneliest place can very often be that spot right at the heart of a crowd.
Which may be just one of the reasons why Anthony Newley is so exceptional in this role. Newley, though at home on stage, oft gave the impression of a man unsettled, with love, with life, and always on the run – perhaps from himself – despite his success. Certainly that’s the conclusion you might draw if you allow yourself to believe the words of his signature song – perhaps the most lugubriously theatrical ballad he ever wrote with Bricusse, the tears-of-a-clown show-closer ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’
What kind of fool am I
Who never fell in love
It seems that I’m the only one
That I have been thinking of
Why can’t I fall in love
Like any other man
And maybe then I’ll know
What kind of fool I am
Could it be that offstage, despite fame’s glitziest trappings, Tony considered himself a man alone at the heart of a crowd – something like Sammy? Was it, perhaps, the part he was born to play? Certainly, London is a lonely place when you’re down on your luck; and certainly, here, Anthony Newley, thoroughly convincing in his supremely lonely portrayal of sad Sammy, gives what might be his greatest and most affecting performance, in what is perhaps Ken Hughes’ finest film. Don’t miss it.
The score was never released until the great Jonny Trunk goy wind of it. Here is what he has to say about it:
Aah yes, The Small World Of Sammy Lee. A classic London film. With a superb, but missing London jazz score – not that anyone really cares that much. Well I certainly do. A few viewers come across the film following the trail of Anthony Newley, who I think is incredibly important to anyone into the history of London, theatre, film, TV, Joan Collins, music and of course classic songwriting in the East End / Lionel Bart style. The Small World Of Sammy Lee was a coming of age film for the young but already prodigious acting star. Those who have seen the film will know it’s quite a brilliant movie, with Newley’s natural born Hackney hussling style finding the perfect match in Sammy “Lee” Leeman, a nightclub compére who has to find impossible amounts of cash (£300 in 1963) in just one day to fend off the bookies he’s dangerously in debt too.
It was a racy “X Certificate” film of its day – and is perfectly set in the sleazy Soho of the early 1960s. Pimps, strippers, brasses, queers and thugs decorate the film with alarming regularity. And as the movie begins there’s a long, slow title sequence shot as the sun is coming up in W1. We follow a dustcart through the empty first-light streets – Old Compton Street, Dean Street, Wardour Street, Greek Street and all to the perfect soft, dawn jazz of Kenny Graham.
My first encounter with the film was thanks to Ben Horner, a great record collector and enthusiast about all thing 1960s and London. He put me onto the film and that opening sequence was, for me anyway, to die for. Naturally I wanted the music, wanted the soundtrack, but of course no score had been issued and after some investigation it seemed like no master tapes existed either. And Kenny was dead. I’d already spoken to his son about archives and he knew nothing. So I put the idea of it all to bed. But it was only a few years later when I’d issued the classic Moondog And Suncat Suites album by Kenny Graham (JBH036CD / LP) that I discovered that Kenny also had a daughter. I paid her a visit to talk about Kenny’s life and work and to my delight she’d found a box in her attic full of Kenny’s old quarter-inch reels. One had the word “Sammy” written on a tiny sticker on the front. It just had to be the lost score – and indeed once I’d got it transferred, confirmed it was.
The next step was to license the recording. This should really be a simple task, with yeses and noes making it quite straightforward. But even that still took a year. And so here we are now, about five years on with this, the first ever issue of The Small World OF Sammy Lee music.
I wish there was a list of musicians performing on the recording but there are none. Some of you jazz masters out there may well be able to discern who plays what where once you’ve heard it– and please get in touch if you have suspicions. To others I suggest you sit back and let the music take you on a little trip through Soho fifty years ago.