During the 1960s, Anthony Newley was a prominent figure in showbiz; a former child star turned actor, as well as an acclaimed singer and songwriter, and one-half of celebrity couple with wife Joan Collins. As a child actor, Newley played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). As a songwriter, he co-wrote songs including Goldfinger, Feeling Good, and was Academy Award nominated for co-writing the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Sadly, in the years since his death, Newley is mostly a forgotten figure in the world of British entertainment. However, loyal fans of his work will be delighted to see that London-based crime drama, The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), has been restored and released as part of the BFI London Film Festival this year.
Set and filmed on the streets of Soho, we follow strip-club compere Sammy Lee (Newley) as he races against time to pay off a gambling debt. Ken Hughes wrote and directed the film, based on his 1958 BBC play Sammy, which also starred Newley; essentially the 1963 film is a more detailed version of the original production. Newley is at the helm of this film, with a supporting cast of British actors including Robert Stephens, Julia Foster, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell and Roy Kinnear.
Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who passed away in October 2016 aged 104, brings to the screen a striking view of 1960s London, and the seedy underworld which existed at that time. Even in one of the busiest cities in the world, the isolation of Sammy Lee is portrayed so strikingly. The image of black & white London, as Newley navigates his way around the streets – meeting various characters and trying to raise the money – is almost a character in itself.
The sense of anticipation regarding whether the debt will be settled in time is less prominent in this production, in comparison with the shorter television play it’s based on. However, in adding to the original plot, and bringing in an array of new characters, a background to the character of Sammy Lee is created. The film is thick with dialogue, giving the actors a great deal to work with.
Although Anthony Newley is likely to be remembered more for his other work in films (Doctor Dolittle, Willy Wonka), as will writer/director Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), The Small World of Sammy Lee is a hidden gem of 1960s British cinema, which may yet create more Newley fans in the decades since its release.
The Small World of Sammy Lee is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.