Lionel Bart obituary

Fings ain’t wot they used t’be

The life of Lionel Bart, who has died aged 68, was a morality tale about a poor cockney lad who had prodigal talent as a composer and lyricist but too little of everything else.

Artistic judgment, shrewdness about people, money sense and self-discipline were all beyond the small, generous and unpredictable man who in 1960 wrote the extremely successful West End musical, Oliver!, signed away his rights in it as well as in his other works, and estimated years later, when he was skint, that he would have been £100 million better off if he hadn't. He was not ill-natured and had few if any enemies, but he was quite capable of destroying himself without any help.

Bart was for a time one of the most swinging figures of the Swinging Sixties; a composer who couldn't read or write down music; a breaker of moulds who wrote Livin' Doll for Cliff Richard in 10 minutes flat; the owner of four homes, each of them decorated in appalling taste complete to lilac loos, and full of sponging hangers-on; the driver of four cars with telephones in the days when car telephones were as rare as space ships. He served popular music and Fleet Street better than he served himself.

He was the youngest of seven surviving children of Jewish East Enders who had escaped pogroms in Galicia, then part of the Austrian empire. He was his 46-year-old mother's eleventh child and attributed his desire for fame to what he felt had been a lack of love and attention from his overworked, and older than average, parents. His father was a tailor, working in an London E1 garden shed. Lionel thought of himself as the runt of the litter and ingratiated himself with his contemporaries, but incensed his elders, by making up rude words to popular tunes.

When Bart was six, a teacher told his father that the boy was a musical genius. Lionel was given an old violin and lessons, but did not apply himself. The lessons stopped. It was the first evidence of limited sticking power. There was another at St Martin's School of Art, where he gave up his ambition to be a painter after being expelled for 'mischievousness'. He explained that painting was a lonely craft and, 'I like a good mob working around me.' He was to achieve the mob, if not always the work.

After National Service in the RAF, he borrowed £50 and with John Gorman- they had met in the RAF - started a printing business in Hackney. With Gorman, he joined the Communist Party, and for the left-leaning International Youth Centre he arranged a cabaret. In 1952, with John Gold, he wrote the annual IYC revue, including the story of Robin Hood as it might have been treated by Dostoevesky and Noel Coward. For the equally leftist Unity Theatre near Kings Cross, he did the lyrics for an agit-prop Cinderella.

HIS first musical was Wally Pone, King of the Underworld, a Ben Jonson take-off about a con-man unmasked, which ran for eight weeks. Around this time he passed St Bartholomew's Hospital on a bus and his surname, previously Begleiter, became the anglicised Bart. He began to write songs for stars, explaining that he always wrote with a performer in mind. It was an honest admission, which forecast the difficulties he often had with structure when tackling stage musicals.

Such was this difficulty that his first major stage success, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, came together only after the idiosyncratic and autocratic Joan Littlewood had taken it, and him, under her wing for her Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Similarly, theatre boss Bernard Miles, wanting to do a modern version of Henry Fielding's Rape Upon Rape, exerted pressure and even had other writers up his sleeve in case Bart couldn't deliver. But Bart, who also had a second play running, later turned down £100,000 for the film rights of the resultant Lock Up Your Daughters.

In 1960, when virtually every London management had turned down Oliver! because they thought Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist was too morbid as a subject, the impresario Donald Albery took an option after hearing a tape of Bart's friends playing the parts. Michael Caine unsuccessfully auditioned for Bill Sikes and Ron Moody impressed as Fagin. The director was the young Peter Coe, recently departed from Ipswich Rep.

Putting the show together was prolonged torture. The actors had to contend with daily changes to the words and music, and when the curtain first went up on June 30, 1960, the show the public saw had been in place only three days. The Guardian's critic Philip Hope-Wallace found it a disappointing 'starveling musical' and some other critics were no kinder - a fact that later made Bart disastrously dismissive of the views of critics. But in this case, Bart was right - the public loved the play's blunt East End atmosphere and raw vital music. Soon the show was being described as the answer to American musicals and the best British musical of the postwar years.

Bart, who had won three Ivor Novello Awards in 1957, four in 1959 and two in 1960, was given the Variety Club Silver Heart for Show Business Personality of the Year. He could now do no wrong. He was admired, and sponged on by many in his huge social circle. Champagne flowed. A bowl containing £1,000 in notes rested on a mantelpiece in his Fulham palace, from which anyone in need could help themselves. Many obliged.

All night parties would leave Bart wondering next morning who the 50 people still in the house were. He also had a beach house in Malibu, an apartment in New York and a castle in Tangier. The only signs that perhaps his spirit was not to be that of a survivor was an expensive nose job and the wearing of a stetson hat indoors to conceal the fact he was going bald.

Two years later, his musical about London in the second world war, Blitz!, which his unlikely mentor Noel Coward pronounced to be twice as long and twice as loud as the real thing, was called a misfire on a grand scale by one critic but enjoyed by the public. The profligate times continued until 1965, when two exclamation marks instead of one after the title could not persuade the critics or the public that Twang!!, a camped-up version of Robin Hood, with Barbara Windsor as a nymphomaniac Maid Marian, was anything but a limp mess.

Bart could easily have survived this reverse if he had had Coward's incisive mind and written the play off to experience. But he refused to see the show was a flop; used his own money to plug the huge hole in the takings, some £80,000; sold the rights to his past and future works, including the Oliver! goldmine, to keep himself solvent; then declared himself bankrupt. It was the longest suicide note in theatre history. True, Bart was still physically if not professionally alive, though with a liver badly damaged by three bottles of vodka a day.

For a decade the fallen idol of the Swinging Sixties did little but drink himself silly, living in a flat in unfashionable Acton which was full of memorabilia of happier times. 'I rarely cry, but when I do I cry for days,' he said. It was his old RAF friend John Gorman who reappeared to help sort out his life. Bart joined Alcoholics Anonymous and kicked the habit after being given two weeks to live. He took his diabetes more firmly in hand. Later in the 1980s, there were also signs of new professional life. A reissue of Livin' Doll with satirical words inadvertently drew attention to the song and its composer. Bart received, in 1986, a special Ivor Novello Award for his life's achievement.

In the 1990s, there were frequent revivals of his work. The impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights to Oliver!, revived the play in a version rewritten by Bart. Feeling it wrong that Bart had been getting nothing from the profitable revivals of his work, Mackintosh also gave the composer a share of the production royalties.

Now 'out,' as he expressed it (the proposal of marriage on television by the deep-voiced singer Alma Cogan was thought a bizarre cosmetic publicity stunt), Bart got some saner enjoyment from his later years, a beloved figure among the nephews and nieces of his extended family and his many godchildren.

The nastiest thing that anyone could say was that he was his own worst enemy. His vertiginous life contained many silly actions but no mean ones.

Iltyd Harrington writes: Bart would acknowledge that he regained his confidence after agreeing to the re-staging of his work by the National Youth Theatre. Against all odds we staged Blitz! at the Playhouse and Maggie May at the old Royalty. Egged on by director and choreographer David Toguri, John Reid (then Elton John's manager), and Ed Wilson, the head of the NYT, Bart found an enthusiastic generation of actors and technicians who had not been born when Oliver! first was seen.

In the summer seasons of the NYT he spent long hours at their rehearsals. The young took him on board, they neither flattered nor ignored him. Here was a genuine cockney with all that urban Stepney Wit. Out of this came a warmth which heralded Bart's re-discovery. Thereafter no one was more generous than Cameron Mackintosh who brought back an enormously successful revival of Oliver! The East End songsmith had found his way back home, but, as he enjoyed renewed recognition, he never forgot his welcome to the rehearsal rooms of the NYT in greyest Islington.

• Lionel Bart, composer and lyricist, born August 1, 1930; died April 3, 1999


By Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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