Obituary: Lionel Bart

Tom Vallance
Sunday 04 April 1999 23:02 BST

IF HE had written only Oliver!, the composer Lionel Bart would have earned an honoured place in the history of British musicals, but he was far from a one-show wonder. His other work included shows such as Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Maggie May, plus many pop songs including "Living Doll" (Cliff Richard's first No 1 hit), Tommy Steele's "A Handful of Songs", Anthony Newley's "Do You Mind?" and Matt Monro's "From Russia With Love".

He epitomised the start of the Sixties in Britain, which he uniquely captured in song and spirit, and he was one of the few composers to deal uncondescendingly with the working classes, transposing their life styles and vernacular to the musical stage. "Nobody tries to be la-de-da or uppity, there's a cuppa tea for all," sings the Artful Dodger to Oliver, while Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be remains a time capsule of a world in which folk talked of their "birds" amd their "manor" and dreamed of being able to afford furniture that was "contempery". It was like a musical EastEnders, but far more joyous and celebratory, without the unremitting angst suffered by the inhabitants of Albert Square.

Bart also epitomised the Sixties in a less happy way - like many who flourished in that era he was seduced by sudden success into a world of drink, drugs and hedonism, squandering his money and his youth.

Bart was one of the 11 children of an East End tailor. He was born Lionel Begleiter, in 1930, and he had no formal musical training. He displayed a flair for drawing, however, which brought him at the age of 16 a scholarship to the St Martin's School of Art in London. (His bus journey, which took him each day past St Bartholomew's Hospital, inspired him to adopt Bart as his professional surname.) He worked in a silk-screen printing works and commercial art studios before an attraction to the theatre brought him work at the left-wing Unity Theatre, where he worked as a set painter. He started writing songs in response to a sign asking for musical material for one of the theatre's productions. Unable to write music, he would tap out the melody with one finger and someone else would orchestrate it.

It was a time when popular music was undergoing a drastic transformation due to the influence of such stars as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, and Bart was one of many musicians and singers (most of them Presley-influenced) who frequented the 2 I's coffee shop in Soho, where he met the rock singer Tommy Steele. With Michael Pratt and Steele, Bart wrote Steele's first hit, "Rock with the Caveman" (1957), and later that year Bart won three Ivor Novello Awards, presented by the Songwriters Guild, for outstanding song of the year ("A Handful of Songs"), best novelty song ("Water, Water") and outstanding film score (The Tommy Steele Story).

Another habitue of the 2 I's was a cherubic youngster named Harry Webb, and when he made his first film, Serious Charge (with his new name Cliff Richard), it was Bart who provided the songs, including "Living Doll", which topped the Hit Parade for eight weeks. (Bart claimed that he wrote the song in six minutes on a Sunday morning.) The same year Bart wrote a complete musical, Wally Pone of Soho, based on Ben Jonson's Volpone, but could not get it produced, but Joan Littlewood, who had been a producer at the Unity and was now running the enterprising Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, asked him to provide the music and lyrics for a new musical written by a former convict, Frank Norman, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be.

Bart and Norman complemented each other beautifully and produced a brash, funny, unpretentious working-class musical. Blessed with a cast aptly assembled by Littlewood, including Miriam Karlin, Barbara Windsor, James Booth, Yootha Joyce, Toni Palmer and George Sewell (who was to play Bill Sykes in Oliver!), it played to packed houses and eventually moved to the Garrick Theatre in the West End, where it ran for two years. Bart's ingratiating score included an infectious (if derivative) title tune, a Presley-type rock number "Big Time" (recorded by Adam Faith) and a plaintive lament for a prostitute, "Where Do Little Birds Go?", delivered with a show-stopping guilelessness by Windsor, who credited the number with changing her life and career.

Like Norman's libretto, Bart's songs perfectly captured a time of change - of the Wolfenden Report, massage parlours replacing street-corner pick- ups; and a time when "ordinary people" had started going to Paris for the weekend instead of Southend.

Later in 1959 Bart had another success when Lock Up Your Daughters, a musical version of Henry Fielding's Rape Upon Rape, opened at the Mermaid with lyrics by Bart to Laurie Johnson's music. He had also provided songs for Tommy Steele's film Tommy the Toreador and at the end of the year won four Novello Awards - for the year's best-selling song ("Living Doll"), the outstanding score of the year (Lock Up Your Daughters), outstanding novelty song ("Little White Bull") and a special award for "outstanding personal services to British music".

Bart was now on the threshold of the biggest success of his life. Based on a much-loved Dickens novel, and Bart for the first time providing his own libretto as well as music and lyrics, Oliver! seemed far from a certain success - a dozen managements had turned it down - but its first night at the New Theatre (now the Albery) on 30 June 1960 was something that none of us present will ever forget. Of British musicals, only Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, which premiered seven years earlier, could be said to have had such a roof-raising, rapturous reception in the last half-century.

The show received 23 curtain-calls, and Bart's score was lauded next day for its richness and variety, from rousing show-stoppers like "Consider Yourself" and "I'd Do Anything" to the character songs such as Fagin's "Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Reviewing the Situation", and Nancy's "It's a Fine Life" and the torchy ballad "As Long As He Needs Me". (Bart later said that, when composing his songs, he always thought of Judy Garland singing them.) It won Novello Awards for outstanding score of the year, outstanding song of the year and best-selling song (the last two both for "As Long As He Needs Me"). Oliver! ran for 2,618 performances in London, and was a hit on Broadway where it opened in 1963 and ran for 774 performances, winning Bart a Tony Award.

Bart was said to be earning pounds 16 a minute from Oliver! in 1960 and his life style reflected his wealth. He entertained vigorously, his friends including Noel Coward, Brian Epstein, Judy Garland, Alma Cogan and Shirley Bassey, and he spent weekends in Mustique with Princess Margaret, who was later, according to Bart, to call him a "silly bugger" for mis-handling his finances. Bart himself would later place some of the blame on his upbringing. "My father gambled," he said, "and there were endless arguments about it. I hated money and had no respect for it. My attitude was to spend it as I got it."

Though there may be some truth in this, Bart's friends attest to his constantly altering the facts of his childhood and frequently taking liberties with the truth. When he was looking for a writer to help ghost his memoirs, several noted authors turned him down, one of them telling me bluntly, "He's such a liar!"

The American composer Richard Rodgers, who had not found a permanent lyricist partner since the death of Oscar Hammerstein, asked Bart to collaborate with him, but Bart refused and for his next show chose a subject close to his heart, the way East Enders coped with air-raids in World War II. Blitz! (Bart had a fondness for exclamation points in his titles) was a gargantuan production which never quite jelled (Bart directed the show) and its score was less inspired than that of Oliver!, though it had a show-stopping children's chorus, "Mums and Dads", and Bart persuaded Vera Lynn to record for the production his cod-wartime ballad "The Day After Tomorrow". Its strongest talking-point was the massive set by Sean Kenny (who had also done sterling work on Oliver!) which literally self- destructed during a bombing raid.

For his old friend Joan Littlewood, Bart next composed a title song and theme music for her film Sparrows Can't Sing (1963) starring Barbara Windsor and James Booth, and he had a hit with the title song for the James Bond film From Russia With Love (1964), recorded by Matt Monro.

Bart wrote the music and lyrics for his next stage musical, Maggie May (1964), but collaborated on the book with Harvey Orkin. Starring Rachel Roberts and Kenneth Haigh, it was a moderate success but produced no major song hits, though Judy Garland recorded four of the songs for an EP and it won the Novello Award as outstanding score of the year and the Critics' Poll as best new British musical.

Bart was by now experimenting with LSD and other drugs and was drinking heavily. By the late Seventies his drinking had brought on diabetes and by the time he managed to quit alcohol it had destroyed one-third of his liver. Much of his income was being dissipated, according to his friends, by his generosity to hangers-on and by the ease with which casual sex partners could rob him. (Though known in the profession to be gay, it was not until the Nineties that Bart described himself as "out at last".) His career reached a low point in 1965 with his musical about Robin Hood which he backed with a fortune of his own money. Twang! was a short-lived disaster and to finance it Bart had rashly sold his rights to Oliver! He later estimated that relinquishing those rights lost him over a million pounds.

In 1968 Carol Reed's film verion of Oliver! opened and was a huge success, winning several Oscars including Best Picture, plus nominations for Ron Moody (the original Fagin repeating his fine performance) and Jack Wild (as the Artful Dodger). Bart's score was kept virtually intact, and the soundtrack album was a best-seller. Columbia, the studio financing the film, had wanted an internationally known star (Peter Sellers) in the lead, but Reed and Bart fought to keep Moody. Their choice of Shirley Bassey to play Nancy was vetoed by the studio, who felt that if Bill Sykes was shown killing a black girl it could offend some audiences.

Four years after Twang! a new show by Bart was produced. Based on the Fellini film La Strada, it was staged on Broadway where it ran for only one night, though Bart never gave up on it and was working on plans for a revival at the time of his death.

He also wrote the score for a television version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring Kirk Douglas (never shown in Britain) and an unproduced stage musical, Quasimodo! based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In a 1995 interview with The Independent, Bart recalled that he sent some of the script for Quasimodo! to Noel Coward, who said, "Brilliant, dear boy, but were you on drugs when you wrote it? It seems a bit abstract here and there." "I suppose it was," said Bart.

In 1972 Bart declared himself bankrupt - he had debts totalling pounds 73,000. In 1975 he was banned for a year for driving under the influence of drink, and in 1983 banned again for two years. Regarding the changes in the style of musical theatre, he told the musical historian Mark Steyn that he would never have written a through-sung musical because

in my case it would be slightly pretentious. I'm not a composer, I just make tunes and sing them, and I sing harmonies, and some of my chord progressions are not logical, but often they work. For Oliver! I thought in terms of people's walks. The Oliver theme was really the Beadle's walk, a kind of dum-de-dum . . . Fagin's music was like a Jewish mother clucking away. But I don't want to get high-falutin' about it. Music is important, fair enough. But just to have some kind of drab tune fitted to even more drab dialogue seems rather pointless to me.

Though Bart's final years were unproductive (a 30-second commercial for the Abbey National Building Society was his most notable achievement of the last decade), and he could be exasperatingly demanding of his friends, he was equable about his change in fortunes - he once had homes in London, New York, Malibu and Tangiers but had been living in a small flat in Acton. Cameron Mackintosh, who successfully revived Oliver! at the London Palladium in 1994 and gave him a percentage of the profits, said,

Of all the people I know in this business who have had ups and downs, Lionel is the least bitter man I have ever come across. He regrets it but, considering that everyone else has made millions out of his creations, he's never been sour, never been vindictive.

Andrew Lloyd Webber said, "Lionel's genius has in my view never been fully recognised by the British establishment. The loss to British musical theatre caused by his untimely death is incalculable."

Tom Vallance

Lionel Begleiter (Lionel Bart), composer, lyricist and playwright: born London 1 August 1930; died London 3 April 1999.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in