Sunday, 29 July 2018

Oliver!: The Best of John Peel (2 November 1991 to 10 April 1992)

So after four years and 400+ posts, the blog is ready to move on from Oliver! But having used a mix-tape idea as the basis for my selections so far, I’m going to complete the Oliver! era selections by rounding them all up into a definitive Best Of, as if I was making a mix-tape to give as an opening night present to fellow cast members and crew from each show that this blogs traces.

I have chosen one favourite track from each of the Peel shows that selections were taken from, in order to present THE definitive John Peel soundtrack over the rehearsals and performance of Falmouth Community School’s April 1992 production of Oliver!

Katch 22 - Mind Field [Peel Session] (2 November 1991)

Eton Crop - Hey Hey (9 November 1991)

The Blofelds - The Dog is Dead (10 November 1991)

Smudge - Don’t Want to be Grant McClennan (16 November 1991)

Lethal - Techno Stylin (17 November 1991)

Orchestra Maquis Original - Ngalula (23 November 1991)

Home T, Cocoa Tea & Cutty Ranks - Another One for the Road (24 November 1991)

Krispy 3 - Don’t Be Misled (28 November 1991)

Bleach - Wipe It Away (30 November 1991)

The Orb - Little Fluffy Clouds [Cumulo Nimbus Mix] (1 December 1991)

Milk - Claws (2 December 1991)

Mono Men - Right Now (7 December 1991)

The Field Mice - Think of These Things (8 December 1991)

Sam Dees’ Beauty and the Beat - The Homecomings [Peel Session] (14 December 1991)

Culture - Life (15 December 1991)

The Pixies - Complete Peel Session (21 December 1991)

D-Nice - To Tha Rescue (26 December 1991)

PJ Harvey - Dress (28 December 1991)

Silverfish - Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal (29 December 1991)

Roshney - Ag Tha Wondi Juway (5 January 1992)

Lucien Bokilo - Leonore (12 January 1992)

The KLF - America: What Time is Love? (18 January 1992)

Bongwater - Love Song (25 January 1992)

Manifesto - Walking Backwards (1 February 1992)

WC and the Maad Circle - Out on a Furlough (2 February 1992)

Kicks Like a Mule - The Bouncer (3 February 1992)

Chumbawamba - I Never Gave Up (8 February 1992)

The Fall - Sing! Harpy (9 February 1992)

Mr Ray’s Wig World - Elvis Begins With an E (16 February 1992)

Aphex Twin - Digeridoo (22 February 1992)

Material with Shabba Ranks - Reality (23 February 1992)

Spitfire - Wild Sunshine (29 February 1992)

The Soka Band - Linga Linga (1 March 1992)

Daisy Chainsaw - Pink Flower (7 March 1992)

Moonshake - Secondhand Clothes (8 March 1992)

A House - Endless Art (Female Version) [Peel Session] (13 March 1992)

Big Black - Il Duce (14 March 1992)

The Werefrogs - Forest of Doves (15 March 1992)

The Misunderstood - I Can Take You To the Sun (20 March 1992)

Scarface - A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die (21 March 1992)

Swell - Down (28 March 1992)

Kalaeidoscope - I’m Gonna Get You [Remix] (3 April 1992)

Po! - Look For the Holes (4 April 1992)

PJ Harvey - Victory (6 April 1992)

Marina Van-Rooy - Complete Peel Session (10 April 1992)

So, four years, eh? Where did they all go?  The next couple of years on this blog will see Peel soundtracking not one, but two Shakespeare plays and that will still only take us to the end of 1992!  But then, who’s in a hurry with a musical guide like John Peel to take me through the plays of yesteryear.

It’s been a fascinating journey so far in which I’ve learnt a lot and heard music ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, just as Peel set out to showcase.  My thanks to everyone who commented on posts, supplied videos and most of all to those who make Peel shows available for people like me to trace  such a niche “I wonder...” in this way.  There is so much still to hear and share, so let’s keep going.

Dedicated to all those acted in or helped put together Oliver! at Falmouth Community School performed from 7-10 April 1992.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Reflections on Lionel Bart’s Oliver!

NOTE - This post will contain spoilers about both Oliver! and its source novel, Oliver Twist.
All lyrics quoted in this post are copyright to Lionel Bart.

As the 1950s rolled into the 1960s, Lionel Bart was the hottest popular composer in the UK. Having either talent scouted or written for any of the big UK rock ‘n’ roll stars of the 1950s, Bart ended the decade by doubling up his success in a different medium - the theatre.  Having served as lyricist on the 18th Century set romp of Lock Up Your Daughters (1959) and the contemporary Cockney petty crime “play with music”, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1960), Bart was ready to take on all three roles of lyricist/composer/author and in transforming Charles Dickens’s second novel achieved the feat in the eyes of such luminaries as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber of creating the contemporary British musical.

Before looking at the score, credit must be given for the editing that was carried out in whittling down a book which, in its original serial form in Bentley’s Miscellany covered three volumes over 2 and a half years (1837-39).  Bart keeps the action confined to London, dispenses with some trivial romantic subplots and loses a host of characters that include Oliver’s aunt, Rose Maylie and his villainous half brother, Monks - whose attempt to have Oliver returned to the status of a low criminal with Fagin and Bill Sikes pretty much drives the second half of the novel.  From page 200 onwards, the only things that Bart really carries over into his book are the comically unhappy marriage of Widow Corney and Mr. Bumble (who are seen as the de facto heads of the workhouse in which we meet Oliver) and the murder of Nancy, the prostitute, by her lover, Bill Sikes.  Bart’s instincts are sound - the novel essentially resolves itself around conversations in rooms and cells - a little blackmail here, a hanging there.  But the musical gets back to where it has lived and breathed - the streets of London.  In his introduction to the 2002 Penguin Classics edition of Oliver Twist, Phillip Horne described Oliver! as “a celebration of cockney life in the 1960s as it was collapsing...” and just as Dickens does as his novel proceeds, so Bart finds more to engage his gifts when dealing with the likes of Fagin, Nancy and Sikes - all of whom get solo songs in the second half, while Oliver, who gets increasingly sidelined in the book and reduced to a chattel to be rescued in the musical has to share his only song of the second half with market traders and half the residents of Islington.

But how do we get here?  In creating a musical which opens with a children’s chorus, Bart grabs the audience with Food Glorious Food a song which takes us into the misery and mediocrity of the Victorian workhouse, which could function either as care homes for the ill and ailing poor, or as institutions promoting hard work and industry created on the back of “healthy” paupers and contrary to the impression I had always carried that these were for children and orphans only, adults could just as easily find themselves spending their lives in these organisations.  Woe betide you if you fell into poverty from a previously “respectable” standard of living as befalls Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney in the novel.  This potential lifelong drudgery at the leisure of the local authorities is all too well conveyed through the thrumming opening lines of the song:
Is it worth the waiting for?
If we live till eighty-four.
All we ever get is gruel.
Everyday we say a prayer
Will they change the bill of fare.
Still we get the same old gruel

And so it goes on until bursting into Technicolour joy at the dreamlike prospect of feasting on the culinary possibilities afforded by being able to eat what you want, when you want.
We then reach perhaps the most commonly remembered moment from the whole story of Oliver Twist - namely him timorously approaching the front of the dining hall and asking for another helping
of food, “Please, Sir, I want some more”.  In the novel, it is explained that the boys have become so
hungry and wretched over their miserly rations that they draw lots to decide on who should approach the servers and ask for second helpings and Oliver draws the short straw.  It leads to a sequence of songs to brandish at anyone sneering that Bart’s show doesn’t contain enough of the grimness of the novel.  On the face of it, Oliver, Oliver is a comedy song made up of threats to Oliver for his temerity in asking for a little more food when he could be taking part in friendly workhouse tasks like unpicking ropes:
There’s a dark, thin, winding stairway without any bannister.
We shall throw him down and feed him on cockroaches served in a cannister.

However, the following song, Boy For Sale, catches the laughter in the throat. And while the previous two numbers often implement impressive, extensive choreography - Boy For Sale often uses the stark  vision of the fat, bullying Mr. Bumble standing next to the diminutive Oliver calling his merits and deficiencies out to prospective buyers looking for a boy to work in factories or, as nearly happens  in the book, as a chimney sweep.  The lyrics show how children like Oliver were regarded as something equal to the status of dogs to be controlled and used as necessary:
Small boy
Rather pale
From lack of sleep.
Feed him gruel dinners.
Stop him getting stout.

Oliver ends up being sold for £5 to the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, who sees great potential in his use as a child mourner for children’s funerals.  I’m going to take this moment to rescind some of the self-criticism I poured on my performance on this blog, a couple of months ago.  I listened to the soundtrack recording of the 1960 West End cast in which Sowerberry was played by the exquisitely, immaculate Barry Humphries whose clipped tones I would be listening to while the Sowerberrys’ song, That’s Your Funeral was being set in rehearsal.  So, what audiences got was a 16 year old trying to impersonate Dame Edna Everage on his (or her) day off.  The scene at the undertaker’s parlour offers up one of the songs from Oliver! which became a standard.  Oliver’s one moment where he’s not being sung to/at or playing a pure-voiced straightman to more rough-house character - namely the affecting Where is Love?  Bart claimed that this was the first song he wrote for the show and that its inspiration was not Oliver but Dickens himself.  If the song seems a trifle cloying to some, it’s worth remembering that it’s one of the few moments in the piece when we get any kind of sense of what Oliver feels or thinks.

After getting into a fight with Sowerberry’s loutish apprentice, Noah Claypole - who returns to play a huge part in the fate of Nancy at the end of the book, but disappears from sight after the funeral parlour scene in the musical - Oliver takes to the streets and kicks off a lengthy sequence which bears out Phillip Horne’s point about Oliver! as a celebration of disappearing Cockney life in the 1960s.  Oliver makes the acquaintance of the Artful Dodger and while he has to wait till the second half before finding love, instead finds cameraderie and companionship through tunes like Consider YourselfIt’s a Fine LifeI’d Do Anything and Be Back Soon.  It’s an odd suite, something close to
15 minutes of songs designed to introduce Fagin, Nancy and Bet like they’re regulars at Cheers and
to attempt to reassure Oliver that crime can give a young man a chance to find status, wealth and the chance to get ahead, especially through the signature tune of this sequence Pick a Pocket or Two.
Finally, the show regains some dramatic impetus as Oliver goes out with Dodger to try his hand at
pickpocketing.  Unfortunately, he’s lousy at it and ends up getting coshed over the head by a Bow
Street Runner.  But what good fortune that the one man in the whole of London that Oliver tries to pickpocket turns out to be his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Brownlow, who takes pity on Oliver (offstage) and puts him up at his house.  Bart clearly didn’t fancy writing a scene at the assizes, as
happens in the book, and including a comic song for the maniacal magistrate, Mr. Fang, who is only
prevented from sentencing  Oliver to three months’ hard labour by the appearance of an eye witness
relating that Oliver was a bystander to the pickpocketing - carried out by Dodger.
Indeed, why would Bart want to do that when he can take us to The Three Cripples pub and open the second half with the one-two punch of Nancy’s raucous paean to alcoholism, Oom Pah Pah followed
by Bill Sikes calling card, My Name (sadly the bloke who sings this song in the link makes a complete dogs’ dinner of it).   Oh, when I was auditioning for Oliver!, I so wanted to play that part, just to sing gloriously vehement lines like:
Rich men hold their five pound notes out
Saves me emptying their coats out
They know, I could tear their throats out
Just to live up to, my name.

Fagin arrives to report that Oliver has been taken into protective care and tries to hatch a plan to have the boy abducted back into their care, lest he inform on them. It is this plan that proves the turning
point in the piece.  Skies agrees that Oliver could be dangerous to them if left where he is, but Nancy feels that he is well out of it and objects to the idea.  This leads to a row ending in Sikes striking Nancy and clearing the pub as a result.  Martin Veale who played Sikes in the Falmouth School production found this turn of events hilarious considering that if he tried to do the same thing in real life to Rosie Hughes, who played Nancy, she would have knocked him out with one punch.  But Rosie was dedicated to her art and bounced back to bring the house down by singing As Long As He 
Needs Me.  Even more than Where is Love?, it’s this song that seems to owe a lot to Bart’s pop
sensibilities.  With its torch-song feel and in-built massive ending , it was a sure-fire Top 5 hit for someone - Shirley Bassey since you ask (No.2 in 1960) - but it also belongs to that troubling sub-
section of popular songs that take blind love in the face of domestic abuse as its subject.  In the first half of the show, when singing, It’s a Fine Life, Nancy (and Bart) laugh all this off:
Though you sometimes do come by
The occasional black eye.
You can always cover one
Till he blacks the other one
But you don’t dare cry!

The Nancy of the first half of the musical is a different beast to her literary equivalent in that she actively seems to enjoy her life and circumstances.  In the novel, they are things to be endured and
what’s more, Nancy feels she deserves her lot in life for the things that she has done. It leads her to decline offers of help from Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, leading ultimately to her death.  But As
Long As He Needs Me, and the scenes around it, see a closing of the gap between the two iterations of the character.  Loving someone, even a dangerously violent criminal, gives some meaning to the deprivations suffered by a Victorian prostitute.  She’ll love you for your money, but loving another means she’ll always regard herself as a lover, not a whore.  Annoyingly, the musical fails to reflect the hints of mutual affection that Sikes also has for Nancy. Regardless, I’m certain that As Long As He Needs Me must have been influencing Gerry Goffin and Carole King when they wrote this for
The Crystals a year later.

For Oliver, ensconced as a guest in Mr. Brownlow’s home and indulged and mothered by the maid,
Mrs.Bedwin, the answer to Where is Love is encapsulated in Who Will Buy, which I consider the true
jewel in the score.  Building over three distinct stages - the street vendors’ cries selling their wares;
Oliver’s verse of wonder at his new surroundings and security and finally the up-tempo free for all that brings the whole street out singing and dancing.  It’s joyful, life affirming, real seize-the-day writing.  I loved being the Knife Grinder so much that in my head I wanted to form a close harmony band with the three girls playing the Rose Seller, Milk Maid and Strawberry Seller and call ourselves
The Vendors.  The song was rehearsed so carefully and thoroughly so that the harmonies and timings could be worked out accordingly, that I still remember the smiles on our faces the first time that it all came together and we realised that we were fortunate to be singing something so exquisite.  So much musical theatre revolves around pizazz and getting the audience on their feet, but never underestimate the power the form has when it concentrates on beauty.  Just like John Peel would often do amidst the sound and fury

While running an errand for Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is abducted by Sikes and Nancy and taken back to Fagin’s den.  It’s here that book and musical decisively part ways as Bart skirts round the botched house robbery in Chertsey that Oliver is made to take part in by Fagin and Sikes, which via agunshot wound and being left for dead eventually sees Oliver come under the care of Rose Maylie and from
there back to Mr. Brownlow.  Indeed in the book, Oliver is effectively safe from harm some 150 odd pages from the end of the novel, which concerns itself primarily with the steps that end in Nancy’s murder, Sikes’s accidental death as the mob close in, Monks’s banishment, Dodger’s sentence of transportation to Australia and Fagin’s hanging as an accessory to Nancy’s murder by Sikes.
The musical is unable to square the circle that sees most of the advancement of the drama caused by
conversations on deathbeds, above canals and by river steps. So as revelations about Oliver’s parentage come out - in the musical he’s Brownlow’s grandson, whereas in the book Brownlow was a friend of Oliver’s father and mother who were - gasp! - unmarried, and these are offset by Nancy and
Brownlow’s clandestine meeting to get Oliver away from Fagin and back to safety, the action descends into reprises of earlier songs, apart from Fagin’s showstopper, Reviewing the Situation,
which is  reprised as he makes his mournful escape  at the very end of the show. Although the curtain calls will bring the audience to their feet with reprises of the likes of Consider Yourself and I’ll Do Anything, I think that the lack of fresh songs in the last quarter of Oliver! should not be held against
it. In keeping with Dickens’s take, by it’s end our sweet young hero is safe, but it’s one life that is improved set against other lives cut short (Nancy and Sikes) and another ruined (Fagin). There were always winners and losers in many of Dickens’s works, Bart stays true to that in his ending too.

In future years, I did musicals either because I liked them or for the social aspect.  Oliver! though was something different. After dickering about for a year or two, I finally took the plunge to get on stage because I felt it was something I would enjoy doing, and that I may be able to do reasonably well.  Hanging out with new and old friends and witnessing how the piece was put together drew me in, but I wouldn’t have stayed with it had the piece itself not been so fun, so joyful, so exciting.  It was a great first piece to act in and just right in terms of the size of the role she and level of involvement for a debutant.  In the video below, taken from a 1994 South Bank Show profile of Lionel Bart, the then musical theatre critic, Mark Steyn talks about Oliver!’s popularity and number of revivals being down to the sheer enjoyment people get out of singing those songs.  They travel from stage to audience and back again with a verve and goodwill, quite unlike any I ever knew in any subsequent musical I did.  It’s a score which, regardless of any second half sag can, at its most exuberant, inspire as Bart remembered in the South Bank Show, 35 curtaincalls and audience members coming up on to the stage.  If you can’t be in  it, then see it.

Video courtesy of Steve Okoniewski.