Lionel Bart: Appetite for destruction

The man behind 'Oliver!' went from nothing to the West End and Hollywood - and back. As a new show about his life opens, Michael Coveney remembers Lionel Bart

The rise and fall of Lionel Bart, who died aged 68 in 1999, is a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags theatre story. Generally credited with being the father of the modern British musical, Bart wrote probably the best loved of all popular shows in the past century - Oliver!- yet died more or less broke, certainly washed up, living in a house in Acton and on subs from friends, notably the royalty on Oliver! which was arranged for him by the producer Cameron Mackintosh long after he had sold all the rights in his own show.

His career and creativity are celebrated this week in It's a Fine Life! at the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, Essex, a neighbourly outpost of the old Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where Bart's songs in Joan Littlewood's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be in 1959 heralded a new era in British musical theatre: "They've turned our local Palais into a bowling alley... and fings ain't wot they used to be... There's toffs with toffee-noses, and poofs in coffee-houses, and fings ain't... " etc.

Two weeks before he died, Bart was working on a revival of Fings at Hornchurch with director Bob Carlton, and the success of the revival set the theatre on a new course, renewing its roots in an Essex community which remembered the East End and Soho of the post War years.

The most important thing about Bart was that he came from a left-wing-theatre tradition of the Unity Theatre and Stratford East, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and the music hall. He was, in effect, says Carlton, "a homosexual Jewish junkie commie", whose vigorous, idiomatic "sing-along" music is a lost element in today's theatre "where audiences are more likely to leave humming the set than the tunes."

Bart's tragedy was one of a shooting comet that fell to earth - the focal point of musical theatre in the new pop and rock era, a lyricist and composer whose Oliver! ruled the world in the 1960s. His last creative sparks coincided with my earliest days as a theatre critic, and the departure of Joan Littlewood from Britain for good in 1972 (she died in France, 30 years later). It was almost painful to have to review The Londoners at Stratford East, a cheerless re-working of an earlier Littlewood hit, Sparrers Can't Sing by Stephen Lewis, whose title song was movingly croaked out by Rita Webb; a few months later, Bart provided a few more unmemorable songs for Littlewood's last show, Costa Packet, a fairly predictable take on the tourist package industry.

And then? Nothing at all until he died, apart from a misfiring tribute show in 1977, a brief flirtation with an awful 1988 musical, Winnie (about Winston Churchill) and an Aids benefit in Brighton in 1992 whose title, Consider Yourself! evoked a song from his biggest hit show. The man who hob-nobbed in his heyday with Princess Margaret, Noël Coward, Judy Garland and Liberace; who was the first manager of the Rolling Stones (helping out a youthful Andrew Oldham, who was too young to sign the cheques); and whose house was Kubla Khan in Kensington (with two huge glass urns on permanent offer to guests, one full of cocaine, one of money), simply withdrew from the fray. He was bankrupt, diabetic and alcoholic, though he did stay off the sauce for the last years of his life.

Coward recognised in Bart a worthy successor and once gave him a present of a rhyming dictionary with the epigraph: "Do not let this aid to rhyming bitch your talent or your timing". Bart became a reasonably efficient one-finger pianist, but he mostly sang his songs into a tape-recorder and then had them transcribed by colleagues. One friend, the singer Peter Straker, who appeared in the first cast of Hair and on many of Queen's albums in the Freddie Mercury days, told me that Bart came rushing in one day from a walk in Regent's Park with a bird-song on his brain that he instantly converted into a new number.

Chris Bond, who has written the Hornchurch show around a selection of Bart songs, knew the composer for the last 10 years of his life and kicked around his Quasimodo project, having been put in touch with him by Cameron Mackintosh, who had a hunch that he might one day back another Victor Hugo musical hit to follow Les Misérables. "Don't Look At Me, Just Listen" is one of the better songs, and Bond has included it.

Bart's output between 1957 and 1964 was prodigious. Born Lionel Begleiter (he changed to Bart when he went past Bart's Hospital on a bus) in 1930, the seventh child of East End immigrant Jews (his father was a master tailor), he attended St Martin's School of Art, where his first life-model was Quentin Crisp, and went into the printing trade after his National Service.

By the mid-1950s he was writing songs for Tommy Steele ("Rock with the Caveman" and "Little White Bull") and Cliff Richard ("Living Doll" and "The Young Ones" ) in the first days of pop and skiffle as well as acting and writing at the Unity in King's Cross where, in 1958, he wrote an update of Ben Jonson's Volpone - Wally Pone was set among the vice barons and coffee bars of Soho - that displayed, said Colin MacInnes, "a certain English essence of sentiment and wit."

David Roper, Bart's unofficial biographer, reckons that the underground homosexuality of Soho life in those pre-legalisation days was a key factor in the making of the artist. Even after the Lords passed Leo Abse's bill in 1967, it was, says Roper, "too late for Lionel to shed his cloak of self-deception". That cloak was the stalking horse for his art, which was more or less finished in this period anyway.

After Fings he wrote some wonderful lyrics for the opening show at Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre in Puddle Dock, Lock Up Your Daughters, a new musical version of Henry Fielding's 1730 play, Rape Upon Rape. Justice Squeezum's wife, for instance, is assailed by a defendant in her boudoir and exclaims to music: "Patience is a virtue that very few possess/ And I confess I feel myself possess it less and less/ But then, if you've already lost one virtue, how on earth can losing one more hurt you?/ When does the ravishing begin?"

In the following five years, Bart produced Oliver!; Blitz!, a cavalcade of East End life during the Second World War among the Jewish and Cockney communities, with a Romeo and Juliet love story; an earthy folk opera, Maggie May, starring the amazing but erratic Rachel Roberts as a Liverpool prostitute, "an adorable slag" in a background of industrial strife and volatile relationships; and his nemesis, the monumental disaster of Twang!! ("one exclamation mark too far," said the critic Mark Steyn), a Robin Hood burlesque into which he poured all his own money when everyone else, including audiences, had baled out.

These first few years of the 1960s were in fact a busy and productive time in the British musical, with all sorts of people involved in new work: Ned Sherrin, David Heneker, Beverley Cross, Herbert Kretzmer, Lesley Bricusse, Wolf Mankowitz and of course Anthony Newley all produced shows that even now defy any easy categorisation of milksop charm and whimsicality. Bart was the head honcho, the focus of activity, forging significant creative relationships with the brilliant designer Sean Kenny, the director Peter Coe and actors like Barbara Windsor, Georgia Brown, Barry Humphries and Ron Moody.

Coward, whose Sail Away in 1962 was his last musical comedy, declared that he would "rather spend five minutes in a four-ale bar chatting with Lionel Bart than a year's yachting cruise with the Oxford debating society," a clear indication that Bart's sharp wit and general sassiness were as apparent in his life as in his work. Bob Carlton concurs, suggesting that Bart's imaginative life was as important as the one he actually lived: "It therefore makes sense in our show to show the young wartime evacuee Lionel running away to London with his two new best friends, Bill Sikes and Nancy."

"He was a deeply insecure man," adds Chris Bond, "but he had come to a reconciliation with himself by the end. During the Twang!! period he did become very paranoid. A lot of the lyrics in that show are LSD-influenced garbage, but there is one really good song and we're opening the second half with a 10-minute performance of the entire show."

It is impossible now to know how good (or bad) those musicals, apart from Oliver! really were, but a selection from his huge trunk of old songs will be a valuable reminder of one of our modern theatre's greatest natural talents. And if the charismatic Bart is brought even halfway back to life, that will be a bonus.

As Bond says: "The nicest thing about him was that he told all his best jokes and stories completely against himself. He had that very attractive quality, and I think it shows up in his work."

'It's a Fine Life!', Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch until 16 September ( www.queens-theatre.co.uk; 01708 443 333)

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