HERE was lots of oom-pahpah on the opening night of Oliver! on the West End stage. Writer and composer Lionel Bart’s tuneful twist on the classic Charles Dickens novel received a 20-minute standing ovation as audiences found themselves humming showstopping numbers like Consider Yourself, Food, Glorious Food and I’d Do Anything.
Oliver! ran for 2,618 performances after debuting in London’s West End in 1960, and went on to conquer Broadway, so it was hardly surprising that a movie version was soon being mooted.
The original London cast included future Dame Edna Everage comedy star Barry Humphries as undertaker Mr Sowerberry, while Georgia Brown played Nancy.
Lionel Bart had been unsure about casting Ron Moody as penny-pinching criminal Fagin, but it became his most famous role, thanks to devilish renditions of classics like Pick a Pocket Or Two and Reviewing The Situation.
The London-born actor once described Fagin as “a crazy old Father Christmas gone wrong” and he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film version. “Playing Fagin in the play and film was a small miracle,” he said.
Oliver! opened in UK cinemas 50 years ago on September 27 and went on to win six Oscars, including best film.
The large-scale musical was filmed at the famous Shepperton Studios with the mid-winter scenes actually being shot at the height of summer in August. A ton of featherlight polystyrene was strewn about the set to represent snowfall and artificial icicles were hung from ledges and pipes as some of the female cast members wore bikinis and topped up their tans among the fake snow.
The London sets covered six sound stages and a huge studio backlot. The whole of London’s Bloomsbury Square was specially recreated for the Who Will Buy? number, while the Consider Yourself routine took three weeks to film.
The movie cast included Harry Secombe as Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Bumble and Leonard Rossiter as Mr Sowerberry.
Oliver Reed always vehemently denied that he got the role of Bill Sikes because his uncle Carol Reed was the movie’s director and declared: “I am not a product of nepotism.
Carol Reed auditioned many youngsters for the pivotal roles of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger before Mark Lester and Jack Wild were picked.
Jack celebrated his 15th birthday during filming and was six years older than his nine-year-old co-star Mark, but looked young. He said of the time: “At an age when most youngsters are preparing for their GCSEs, I was suddenly a jet-setter, briefly the toast of Hollywood and London’s West End.”
Jack, who sadly died at the age of 53 of tongue and throat cancer, remembered working on Oliver! as a joyous time. “I was the leader of the gang and we got up to a lot of escapades for the whole year we were making it. But Carol Reed was an excellent director and he knew how to deal with us.”
Carol Reed himself once pointed out: “The worst thing one can say to a child when aiming a camera at him is ‘act naturally.’ That will shrivel him on the spot. Children are natural actors but you must give them something to act. However many children you are going to film, give each one a separate identity. Tell the little boy to pretend the bicycle is one he has just won in a competition. Tell the little girl she is a princess in disguise. Give them something to work with and think about before the filming begins.”
The cast rehearsed for six months before shooting on the film began. Mark Lester attended a stage school and made his film debut at the age of six in a movie called The Counterfeit Constable.
It is said that, as a practical joke on Harry Secombe during the filming of Oliver!, the make-up department created a false ear for Mark so that when the Goon star grabbed it, it came off in his hand.
Mark later said of his relationship with Jack Wild: “Jack was like a brother to me during the making of the film and was always very protective. I gained a lot. The chemistry between us was just something very, very special, which lasted throughout our lives.”
Lionel Bart attended the red carpet film premiere with singer Lulu and the movie went on to become a huge hit.
However, music arranger Johnny Green revealed 20 years later that it was not Mark Lester singing the heartwrenching songs like Where Is Love?
He said Mark was “tone deaf and arrhythmic” and he originally had two boys ready to dub the singing sections but realised in post production that the voices were not right.
So the beautiful voice everyone hears in the music was actually dubbed by a girl... Johnny’s daughter Kathe Green.