“Right then, get dressed!” my mother sang out once a year when I was a child. “We’re going down the Lane,” and I was at the front door with my coat on before she was. The Lane was not one of the leafy green byways that dotted our North London suburb of Mill Hill, a few blocks very down-wind from the ritzy homes of number two James Bond Roger Moore and The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan. To my father, a watchmaker with a tiny shop in cacophonous inner-city Clerkenwell, walking those lanes offered blessed peace and quiet. Perhaps because I was too callow to consider the fact that my folks had worked themselves to the bone to raise their kids in a green-designated suburb with decent schools, I found our neighborhood unutterably dull.
No, the Lane I loved to visit was Petticoat Lane, a bustling street market in London’s East End where my mum grew up. In the early 1960s the East End was still a working-class neighborhood dominated by the descendants of Jewish refugees from the pogroms who settled there in the 1880s. The Lane and its adjacent Brick Lane market provide the setting for Carol Reed’s charming 1955 movie, A Kid for Two Farthings, whose title is derived from an Aramaic song in the Passover Seder featuring a goat that could be bought for two zuzim.
The Lane was—and remains today, though with a mostly Southeast Asian demographic—noisy and cheerful and teeming with life both sacred and profane. The name derives from the dictum that “they would steal your petticoat at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other.” You could buy anything there, much of it “fallen off the back of a lorry,” and some of the vendors from my mother’s childhood years still manned the stalls. “That your little ‘un, Hannah?” one grizzled stallholder bellowed at Mum when we stopped by. “She’s the image of you.” And he’d tickle my cheek and load me up with sweets in lethal shades of neon green and yellow.
I purred, thrilled to be in a place where, though I’d never lived there and never would, I felt I belonged. It wasn’t all roses, warned my mother, who grew up in poverty, albeit cushioned by a large, warm family. But my imagination was busy building a world that was equal parts reality-based and Dickensian dream. The life of my Lane was a wishful mishmash that drew on my mother’s tales and my own fevered longings for community. Adapted for the screen by Wolf Mankowitz from his novel about his native East End, A Kid for Two Farthings captures the Lane’s rowdy, humane spirit, and indulges my every gilded fantasy.
There’s not much to A Kid for Two Farthing’s mushrooming plotlines, which fan out through the eyes of a rosy-cheeked little boy, Joe (Jonathan Ashmore), who dodges through throngs in the market, looking for a unicorn whose magic properties will, a trusted authority has told him, grant his fondest wish and those of the struggling characters who people his tight-knit world. With the notable exceptions of Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) as Joe’s mother, and the platinum blonde Diana Dors (known as Britain’s Marilyn Monroe, whom she closely resembled in luscious looks and traumatic history) as the long-suffering fiancé of bodybuilder Sam (played by Joe Robinson, a wrestler who taught Honor Blackman her moves in the television series The Avengers), the movie’s sprawling ensemble is studded with Jewish character actors beloved of British audiences. Some, like the comic actor Alfie Bass, who looked like a mash-up of all my cab-driving, tailoring Cockney uncles and who has a bit part in the film as a seller of live birds, grew up in the East End. In one corner of Joe’s universe, plucking chickens and gently teasing the boy, sits the versatile character actress Irene Handl, who often played Cockneys both grumpy and jolly, and made a crackerjack Lady Bracknell in Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. And diving through the crowds to foist iffy jewelry on unsuspecting buyers is Ice Berg, played by the wicked Sidney James, a regular of the Carry On franchise with a face more lined and cratered than John Hurt’s.
The center of Joe’s world, and the carrier of the movie’s tragicomedy and its fluid blend of realism and fantasy, is Mr. Kandinsky, a trouser-presser who employs Joe’s mother, who’s also Mr. K’s lodger. Played by the actor and commentator David Kossoff, old Avrom Kandinsky is a master storyteller who bucks up mother and son with aphoristic fables that teach hope and good cheer not because the world has earned it but because they’re better than the alternative. If Mr. Kandinsky is the movie’s light, he is also the interpreter of its darkness. In a key scene where one of Joe’s pet chicks has died, the kindly old tailor spins a yarn for the distraught lad about a time “long ago” when Earth’s unicorns were all but exterminated. Only a few survived and, like Joe’s absent father, gathered in Africa. To Joe this is history, not fiction. On Mr. K’s worn face is etched that other history, the story of the repeated persecution of the Jewish people.
A Kid for Two Farthings did well at the local box office, but it got little love from critics, who dismissed it as lightweight and sentimental in comparison with Reed’s acclaimed darker works, Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and his noir masterpiece, the ravishing thriller The Third Man (1949), with Orson Welles as Harry Lime. On paper the movie may seem like an odd project for an upper-crust WASP like Reed, who came from Putney, a London borough not far by Tube from the East End but a whole planet removed in class and ethnic terms. The movie’s wishful portrayal of the Lane as a brawling but tolerant multicultural community seems to stand in sharp contrast to the expressionist moodiness of Reed’s more celebrated films.
Yet the film’s antic rowdiness rests on a bed of wistful sadness. The pogroms and, later, the Holocaust, both of which drove Jews to England in their thousands, hover mutely over this wonderfully expressive picture, shot by the cinematographer Edward Scaife, who also worked with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on Black Narcissus and John Huston on The African Queen. By day there’s something almost Chagallian about the Lane’s passing regulars, like the silent, bearded rabbi who wanders in and out of frame, reading a holy text as he wheels an ancient phonograph through the crowds. By night Fashion Street turns into a place of celebration that can morph on a dime into a warren of shadowy avenues where lurk the threat of violence and, for a beautiful blonde, sexual danger.
At age ten or thereabouts, I registered the tragic undertow of A Kid for Two Farthings only dimly, if at all. What resonated for me was the crowded, boisterous everyday world of the Lane. I desperately wanted to live on Fashion Street where, unlike our silent borough, a drama was always unfolding and a warm community stood ready to look out for you when life delivered its hard knocks.
After every joyful trip down the Lane, Mum and I repaired to Bloom’s delicatessen for a salt beef sandwich (a close cousin of pastrami on rye) with a monster pickle. There my mother lit up with pride as she counted off the Jewish celebrities who grew up in the East End, among them the playwrights Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, and Lionel Bart, the librettist and composer of the stage play of Oliver! (Reed directed the 1968 film version, for which he won an Academy Award), and a roster of boxers, boxing being one of the few sports at which British Jews excelled in numbers.
But it was my mother’s life I sucked in like fresh air. The youngest of five children in her Polish-Jewish family, she was always last in line for her turn in the same rapidly cooling water in a tin bathtub wheeled into the kitchen by my grandmother once a week. Mum said that when suitors came to call on her older sisters, she would rush upstairs and spit on them canoodling at the front door of their tiny row house, the idea being that the projectile would see off all rivals for her beloved siblings’ attention. My bighearted, spectacularly bosomed grandmother was the neighborhood’s de facto assistant midwife, and therefore also a de facto ambassador between the mostly Irish-Catholic or Jewish families on their street, now razed to the ground.
Though she missed the warmth and solidarity of her childhood, my mother, who had weathered the Great Depression and World War II, took a less romantic view of the East End. Money was scarce, the air was polluted, and it was there, while our little nuclear family was living abroad, that her father, my Grandpa Sam, died of bronchitis and a heart attack on the street. He was one of 12,000 who perished during the 1952 Great Fog of London, so beautifully evoked in an episode of Netflix’s The Crown.
A Kid for Two Farthings winds down with a collage of wins and losses for its central players, and for little Joe an awakening under the gentle guidance of Mr. Kandinsky to the mixed blessing of real life. At the end Mr. K. walks with a supine goat in his arms through the nocturnal quiet of his neighborhood, with only the streetlamps and the blue and red glow of shop signs to light his way. As he crosses paths with the silent rabbi, his voice-over intones, “Unicorns can’t grow up on Fashion Street. But boys do.” Too folksy? Maybe. In A Kid for Two Farthings ambience is everything, and place is where we grow the stories to tell ourselves and others. “Life is all dreams, Joe,” says Mr. Kandinsky. “Dreams and words.”
The East End had sustained heavy damage in World War II during the Blitz. Over time most of its Jewish inhabitants moved to other London boroughs and then out to the suburbs, though it retained enough of its shifting colors to be immortalized in the long-running television soap opera Eastenders. When my mother was in her eighties our cousin Monty, who gave walking tours of the East End, guided us around the Jewish buildings and monuments that remain there. I don’t think I ever saw my mother cry on more than two occasions; that was one of them. Mum is long gone, but she and the Lane live on in my memories of our visits, her stories, and in Reed’s beguiling homage.
A Kid for Two Farthings is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.