A celebration of Lionel Bart – the man who made the 1960s swing

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A celebration of Lionel Bart – the man who made the 1960s swing

The composer's biographer shares his story ahead of a show about his life

There was a time, in the early Sixties, when to be Lionel Bart was to be just about the coolest person on the planet. Everybody loved Lionel. Noel Coward said once that he would “rather spend five minutes in a four-ale bar with Lionel Bart than a year’s yachting cruise with the Oxford Debating Society”. House & Garden did a feature on his house in Seymour Walk, Chelsea. The 1966 England squad spent the night of their victory at a party at Lionel’s.

He was rumoured to be engaged to Alma Coogan. Lionel owned a Facel Vega– then the fastest four-seater coupé in the world. Picasso had one. Tony Curtis had one. The King of Morocco had one and Albert Camus died in one in the South of France.

Lionel was born in 1930 in Mother Levy’s Jewish Maternity Hospital in the East End to Yetta and Morris Begleiter. He was, as he charmingly put it, “the last shake of the bag”. Lionel was, in every sense, the baby of the family, indulged by his mother and spoiled by his sisters. At home, his glorious self-belief was allowed to flourish unchallenged. When asked to describe his childhood, he said: “Very noisy, it was. My house was like a Marx Brothers movie.” The East End, or at least Lionel’s bit of it, provided an impressive backdrop to melodrama, comic opera, and broad farce.

The headmistress of his school in Dempsey Street told Yetta the thing every mother longs to hear, “Your son is an artistic genius whose talent must be nurtured.” Although she didn’t specify in what sphere Lionel’s genius lay, Lionel himself thought it lay in thinking up smutty lyrics to popular songs to impress his classmates. “Every audience for one of my shows represents to me an extension of that gang of kids in the East End of London. Every laugh means a free turn on someone’s roller skates, and every first night is like a curbside debut performance of a brand new naughty song.”

Tommy Steel and Lionel Bart

A scholarship to St Martin’s School of Art was followed by National Service. When he came back to London, Lionel’s big sister Renee took him off to the Unity Theatre in St Pancras. Unity grew out of the Worker’s Theatre Movement, an organization that during 1930 staged street plays in support of strikes, anti-fascist demos and the like. It had a profound effect on Lionel. “Things left-wing were interesting to me. I was interested in theatre as well, and thought I’d better get serious.”

By Christmas 1953, Lionel, along with Jack Grossman, had written all the lyrics and music for a Lefty reworking of Cinderella. When he sold his first song Oh, For a Cup of Tea to Billy Cotton for 25 guineas, he blew the lot on a big party. Lionel loved to party. He loved the Soho Scene, mohair sweaters, coffee bars, and skiffle groups, and it wasn’t long before he formed one with merchant seaman Tommy Steele and Mike Pratt called The Cavemen.

Lionel Bart and John Lennon

Tommy’s career started to really take off, and Lionel and Mike wrote a dozen songs for his 1956 film The Tommy Steele Story and won their first Ivor Novello Award. Lionel was firing on all cylinders when he first went to see Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal with a clutch of songs. Joan was one of Nature’s subversives, never happier than when she was tearing things apart. She wasn’t interested in the songs but instead asked him to work on a script by ex-jailbird Frank Norman called Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, a heart-warming tale of pimps and gangsters.

Lionel ran with it. It was a roaring success, although the Lord Chamberlain was less enamoured. The success of Fings helped to pave the way for Donald Albery, owner of four West End theatres, to back Lionel’s new vision, a musical based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver. The songs are his finest. The Fagin songs are, for obvious reasons, the most self-consciously Jewish. Ron Moody, who played Fagin, detected hints of My Yiddish Momma in Reviewing the Situation. The musicologist Jack Gottlieb finds the same song has roots in Havdalah.

Some of the cast from Oliver! Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Lionel Bart, Ron Moody (Fagin) and Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger). 25 September 1968.

On the opening night, Lionel was beside himself with nerves. He had insisted on an aisle seat and, not long after curtain up, he escaped the theatre to wander around Trafalgar Square and then slip into the Garrick Theatre where Fings had transferred to see his mate Barbara Windsor in the interval. She tried to reassure him and sent him back to the theatre where he was met by the sounds of what he took to be an angry mob. He thought that the audience was baying: “Awful, awful!” In fact, they were calling: “Author, Author!” having already had 17 curtain calls. The house lights were up, the audience were on their feet refusing to go home. “I don’t remember too much more about that night,” said Lionel, “because it was just loads of faces – joyous faces is all I can remember.”

Blitz! was Lionel’s next production – Noel Coward noted it was “twice as long and twice as loud as the real thing”. Princess Margaret disagreed: “I thought it was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of it.” The initial run was for a respectable 18 months. Then Lionel moved on to what he called ‘a folk opera set in Liverpool’. “After doing some research, I found that most of Liverpool’s folk music had Irish Celtic roots. Now it’s common knowledge, or should be, that the Irish are actually the lost tribe of Israel, so it’s a good job I remembered my bar mitzvah music.”

Lionel Bart with Barbara Windsor, in a dress rehearsal of Twang at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Lionel’s date for the opening night of Maggie May in Manchester was Judy Garland. “Everything I do must be bigger and better than anything I’ve done before. That’s my kick, mate.”

Twang!! was to be a rollicking romp through Sherwood Forest, combining the bawdy laughs of a Carry On film with the spontaneity of Fings. The cast was stellar – at different times featuring Alfie Bass, James Booth, Barbara Windsor, Ronnie Corbett and Bernard Bresslaw. The rehearsals stretched over four months with the script being improvised and changed constantly.

Barbara Windsor could see it wasn’t going well. In the middle of a blazing row with Joan Littlewood, she remembered Joan screaming at Lionel, “It’s that f****** LSD, isn’t it?” Barbara was puzzled. “The only LSD I knew about came in my wage packet. I thought it wasn’t fair. We’re all in it for the money, aren’t we?” Sadly, drugs and booze were taking their toll on Lionel’s health and talent.

The full story of Twang!!’s descent into chaos resulted in a 15-year hiatus in Lionel’s career which he filled mainly with alcohol and drugs. Lionel knew he needed help when one morning he “woke up and felt something falling on my face. I realized I was lying in the passage behind the front door. The postman had come. The letters were falling on my face. It was then I realised that I had to stop. I’d become my own audience. Nobody else was watching.”

Lionel Bart with Judy Garland

He collaborated in a number of shows over this period – Hunchback, La Strada, a musical about Golda Meir, one about Winston Churchill – and some of them were really interesting. Lionel never really wrote anything as good as Oliver! again, but then… neither did anyone else. To clear his debts, Lionel made his worst financial decision ever in 1970, when he sold the rights to his published music for the next six years, and the stage and film rights to Oliver! for £300,000! A few years later they were worth £2 million, but when Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights, revived the musical at the London Palladium in 1994, he kindly gave Lionel a deserving share of the production royalties.

Oliver! still has the power in a frozen school hall smelling of Dettol to generate an unnerving camaraderie. When a cast of uncoordinated year nine and tens come out for their curtain call and tunelessly mumble Consider Yourself one more time, the most churlish and curmudgeonly audience members find themselves mysteriously compelled to rise to their feet, clap in time, smile, and sing along. And this miracle is repeated somewhere in the world every year.

Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be: The Lionel Bart Story by David and Caroline Stafford is published by Omnibus Press

Celebrating Lionel Bart is at JW3 for one night only



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