Obituary: Anthony Newley

Tom Vallance
Friday 16 April 1999 00:02 BST

ONE OF Britain's most distinctive talents, Anthony Newley was an actor, singer, composer and writer who had his first starring role in films at the age of 16, composed hit musicals and songs, topped the hit parade himself as a pop star, played everything from romantic leads to quirky character roles in movies, starred on both the West End and Broadway stages, and became a favourite of cabaret audiences from New York to Las Vegas.

His elongated Cockney vowel sounds made his voice an unmistakable one which people either loved or hated. It served him well on novelty songs such as "Pop Goes the Weasel", but he was also a fine ballad singer. "What Kind of Fool Am I", "Who Can I Turn To" and "Candy Man" were just three of the hit songs he co-wrote. "I'm not a trained musician or singer," he once said, "but I can turn out a song."

Born in Hackney, east London, in 1931, he left school at the age of 14. "The saddest thing about myself," he later said, "is that I never read a book. I never got the habit." He was working as an office boy for an insurance company when he spotted a newspaper advertisement reading "Boy Actors Urgently Wanted". Said Newley later, "Suddenly the bell rang! I applied to the advertisers, the Italia Conti Stage School, only to discover the fees were too high." The school agreed to let him audition, however ("I had to read poems to two sweet old ladies who were charmed with my cockney accent"), and were impressed enough to offer him free tuition and a salary of 30 shillings a week as an office boy. The producer Geoffrey de Barkus spotted Newley at the school and gave him the leading role in a children's film serial, The Adventures of Dusty Bates (1947).

Newley was already displaying a distinctly individual style of agreeably knowing confidence, and after another children's film, The Little Ballerina (1947), he was given the plum role of a boy who magically changes places with his own father in Vice Versa (1947), directed by Peter Ustinov. Ustinov recently said, "I was amazed at how convincing Anthony Newley was as someone with an old mind inside him." One of the stars of the film was Kay Walsh, whose ex-husband David Lean was about to direct a screen version of Oliver Twist. Walsh rang Lean and told him, "I've found your Artful Dodger", and Newley's superbly insolent and cheeky performance became one of the many reasons that the 1948 film became a classic.

Given a contract by the Rank Organisation, the actor then settled into a comfortable niche as a character player, often as cocky cockneys, in such films as Here Come the Huggetts (1948, during the filming of which the actor later claimed to have lost his virginity to Diana Dors), The Guinea Pig (1948) and A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (1949), but when Rank dropped him after a year his film career faltered and he spent some time in repertory. Later he played chirpy enlisted men in war films including Above Us the Waves (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1955) and Cockleshell Heroes (1955).

It was in 1955 that he was able to display just how versatile he was when he starred with Annie Ross in the musical revue Cranks at the small club theatre the New Watergate. This off-beat, almost surreal show proved a hit and transferred to the West End, to St Martin's Theatre, in March 1956, where it had a successful run before going to Broadway, where it fared less well. Newley's engaging rendition of such numbers as "I'm the Boy (You Should Say Yes To)" contributed greatly to the show's charm, and in 1956 he toured England with his own variety show.

A turning point came with a literally star-making role in the low-budget musical film Idle on Parade (1959) in which Newley played a rock 'n' roll star inducted into the Army (in America the film was called Idol on Parade). One of his numbers in the film, "I've Waited So Long" (composed by Jerry Lordan) became a pop sensation and overnight Newley found himself a teenage heart-throb. In 1960 he had seven records in the charts, including Lloyd Price and Harold Logan's "Personality" and two No 1 hits, the wistful "Why", by Robert Marcucci, and Peter de Angelis and Lionel Bart's "Do You Mind".

Newley surprised his public again when in 1960 he made his first record album, Love Is a Now and Then Thing, a beautiful set of ballads such as "This Time the Dream's on Me" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well" which he handled with appealing sensitivity.

Never one to embrace the conventional, Newley next starred in a television series which, though short-lived, is remembered as one of the most avant- garde in television history. The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960) was a bizarre show in which the central character (named by Newley after the Somerset village of the same name) talked to animals and inanimate objects, heard what people were thinking, had conversations with people who could not see him, and moved in and out of reality. Though written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, its concept was doubtless embraced and heavily influenced by the star.

Newley next fulfilled a long- standing ambition to star in his own stage musical, and fortuitously began a partnership with the composer and author Leslie Bricusse. Newley was later to tell an American columnist, "I'm the laziest son-of-a-bitch who ever drew a breath. I sleep till one and I'm always surprised when someone in blue rinse on a talk show says, `You're a genius, Mr Newley, you do so many things.' Tony Newley never realised his potential, did the things he should have done. That's why I need Leslie Bricusse - he has plenty of ambition."

With Bricusse, Newley wrote the book and score of Stop the World I Want To Get Off, in which Newley starred as Littlechap, an Everyman figure whose whole life is depicted in the show. Newley said, "The role of Littlechap, surrounded by the type of chorus once used in Greek drama, has presented us with a challenge which any cast would surely enjoy tackling." Directed by Newley, the show opened at the Queen's Theatre in July 1961 and was a smash hit, its songs including "What Kind of Fool Am I", "Gonna Build a Mountain" (a hit record for Matt Monro) and "Once in a Lifetime". Sammy Davis was one of many who recorded the songs - he became a close friend of Newley and a great champion of the Newley-Bricusse catalogue.

When Newley was asked why most of his songs became hit records for other singers, he replied, "Sammy Davis, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett . . . their records sell in the millions; when I do it, it just trickles. But for the composer and lyricist there's a tidy bit to be made that way too, so I don't really mind." "What Kind of Fool Am I" won the 1962 Grammy Award as song of the year and has been recorded by over 70 vocalists, though Newley's own recording ran into trouble because he sang the word "damn" - he later made another recording which could be played on sensitive radio stations.

In 1962 Stop the World moved to Broadway where, produced by David Merrick who had bought the American rights while it had been trying out in Nottingham ("I felt no need to wait and see if it would be a hit in London - I had been thoroughly entertained and absorbed by the freshness of conception shown by its authors"), it ran for over 500 performances. Both the London and New York productions were directed by Newley, of whom Merrick was to write, "I have no doubts at all that Mr Newley is going to enjoy widespread and durable success in America. The man does everything - he acts well; he sings with individuality and verve; and most importantly, he is an exceptionally attractive performer. His personality is dynamic and he projects a brilliance of spirit."

During the show's run in 1963 Newley, who had previously been wed to Tiller Girl-turned-actress Ann Lynn, married Joan Collins. "Like most men of my generation," he said, "I had drooled over pictures of Joan. And there she was, backstage at Stop the World and I could not believe it. Did I ask her for a date? Yes I did." Collins described Newley at the time as "a half- Jewish Cockney git" and herself as "a half-Jewish princess from Bayswater via Sunset Boulevard".

The following year the Bricusse-Newley team had a big hit with their lyrics to John Barry's music for Goldfinger, sung over the titles of the James Bond film by Shirley Bassey. The next Newley-Bricusse musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd, "a comic allegory about the class system in contemporary Britain", had a better score than its predecessor but its 1964 tryout in Nottingham, starring Norman Wisdom and directed by Newley, did not prove satisfactory and it failed to reach London. David Merrick was again impressed, and offered to take it to Broadway if Newley would assume the leading role.

Co-starring Cyril Ritchard (representing the "haves" to Newley's down- trodden "have-not"), the show received mixed reviews for it's libretto's pretensions ("third-rate commerce masquerading as art," said Walter Kerr of the Herald- Tribune), but unanimous praise for the songs and performances. Whitney Bolton wrote in the Morning Telegraph: "Mr Newley uses his own inventions, plus deliberate and useful, justifiably purloined gestures common to Charlie Chaplin, Lupino Lane, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and others, as though giving us a portrait gallery of great comics who have made their fames as Little Men against the harsh world."

The score ("bursting with songs, all good and several of hit quality," wrote Variety) was exceptional, its hits including "Who Can I Turn To" (already a hit record by Tony Bennett when the show opened), "A Wonderful Day Like Today", "The Joker", "Nothing Can Stop Me Now", "Look at That Face" and "Sweet Beginning". The original cast album sold over 100,000 copies, and the show ran for over eight months. Newley and Bricusse were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Score, and Newley was nominated for Best Director, but this was the year that Fiddler on the Roof took most of the major musical awards. Asked about his predilection for writing about the problems of the "Little Man", Newley replied, "I don't hate anybody or anything. But I do expect to make statements about the problems of being a human being."

Newley made his American film debut with a leading role in the film Doctor Dolittle (1967), with Bricusse alone providing the songs, though Newley made a fine solo album of the score. The actor then starred with Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968), a sentimental but rarely mawkish tale of a dying girl who takes a different sweetheart every month.

Newley's own marriage was under pressure and in 1969 he produced, directed and co-wrote Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness?, co-starring Collins and with plainly autobiographical overtones. "A zany erotobiography that looks like a Marx Brothers' movie shot in a nudist camp," was Playboy's description of the film, which was not a success. For the score, Newley collaborated with Herbert Kretzmer, who became a lifelong friend.

"Although I was the lyricist, the film's concept and the ideas for the songs were Newley's - he was the architect and I the builder," said Kretzmer. One of the songs they wrote, "When You Gotta Go", was for a time a staple of Barbra Streisand's stage act. Newley and Collins were divorced in 1970, and Newley's third marriage, to an air hostess, Dareth Rich, also ended in divorce. "My only regret is that in a show-business career you can have no private life," said Newley.

He and Bricusse wrote the songs for the 1971 film fantasy Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, including the hit "Candy Man". In 1972 he returned to the West End stage with The Good Old Bad Old Days, which had book, music and lyrics by Newley and Bricusse and direction by Newley. Despite a tuneful score and a personal success, the show had only a moderate run and Newley began to spend more time in the United States, where he had bought a house and had developed a large following. In 1974 he starred with Henry Mancini in a musical revue on Broadway, and he became a top night-club entertainer, with sell-out appearances in Las Vegas. His last major film was Mister Quilp (1976), for which he wrote both music and lyrics, though he made several television movies.

In 1985 he was diagnosed with cancer and had one kidney removed. Returning to England, he moved in with his mother Gracie in Esher, Surrey. With his illness arrested, he continued to work, appearing in television shows, touring in a stage production of Leslie Bricusse's musical Scrooge, and last year playing a successful London cabaret engagement. On television he played an amorous used-car dealer in several episodes of EastEnders.

For the last seven years his partner was Gina Fratini, but he was a valued friend to all those close to him and he had remained on good terms with both Joan Collins and Dareth Rich - Collins would be seen at all of Newley's London openings. Herbert Kretzmer said of Newley, "It's a hackneyed phrase I know, but Newley was truly a `one-off', a totally unique and original talent." Leslie Bricusse echoed these sentiments when he wrote, "Never once have I known Tony to falter for one moment in his perpetual quest for something original - to say things and do things in a new way - to find fresh excitement, even in old themes. He takes infinite pains to bring style and originality to everything he touches."

"He was a true original," said Kretzmer, "driven by the need to innovate and contemptuous of repetition or the following of fashion. His wish was always to break boundaries and push frontiers back."

George Anthony Newley, actor, singer, composer and writer: born London 24 September 1931; married 1956 Ann Lynn (marriage dissolved), 1963 Joan Collins (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1970), thirdly Dareth Rich (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Jensen Beach, Florida 14 April 1999.

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