Lost icon on parade

Lost icon on parade

Anthony Newley, who has died of cancer aged 67, was an icon of the early 1960s. His Stop The World - I Want To Get Off and similar musicals, his film and stage acting, and his frank self-obsession added up to living proof that the fuddy-duddies had been routed and that good looks, irreverence and flair could win all battles.

Like all his musicals, many of them co-written with Leslie Bricusse, Stop The World was an examination of Newley's own emotional life disguised as social comment. The saga of a white-faced clown, his corrupt rise in commerce and politics, and his use and abuse of women (British, American and Russian, all played by the same actress) was a pastiche of how Newley saw his own life. He varied the accounts of his real background; the one, common strain was that it was unhappy. He was the son of a single mother, who waited on him hand and foot - even after he was married. He mourned the absence of his real father, until, at 82, a jobbing builder made himself known. Newley's sense of childhood dislocation was inflamed by his wartime evacuation from Hackney, east London, to Hertfordshire. He long saw himself as a child lost in limbo with an identity number round his helpless neck.

Fantasy had thus an understandable attraction. At 14, Newley got himself a job as an office boy at the Italia Conti stage school in south London, using the money to finance his acting and dancing classes. At the same time he also made his first stage appearance, in The Wind Of Heaven at Colchester repertory theatre, and on screen in The Adventures Of Dusty Bates. His subsequent appearance as the worldly-wise young Artful Dodger in David Lean's 1948 film of Oliver Twist was widely hailed.

As in character, so in real life, Newley saw himself as a sort of artful dodger, a street-boy who knew his way around. It was a protective skin for a man who was at ease only in his own creative world - though paradoxically that world was fuelled by his own real circumstances, which included three marriages. One was to the actress Joan Collins, who once said that his love for her had been 'as shallow as a pan of water', and that he was interested only in his own emotions, his writing and teenagers. Yet they remained close.

His acceptance of the constraints of the Army when doing national service was also brief: it ended after six weeks and a psychiatrist's report - to heartfelt relief on both sides. The theme recurred in 1959 when Newley played a conscripted rock 'n' roll star in the film Idol On Parade.

His first major stage appearance was in the ballet-trained John Cranko's mid-1950s smart, surreal revue Cranks, which ideally suited Newley's idiosyncratic acting, singing and dancing, and conditioned his own output as a writer of musicals and pop songs. It took him to Broadway and gave him a taste for American life that survived his periodic eruptions of dissatisfaction.

Newley became increasingly popular but also increasingly frustrated as a composer and pop singer, feeling himself manipulated and far from his ultimate desire to direct films like Ingmar Bergman. His professional career, however, was thriving and he made dozens of films, most notably Dr Doolittle, with Rex Harrison, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder, The Cockleshell Heroes and The Battle Of The River Plate. It was in 1961, with Bricusse, that he wrote, composed and starred in Stop The World - I Want To Get Off. Though its drift - that the world was a wicked place in which manipulators flourished - lacked the sophisticated edge of the satire movement, it was in the same key and flourished in London and New York, where the notices were dreadful but word of mouth had queues round the block. It was estimated that its most popular song, What Kind Of Fool Am I?, written with Bricusse in one afternoon, would bring Newley a substantial lifelong income.

The partnership with Bricusse also resulted in other musicals, including Scrooge: The Musical, while their Oscar, Grammy and Ivor Novello award-winning collaborations included Goodbye Mr Chips, Santa Claus: The Movie, Pickwick and Victor, Victoria. There were also more best-selling singles, including The Candy Man and Goldfinger, the words of which he wrote for Shirley Bassey to sing over the John Barry theme-tune of the Bond movie.

By the mid-1960s, the difficulties inherent in Newley's amalgam of satire and sentiment had begun to show. With Bricusse he wrote The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd, in which another representative little man plays the game of life with a rich financial manipulator and always loses. It was slated so badly by critics on its provincial run that it did not make the West End. Norman Wisdom, in the lead, played to 30 people in Liverpool. Audiences who liked Stop The World's smart, social satire didn't want Wisdom; and the audiences who wanted Wisdom expected cosy sentiment and didn't expect it from Bricusse and Newley. But Newley took the production to Broadway, playing the Wisdom part himself. With the Americans, it worked.

The song Who Can I Turn To? was a hit and more than 200 different recordings were made of the music. The success turned Newley's head firmly towards America, and comforted him when British reaction to his play, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?, a virtual re-hash of his emotional difficulties with his wife Joan Collins and their two children, was cool. He directed, produced, acted and sang in the film version, with Joan Collins as the older of two women in his life - the other being a teenaged ideal woman.

It was after this that the marriage (there had been an earlier, failed 1956 marriage to Tiller Girl Ann Lynne) fell apart. Newley had two children by his third wife Dareth, but moved out to live with his mother, Gracie, in Surrey.

Newley's flair for staging was undeniable (like Cranko he believed in absolute simplicity in settings, to help the action dominate), but his public bleeding heart and musings on his psyche were now more to the American taste. The quarter Jewish (his maternal grandmother) boy without a home had at last found one that suited his head, if not his cockney heart; and the grudging London response to the 1989 revival of Stop The World probably settled him in that conviction.

The BBC signed him up last year to play a shifty car salesman in EastEnders, but it was sadly not to be a great reconciliation with the British public. Newley had been badly ill and death intervened before he could make an impression remotely comparable with his days as a Las Vegas singer, when, according to legend, the mafia were so pleased with his boost to the gambling city that they pressed a brown Jaguar on him as a tip.

Newley is survived by his four children - Tara and Sacha from his marriage to Joan Collins, and Shelby and Christopher from his third marriage to Dareth Dunn.

• Anthony George Newley, entertainer, born September 24, 1931; died April 14, 1999.

Between Elvis and the Beatles

The hit records of Anthony Newley, strewn around that corner where the 1950s turned into the 1960s were a curious mix from fragmentary times, post-Elvis, pre-Beatles. On Do You Mind Newley attempted supper-club Bobby Darin; he covered Frankie Avalon schlock with Why and got himself the rarity of a top 20 EP with Idol On Parade.

Then there were the novelty songs. Strawberry Fair and Pop Goes The Weasel were early - and not bad essays - into that wearisome end-of-Empire music-hall pastiche which was to so occupy the Kinks, and the Beatles come to that, later in the decade.

Thus, briefly, was Newley in time with the ephemera of pop culture rather than show business. Indeed, since his rivals were dismissed as agent-made brain deads - such as Cliff Richard's Bongo Herbert character in Espresso Bongo - Newley came as near as the trade got to an 'intellectual' before the music business developed its self-consciousness and self importance.

One result of his status was The Strange World of Gurney Slade , a 1960 six-part, half-hour comedy series, shot on film, in which he roamed the streets, chatted with overly familiar mongrels, and fantasised about women. In an ITV era of Emergency Ward 10 and Double Your Money, the series was different. But floating, as it was, some distance from the French new wave, and with a script style listing too heavily towards Galton and Simpson's Hancock's Half Hour, the show slid briskly down the schedules before sinking. All that survived was its theme tune, which surfaces on TV ads to this day.

Newley's position in pop culture got lost too. That the young David Bowie recorded Laughing Gnome, a dreadful pastiche of a Newley novelty song, in 1967, and continued to emulate Newley's flattened-out vowel sound for some time afterwards - 'Ground control to Major Tom' - is thus seen as inexplicable, rather than a reminder that Newley meant something, even if, as so often in pop, no-one was sure what. - Nigel Fountain.


By Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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