I once called the musical Oliver! the finest hangover cure known to man. Let me explain. For years it was shown on New Years Day, so after many a heavy New Years Eve, I crawled onto my sofa and put it on. No matter how rough I was feeling, within 20 minutes of the film starting, I’d feel a hundred times better and be singing my head off to those wonderfully familiar songs by the genius that is Lionel Bart. Thus, hangover cured.
I find it hard to put into words why it has such an effect on me personally, but I know I’m not alone in responding to the life affirming nature of the film. Please stand up Bobby Tarlton.
The Romulus Productions filming began at Shepperton Studios on 23rd June 1967, based on the stage musical first seen in 1960, which itself is based on the novel ‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens. Carol Reed was in the director’s chair and he had a huge previous success with ‘The Third Man’ in 1949, and the script was by Vernon Harris. There was an extensive rehearsal period of six months before shooting and that groundwork paid off with the cast said to be ‘living their parts’ by the time filming began.
Newcomers Mark Lester and Jack Wild took the main roles of Oliver and The Artful Dodger respectively. Though just turned 30, Ron Moody had played the part of the aged Fagin in the stage musical and he went on to reprise the role here to fantastic effect. Others considered for the part included Dick Van Dyke, Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers.
Director Reed kept it in the family when he employed his nephew Oliver Reed in the role of Bill Sikes. Bill’s lady Nancy, was played by Shani Wallis, who was a controversial
choice as many felt the actress Georgia Brown, who had played Nancy in the West End, was a ‘stick on’ for the role.
I’m not sure how those who complained about the final decision would have felt upon hearing that Elizabeth Taylor was first choice, with Julie Andrews also on the list of possibles. I especially love the fact that Shirley Bassey was considered. Now that would have been something to see and indeed hear.
The beadles of the workhouse were played by ex Goons star Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble and his domineering wife Mrs Bumble, by the terrifying Peggy Mount. Other notable appearances include Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as Mr and Mrs Sowerby of the undertakers and Kenneth Cranham as Noah Claypole their apprentice.
The singing voice of Oliver in the film is still something of a mystery. American actress Kathe Green then aged 22 and daughter of Johnny Green, who orchestrated the musical score for the film and 11-year-old British schoolboy Roger Bowman both claim to be the voice of Mark Lester, who was tone deaf apparently.
That still raging debate brings me to the songs and what beauties they are. ‘Food Glorious Food’ ‘Boy For Sale’ ‘Where Is Love’ ‘Consider Yourself’ ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ ‘I’d Do Anything’ ‘Who Will Buy’ ‘Reviewing the Situation’ and ‘Oom Pah Pah’. Belters the lot of ’em. Bart was never better and he certainly made a few bob out of them, although he only hung onto it for a few years, before he went skint.
Celebrated film critic Roger Ebert said at the time of the films release ‘this isn’t a watered-down lollypop. It’s got bite and malice along with…romance and humour. Oliver! Succeeds finally because of its taste. It never stoops for cheap effects and never insults our intelligence. And because we can trust it, we can let ourselves go with it, and we do. It is a splendid experience.’
It’s no surprise to me that this joyous film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 6. Best Picture, Best Director, Art Direction for John Box, Best Score for Johnny Green, Best Sound for Buster Ambler and an honorary award for Oona White and her choreography.
Those sets at Shepperton were wonderfully evocative and my old man bless him, always believed the 350 soldiers who marched in the ‘Who Will Buy’ sequence were filmed in or around Bloomsbury/Bedford square, so realistic did they look. ‘Got to be real’ he said’ I’ll find that area one day…’
The film premiered at the Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square on September 26th, 1968 in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret.
Its promotional tagline was ‘It’s much, much more than a musical’
And they’ll get no argument from me on that!
The Mumper of SE5
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