Archiving Joan Littlewood

In the centenary year of the great theatre director Joan Littlewood, we explore her lesser-known work with film and television, including a hitherto unknown TV pilot she made in India in the 60s.

Josephine Botting
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Joan Littlewood directing Sparrows Can’t Sing (1962)

Joan Littlewood directing Sparrows Can’t Sing (1962)

Joan Littlewood is best remembered as the fiercely independent and often controversial theatre director behind successful productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be and Oh, What a Lovely War! But she had a range of interests beyond the stage, many of which sprang from her deep-rooted socialist beliefs. One little-explored area is her work in film and television – while her one feature film Sparrows Can’t Sing (1962) is familiar to fans, she also worked on commercials and even directed a TV pilot. When her friend Peter Rankin donated her film collection to the BFI National Archive, we uncovered some rare material which shed light on her lesser-known projects.

This year, to mark Littlewood’s centenary, venues around the country have focused on her Fun Palace project. In the early 1960s, she had the idea of creating a huge, moveable construction that would house all kinds of educational entertainments for old and young alike, a “university of the streets”. Sadly, the project never came to fruition and the lack of cooperation from arts bodies and local councils she encountered over it compounded her hatred for such institutions.

She even went as far as making a film to promote the scheme; reportedly, it was shown at the National Film Theatre in the early 1970s but has since disappeared without trace. However, Littlewood’s collection contained 60 reels of rushes shot for the film in London and the South East, the aim of which was to demonstrate that people needed a place to go and have fun.

Littlewood was a persuasive character and several important figures backed her campaign. Radical architect Cedric Price designed a temporary, mobile structure to house the Fun Palace, described in the promotional brochure as “a short-term plaything in which all of us can realise the possibilities and delights that a 20th-century city environment owes us”. Other notable supporters were violinist Yehudi Menuhin, artist-filmmaker Bruce Lacey and famed scientist Professor Buckminster Fuller.

Cameraman Walter Lassally also came on board and filmed much of the footage now housed in the archive. Shot in pubs and clubs, galleries and museums, air shows and stock car races, the 16mm films are a window on life in 1963, from mixed couples dancing in backstreet clubs, striptease acts in East End pubs, and life in the new tower blocks which were springing up out of the postwar ‘slum clearance’. Housing issues were a major theme of Littlewood’s film, Sparrows Can’t Sing (1962), which lamented the destruction of traditional working-class communities. Several years later, her play The Projector analysed the on-going inquiry into Ronan Point, the high-rise block where a gas explosion killed four people in 1968. A rare clip of this production also survives in Littlewood’s film collection.

A discovery from Joan Littlewood’s film archive: Bijou in Hyderabad, apparently a TV pilot she shot in India with actor Maxwell Shaw in 1966

A discovery from Joan Littlewood’s film archive: Bijou in Hyderabad, apparently a TV pilot she shot in India with actor Maxwell Shaw in 1966

Maxwell Shaw in Bijou in Hyderabad (1966)

Maxwell Shaw in Bijou in Hyderabad (1966)

The failure of the Fun Palace project was a major disappointment to Littlewood and it was perhaps this disillusionment which took her to India in 1966 with actor Maxwell Shaw in tow. Here she shot footage for a 30-minute piece entitled Bijou in Hyderabad, apparently intended as a pilot for a TV series. The project isn’t mentioned in her autobiography, Joan’s Book, in fact there is no reference to her trip to India at all. The first we knew about it was when the cutting copy came into the Archive; sadly, the rushes from the shoot had disintegrated before they reached us. The resulting episode is a disjointed but colourful romp in which Shaw pursues a beautiful Indian girl; it’s more successful as an evocation of the country and people than as a comedy but is fascinating as a missing chapter in Littlewood’s creative story.

Although Littlewood has left her mark most firmly on Britain’s theatrical history, she was someone whose interests and impulses took her in many directions. The BFI’s acquisition of her film collection has given us further insight into a little-known facet – her brief but varied moving image career.

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