Petticoat Lane in London is filled with the hustle and bustle of traders and their potential customers who mill around their carts and shops, and amidst this kerfuffle and almost-deafening noise of raised voices there wanders a little boy, Joe (Jonathan Ashmore). He is the son of Joanna (Celia Johnson) who has fallen on hard times since her husband left her to go to Africa and seek his fortune, with the result that she and Joe are forced to eke out a living in the shop of cobbler and clothes mender Mr Kandinsky (David Kossoff). He is a kindly older gentleman, and to amuse the boy he tells him tall tales to preserve his innocence, such as the one about unicorns being native to Africa...
As unicorns are supposed to grant wishes, Joe sets his heart on securing one for himself, no matter that this would seemingly be impossible, but director Carol Reed's adaptation of Wolf Mankowitz's novel (screenplay written by the author) was intent on crafting a fable out of the mundane and the prosaic, therefore this area of the British capital could, if you squinted a little, look like a magical place where in fact all things were possible. If this was something of a stretch, it was apparent that all involved were doing their utmost to deliver a timbre of the quasi-fantastical that would organically emerge from the less than sparkling environment of a lower class and unsentimental time.
Naturally, sentiment crept in early on, how could it not when we were seeing the world through a child's eyes, one who when he finds his unicorn is convinced that all will be well as long as he sustains his wishing on the horn growing from its forehead. Wait a second - he finds a unicorn? That's correct, but of course it's not a real one, it's a small baby goat that has a deformity, a single protuberance when it should have two, not that anyone points this out to Joe as he is so enchanted by the creature. A word on Ashmore: this was his only film appearance, and when he grew up he became a respected scientist, which on watching him, or rather listening to him, was entirely sensible.
Yes, the little boy is fairly shrill with his plaintive cry of "A Yooooon-icorn!", but fortunately he was often relegated to the periphery so Reed could concentrate on the more interesting adults - Joe doesn't appear to have any friends to speak of, hence his interest in animals. Which keep dying. Oh dear. Anyway, as well as Johnson's sufferings, we had Kossoff being twinkly in the way he did best, and two lovers played by Diana Dors, swiftly climbing the ladder to stardom, and Joe Robinson, the wrestler and stuntman who will be otherwise recalled for the fight with Sean Connery in the lift during Diamonds are Forever. Their romantic woes offered a backbone to what was a rather meandering movie, as their wish is to get married which in their current financial status proves difficult.
Fortunately, Robinson's Sam is a magnificent physical specimen (not that Dors was shirking in that respect) and he is determined to win titles for bodybuilding, but is having trouble getting started in that profession, so when he is at the gym and a bully of a wrestler, Python Macklin (enormous Italian boxer Primo Carnera), starts calling him a cream puff and generally mistreats all and sundry, Sam feels he must put the hulking irritant in his place. If he manages to do so, he will win a tidy sum and be able to afford that marriage, plus a few other things that his friends are keen to get but do not have the funds for. So you see, wish-fulfilment was the somewhat laboured theme, and if attaining your dreams comes at a cost, then that was the lesson to be learnt. Mostly, it was pleasing to watch this collection of reliable British thespians in one place, from the stars to supporting players like Sid James as a dodgy jewellery hawker, Irene Handl pinching Joe's cheek as he goes by, or Danny Green as the wrestler who wants to help - even Spike Milligan and Barbara Windsor were there if you looked. Music by Benjamin Frankel.
[The BFI dual format Blu-ray/DVD has the following features:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Sales Pitches: London Street Markets in Archive Film: four archive films of Petticoat Lane and London Bridge market
London After the War: the post-war period is evoked in archive films celebrating the city and its people
On the Ropes: a strenuous selection of archive films about wrestling and boxing
All in a Day's Work: actress Vera Day recalls A Kid for Two Farthings and her 1950s film career in a new interview
Interview with Joe Robinson (2006, 17 mins, audio only): the actor recalls A Kid for Two Farthings in this archive interview recorded live on stage at BFI Southbank
***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Illustrated booklet with new writing by Matthew Coniam and Dr Josephine Botting. Also includes extensive notes on the included archive films by the BFI's Vic Pratt and Ben Stoddart.]