If you lived with me, and only Sarah does, you would know that at the least provocation or simply for the joy of it I will burst out singing my favourite bits from Lionel Bart’s musical “Oliver.” My “favourite bits” amounting to the whole thing actually. That musical is one of the greatest joys of my life and has been ever since the 1960s when I first heard it.
I saw it performed as well. Three times in fact. Obviously in the glorious 1968 film version. But also live and around the same time, in Liverpool and in Bootle. The Bootle performance was done as the school play at the Salesian College on Netherton Way. I wasn’t in the play, to my ever since regret, but I did go to the Royal Court in Liverpool to see an inspirational touring version of the musical with the school cast.
These school and Royal Court performances were in 1967, I think. And along with the music my other memory from the Saturday matinée at the Royal Court was that we were all evacuated from the theatre for a while as, they said, the jumping up and down of the excitable young audience might have cracked the theatre balcony! I realise now of course that they couldn’t possibly have organised a structural survey in the short tine we were stood outside, so suspect the stoppage was to calm us all down. Because we were very excited. And I remain more than pleased, every time I even think of Lionel Bart’s life enhancing songs.
And as if I needed it I was reminded of the life enhancement of “Oliver” early this Saturday morning in 2021, when Elizabeth Alker played “Who will buy” on her BBC Radio Three programme. The loveliness of it reminded me of my long intended writing of this song of praise.
Not that “Oliver” the book, and the films made of it have been without blemish or anti-semitic controversy. Dickens’ original and then David Lean’s film from 1948 both containing racist characterisations of Fagin. But not Lionel Bart’s lovely musical that caused such outbreaks of joy throughout my formative 1960s.
“The lesson (from the 1948 film version) was that Fagin had to be rehabilitated. When Lionel Bart wrote his musical in 1960, he gave him the heart that was absent in both Lean’s film and the Dickens novel. Reviewing the situation…with irresistible tunes, the musical provides a lyrical redemption that makes him lovable. It rescues Fagin from the gallows that awaited him in the novel so that, memorably in the 1968 adaptation, he can dance towards a new dawn with the Artful Dodger, Jewish, exotic, other, but delightful.”The Jewish Chronicle 2013
“Jewish, exotic, other, but delightful” says The Jewish Chronicle, and that’ll do me. Singing a lifelong favourite as I wander into the kitchen to make my breakfast:
“Food glorious food, I’m anxious to try it”Lionel Bart
Wonderful. And thank you Lionel Bart for so many of the songs of my life. I’m off for a musical breakfast now.