‘Three Clear Sundays’ aired on 7th April, 1965 on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play. Directed by Ken Loach, well, I figured it would be sad. I still hadn’t quite known what I was in for. (This is chock full of spoilers, I warn you now).
It opens though, on some lovely footage of 1960s Portobello Market, back when Notting Hill was vibrant and full of life — the Portobello Market I’ve read about but only ever seen as dying embers. It opens on scenes of honest and dishonest graft, casual racism when the barman down the local throws out a black Caribbean fellow. You’re not welcome here, go to the other bar.
Back to his mates and his jokes.
This is where it all starts, where honest Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is accosted by a crooked copper (I love a film where crooked mean coppers are just a fact of life), belts him one. Heads off to jail.
Again the documentary takes over in the passage down to the nick, the line of men waiting to be locked up. Again the casual racism, a bit of comic relief at immigrant expense — a new inmate who’s single, though he’s shot the man who stole his wife. But he’s innocent now. Doesn’t know how old he is. Calls the copper ‘boss’, not ‘guv’. Can’t write.
But Danny Lee can’t write either. Nor can his brothers.
Some jokes at the tramp, his smell — a special disinfectant spray used on his seat.
Back to the drama.
Turns out Danny Lee is the youngest, the slowest, and the only straight in a family of fairly lovable thieves, their activities run by their mother (Rita Webb). She’s a fierce one, and never tires of repeating the moral of this particular story — the 11th commandment. “Never plead guilty.” Danny does, and see where it gets him.
Straight to the hangman’s noose.
I suppose that’s the other moral of the story — that the death penalty is wrong.
Danny’s path isn’t of his own making of course. He’s taken advantage of by some lifelong criminals, kings of the underworld — gone to prison for nothing, they ask. Couldn’t keep your nose clean? What couldn’t you do with £2000? He only dreams of a fruit and veg stall to replace his barrow, his Rosa (Finnuala O’Shannon), the baby coming, he’s so sweet and innocent…god you can see this tragic ending coming. So for the money to win this dream of his, he pretends to be crazy, bashes a guard over the head as part of their scheme to be let off early for good deeds rendered, kills him accidentally.
The story was a bit heavy handed for me, but I liked the documentary-styled bits. I liked when the criminals are raising cash amongst themselves and expand on easy money and hard-working poverty. Or when Rosa goes to visit Danny’s mother who dislikes her, says her son is too good for an ‘Irish cockney’ and offers to give her an abortion that very evening. She changes her tune when Rosa mentions her father’s offer of £500 and a caravan if she marries a man in work. I loved this glimpse into everyday life.
All of the scenes open up with a fairly mawkish Irish tune, I didn’t even notice right away that the lyrics tell of the characters and their dreams and their struggles and their failings. They bear the role of a Greek choir, the sentimentality of a drunk, the nostalgia of an immigrant and an innocence lost. The ballad of Danny Lee, his pregnant fiance, his mother with her heart (almost) broken by her only straight son. I thought it was pretty brilliant when I found this paragraph in an article (‘Love and Justice’ — Andrew Weir, 12 Sept 1997, The Independent) about the original story’s author, Jimmy O’Connor, sentenced to hanging himself for a murder he didn’t commit:
A 24-year-old petty thief called Jimmy O’Connor was swiftly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. It all seemed very straightforward. At Pentonville prison, he spent eight weeks in the condemned cell, listening to the air-raids and the maudlin singing in the pub over the Caledonian Road. He was to hang on the very day of his 24th birthday. But then, just two days before, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, mysteriously reprieved him.
Ah, the maudlin singing. It explains everything. It turns out that one of my favourite things about Three Clear Sundays is the man who wrote it — and the author of those poetic musical interludes? Nemone Lethbridge, his wife.
Nor had I ever heard of The Star Tavern, might be worth paying it a visit. I am just sad I never knew of it before as I spent a few wearying afternoons in the horrors of Belgravia wishing for a drink but fearful of stopping amongst such people.
One of the few neutral zones in the class war of this time was a pub in Belgravia called The Star Tavern, run by a semi-criminal landlord named Paddy Kennedy, who cheeerfully handed out foul insults to all his customers. They included famous figures in entertainment like Bing Crosby, the actor Richard Todd and playwright Emlyn Williams, who would mingle with upper- class bohemians, among them Princess Margaret and the gambler John Aspinall. Both groups could also experience the frisson of hobnobbing with publicity- happy criminals. Men like Eddie Chapman, the safe-blower who worked as a British double agent during the war, Billy Hill, the self-styled “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, and London’s most prolific cat burglar, George “Taters” Chatham.
Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays:
she began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”. “The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’. I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”
Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes…
Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld. For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.
I confess, it’s all very safe true-life flirtation with the glitz and glamour side of organised crime. I prefer in the end the depictions of its costs. The deaths of many a slow young man talked into something by someone slicker and more ruthless, the child growing up without a father, his mother without the man she loves or a chance at the future she hoped for. They’re the forgotten side of such crime that leaches off the system and calcifies into just another of its pillars. Criminals that always do prey on their own no matter the legend.
So back we turn to ‘Three Clear Sundays,’ and Danny Lee waiting in his cell, confessing his sins. We turn to perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, yet the most banal, as the hangmen practice their knots and their touch on the lever. As they talk about their everyday lives.
The end is still a shock.
Down with the death penalty, you must agree. And still, cheekily, the original moral comes through — “Thou shalt not plead guilty”. Turns out that is the title Jimmy O’Connor used for his 1976 autobiography. I am almost certain this is him on the back of this book.