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Do you remember? Oliver!

From unlikely material Lionel Bat crafted a timeless family favourite. By Simon Evans

At first sight Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist was not the most obvious choice for a thigh-slapping, high-kicking, glitzy musical. Its story of workhouse deprivation homelessness, criminality and murder would surely have had even the likes of Richard Curtis struggling to find a feelgood factor. and then there was the thorny question of antisemitism.

But that was the challenge that songwriter turned dramatist Lionel Bart set himself, having already had some success with the musical Lock Up Your Daughters, based on Henry Fielding's laugh-a-minute Rape Upon Rape. He approached Oliver! by discarding large sections of Dickens' text, toning down the villainous aspects of one of Dickens's text, toning down the villainous aspects of one of his major characters, Fagin, to make him more of a comic character, and also omitting some of the more anti-Jewish aspects of the original book.

Bart was himself Jewish, and was not above a little self re-invention; born Lionel Begleiter, he changed his surname on a whim one day after riding past the renowned London hospital St Bartholomew's on a bus.

He started out writing comic songs for The Billy Cotton band Show and wrote a number of hits for the likes of Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele, including Living Doll and Little White Bull. A spell with Joan Littlewood's innovative Theatre Workshop led to the musical Things Ain' What They Used To Be, but Oliver! was to be his greatest challenge to date.

In adapting Olive Twist, he was much influenced by David Lean's 1948 cinema version, and his musical can be seen as a slightly more sentimentalised version of that earlier film, which has been banned for several years in the Unites States due to its portrayal of the Jewish Fagin, played by Alec Guinness.

Bart completed the musical in early 1960, but the controversy from Lean's film still lingered, and 12 theatre managements turned it down, until Donald Alberry at the New Theatre (later renamed The Noel Coward Theatre) agreed to stage Olver! for the bargain-basement sum of £15,000 (about £300,000 in today's money).

Several actors were approached to play the part of Fagin, including Peter Sellers, Sid James and Rex Harrison, and all refused, perhaps fearing reprisals. The role eventually went to Ron Moody, to the delight of most, but not all of the critics.

The Daily Mail described Moody's portrayal as "a dustbin Boris Godunov, a kitchen-sink Rasputin", and only The Guardian dissented, describing Moody's Fagin as "a queer old auntie".

There was much praise, too, for Bart's memorable score, which included such show-stoppers as Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself and As Long As He Needs Me. Milton Shulman lauded Bart's "zestful and unabashed blending of Tin Pan Alley , Yiddish folk melodies and the rhythms of the Old Kent Road".

Bart himself missed most of the opening night. He was sitting in the audience when the scenery for the second scene got stuck, Fearing disaster he fled the theatre, only to return, when he thought the play would have long finished, to the sound of a loud rumpus. It was the cast taking their 23rd curtain call- the audience would not let him go. Called up on stage to say a few words, all Bart could muster was "may the good Dickens forgive us".

It took another eight years for Bart's musical to reach the big screen, having run for 2618 performances in London and another 772 on Broadway, the first modern-day British musical to be transferred to New York's theatre-land.

Carol Reed, whose movie credits included The Third Man, was chosen to direct, despite having no experience of musicals, and he insisted on an extended period of rehearsals to give his young cast time to grow into their roles.

Ron Moody was sensibly retained from the stage musical, although many actors from the original show did not make it into the film, including Davy Jones- otherwise occupied at the time as one of the chart-topping Monkees- who had played the Artful Dodger during the original London run.

Michael Caine, who reputedly "cried for a week" after being turned down as the original Bill Sikes also found himself otherwise engaged when it can to the movie version, the part going to Oliver Reed, who happened to be Carol Reed's nephew. Many songs were jettisoned from the stage musical, which gave the second half of the film a darker tone than the original production, but at least one number that did make the cut, the sublime nine-minute Who Will Buy?, was greatly enhanced by the magic of cinema.

The whole of London's Bloomsbury Square was constructed on the back lot of Shepperton Studios and the sequence, which involved hundreds of dancers and actors, took several weeks to shoot.

In total Oliver! took seven months to film which, even for major production, was a long time, but it was one of those rare films where absolutely everything was just right, from the cast, which included young Mark Lester and Jack Wild as, respectively, Oliver and The Artful Dodger, to the meticulously detailed sets and breathtaking choreography, which earned Onna White an Academy Award.

In the musical, as in Dickens's original novel, there is a happy ending for young Oliver; Lionel Bart was not so fortunate.

His 1965 musical, Twang!, based on the legend of Robin Hood, closed within a few weeks of opening, taking much of Bart's savings with it. Even after winning an Academy Award for his score for Oliver!, Bart struggles to find work, and descended into a maelstrom of alcoholism and debt. The ultimate humiliation was having to sell his rights to Oliver! for a fraction of their value in a doomed attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

When Oliver! was revived in the mid-nineties, and became a West End hit all over gain, the impresario Cameron Mackintosh have art a share of the royalties, but it came too late. In 1999 Bart dies, leaving £1 million in his Will to friends and charities, a fraction of what he should have been worth.

But moneyy had never been his main motivation, much as he enjoyed spending it.

"It's the kicks that matter, nothing else," he once said. "I just want to write musicals. I want to stand up and shout to the biggest audience I can get."

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