Patsy (Julia Foster) has arrived in London from Bradford hoping to meet up again with Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley), who she has enjoyed a whirlwind romance with recently. When she enters the nightclub where he works as a compere, the cleaning ladies tell her that nobody is around till the afternoon as this is the morning and she's far too early to meet anyone, never mind Sammy. As it turns out, he is not in bed, but is drawing to the end of an all night poker game, and it has not gone at all well for him. He was planning to win enough to pay back a local Soho gangster, but his luck is so poor that he has now doubled his debt...
...and now, of course, the gangster wants his money today or else. Or else there's no story, that is, and The Small World of Sammy Lee is affectionately recalled by the few who saw it as a cut above the usual London lowlife drama thanks mainly to an authentic feel to its dingy locations and realistic use of the actual places around Soho that such a character as Sammy would inhabit. The opening credits play out over tracking shots of various establishments in the area, starting out over a selection of then-exotic-sounding restaurants and ending up at the strip clubs and cinemas whose stock in trade would have been blue movies.
Sammy works in one of those strip clubs, introducing the acts which look very strange today as in these times of lapdances there is no pretence to dressing up the girls who are employed there as something artistic as they do here. So for a glimpse into sex show past, we see the women acting out Arabian Nights fantasies, or even having a bath onstage (Lynda Baron is that lucky actress), all for the titilation of the paying customers, a sad and pathetic bunch all. But that's the theme of this, that everyone is being exploited by somebody else, so the strippers are exploited by their bosses, who in turn are exploited by the punters, who are exploited by the strippers, and so it goes around in a seedy but vicious circle.
Sammy likes to think he is above all this, but his looming debts bring him back down to earth when he gets word from the gangster that violence will be visited upon his person if he does not pay up. The two hardmen who show up at the club to receive payment somewhat unbelievably allow Sammy a stay of execution out of the older thug's sense of sympathy, which in effect drags out a repetitive storyline far beyond the point where it should have been resolved. What follows are an abundance of scenes where it is demonstrated to Sammy that he is just as likely to milk any relationship he has for the cash as any of the two-fisted loan sharks of his acquaintance, and maybe make him understand that he should be better than that.
This would be fertile ground for life lessons, but as it plays out there's very little anyone learns about themselves or indeed anyone else. Sammy in particular doesn't undergo much of a personality change from the beginning to the end, with only a spot of moral testing for him to suffer, although he always appears more afraid of being seriously beaten up than, say, breaking Patsy's heart. Patsy is one of those cliché "innocence corrupted" roles, who has to endure a humiliation, in this case forced into becoming a stripper to help out an appalled Sammy, making our hero realise that he should have been on the straight and narrow all along, although even this revelation is thrown away in a Billy Liar-style denouement. Watch this for its recreation of a place and time, because you'll grow tired of it otherwise in regard to the plot, adapted by director Ken Hughes from his television play. Music by Kenny Graham.