UK, 1959, 93 mins
Director: Basil Dearden

Reuniting Cameron with director Basil Dearden after Pool of London, and hastened into production following the Notting Hill riots of summer 1958, Sapphire continued Dearden and producer Michael Relph’s valuable run of ‘social problem’ pictures, this time using a murder-mystery plot as a vehicle to sharply probe contemporary attitudes to race. Cameron’s role here is relatively small, but, playing the brother of the biracial murder victim of the title, the actor makes his mark in a couple of memorable scenes. Like Dearden’s later Victim (1961), Sapphire was scripted by the undervalued Janet Green.
Alex Ramon, bfi.org.uk

Sapphire is a graphic portrayal of ethnic tensions in 1950s London, much more widespread and malign than was represented in Dearden’s Pool of London (1951), eight years earlier. The film presents a multifaceted and frequently surprising portrait that involves not just ‘the usual suspects’, but is able to reveal underlying insecurities and fears of ordinary people. Sapphire is also notable for showing a successful, middle-class black community – unusual even in today’s British films.

Dearden deftly manipulates tension with the drip-drip of revelations about the murdered girl’s life. Sapphire is at first assumed to be white, so the appearance of her black brother Dr Robbins (Earl Cameron) is genuinely astonishing, provoking involuntary reactions from those he meets, and ultimately exposing the real killer. Small incidents of civility and kindness, such as that by a small child on a scooter to Dr Robbins, add light to a very dark film.

Earl Cameron reprises a role for which he was famous, of the decent and dignified black man, well aware of the burden of his colour. His character is in stark contrast to the gangster caricature of Horace Big Cigar (Robert Adams), or the violent presence of Johnnie Fiddle (Harry Baird). Gordon Heath, a star of stage and screen, gives a scene-stealing performance as dandy Paul Slade.

Despite his intelligent handling of the issues, Dearden is not immune to prevailing prejudices, equating a young woman living alone in London with promiscuity, and seeing an enthusiasm for jazz as evidence of dubious character. The film is littered with casual, unchallenged racism: sexy petticoats found in Sapphire’s room are evidence of ‘the black under the white’. A landlady justifies evicting Sapphire by saying ‘Would you be pleased, Inspector, if someone gave you a brass sovereign?’

It is easy to criticise attitudes from a distant past. Sapphire was made shortly after the 1958 Notting Hill riots. The film was also on the cusp of the more permissive 60s. As such it is a cultural and social litmus of the age. Though critic Nina Hibbin writing about Sapphire in the Daily Worker (9 May 1959) expected more from a director signed up to the liberal cause: ‘You can’t fight the colour bar merely by telling people it exists. You have to attack it, with passion and conviction. Commit yourself up to the hilt. Otherwise you’re in danger of fanning the flames.’
Ann Ogidi, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk

Directed by: Basil Dearden
©: Artna Films Ltd
Presented by: The Rank Organisation
Executive Producer: Earl St. John
Produced by: Michael Relph
Production Manager: Douglas Peirce
Production Controller for Pinewood Studios: Arthur Alcott
Assistant Director: David Orton
Continuity: Tilly Day
Original Screenplay by: Janet Green
Additional Dialogue by: Lukas Heller
Director of Photography: Harry Waxman
Camera Operator: H.A.R. Thomson
Editor: John D. Guthridge
Art Director: Carmen Dillon
Costume Designer: Julie Harris
Make-up: W.T. Partleton
Music by: Philip Green
Title Song Lyrics: Sonny Miller
Title Song Sung by: Jimmy Lloyd
[Music] Played by: Johnny Dankworth and His Orchestra
Sound Recordists: Dudley Messenger, Bill Daniels
Sound Assistant: Harry Fairbairn *
Sound Editor: Arthur Ridout
Sound System: Westrex Recording System
Made at: Pinewood Studios

Nigel Patrick (Superintendent Robert Hazard)
Yvonne Mitchell (Mildred)
Michael Craig (Inspector Phil Learoyd)
Paul Massie (David Harris)
Bernard Miles (Ted Harris)
Olga Lindo (Mrs Harris)
Earl Cameron (Dr Robbins)
Gordon Heath (Paul Slade)
Jocelyn Britton (Patsy)
Harry Baird (Johnnie Fiddle)
Orlando Martins (barman)
Rupert Davies (Jack Ferris)
Freda Bamford (Sergeant Cook)
Robert Adams (Horace Big Cigar)
Yvonne Buckingham (Sapphire Robbins)
Basil Dignam (Dr M. Burgess) *
Peter Vaughan (plainclothesman Whitehead) *
Victor Brooks (Sergeant Newton) *
Fenella Fielding (manageress of lingerie shop) *
Thomas Baptiste *
Fay Craig, Fay Sparks (dancers) *

UK 1959©
93 mins



Flame in the Streets
Sun 8 Aug 15:00; Sat 28 Aug 17:10
Tue 10 Aug 20:20 (+ discussion); Sat 28 Aug 13:00
The Fear of Strangers (+ intro) + The Chocolate Tree
Sat 14 July 14:10
Thunder on Sycamore Street + discussion with Actor Ashley Walters (schedule permitting) and playwright Stephen S Thompson)
Sat 14 Aug 17:30
African Odysseys present: A Warm December
Wed 18 Aug 20:40
Pool of London
Wed 25 Aug 20:50
Two Gentlemen Sharing
Mon 23 Aug 20:30

Season co-curated by actor-director Burt Caesar and the BFI’s Marcus Prince and David Somerset.

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Please note: many of these films contain language, images or other content that reflect views prevalent in its time, but that may cause offence today. The titles are included here for historical, cultural or aesthetic reasons and these views are in no way endorsed by the BFI or its partners.

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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