Blu-ray Review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

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Restored release of a forgotten film captures the charm and sleaze of 1960s Soho.

It’s a hard day’s night for low-rent hustler and strip show compere Sammy Lee. A habitual gambler who has somehow always managed to land on his feet. His luck runs out after he is dealt a losing hand in an all-night card game. Hard-nosed debt collectors are on his tail and Sammy has five hours to raise £300 or he will have to take a severe beating.

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Today largely known for inspiring David Bowie, Anthony Newley was an all round entertainer in an age when being multi-talented wasn’t frowned upon. A successful child actor, he played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s adaptation of Oliver Twist. As an adult he simultaneously juggled several careers. Newley’s CV demonstrates that he was more than just the one-time Mr Joan Collins; pop singer, lyricist, stage, and screen actor. He experimented with electronic music ten years before David Bowie and Brian Eno decamped to Berlin. His groundbreaking series The Strange World of Gurney Slade redefined the possibilities of TV comedy several years before Monty Python picked up the gauntlet. He filmed The Small World of Sammy Lee while appearing in the West End production of Stop The World – I Want to Get Off.

Anthony Newley originally played the title role in writer-director Ken Hughes 1958 one-set BBC play. The feature-film moves beyond the confines of Sammy’s bedsit and takes the audience on a tour of a Soho and East End which was slowly rebuilding after suffering a battering during World War Two. London had yet to start swinging and gentrification was an alien word.
Sitting comfortably alongside Billy Liar, The Knack and Alfie, The Small World of Sammy Lee is an engaging example of British New Wave cinema which deserves to be better known.

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A melancholic noir, it offers one of the best available glimpses of early 1960s London. Newley’s pitch-perfect performance as the jaded compere on the fringes of showbusiness trying to save his skin and protect a naïve girlfriend (Julia Foster) is cynical and compassionate. The film is packed with a gallery of actors who would soon become household names; Warren Mitchell, Lynda Baron, Roy Kinnear, Wilfred Brambell, and Derek Nimmo.

StudioCanal’s welcome release of a restored edition should introduce a new generation to Anthony Newley’s work. The revival starts here.

The Small World of Sammy Lee is available to order from Amazon.

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