Oliver writer Lionel Bart
by John Rennie
Lionel Bart’s music ranged from his greatest success, Oliver!, and musicals like Lock Up Your Daughters and Blitz. His songs such as Living Doll, Rock With The Cavemen and Little White Bull gave chart hits to British rock’n’roll stars like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele. It was a curious hybrid – but it had its roots in East End soil.
Bart was born Lionel Begleiter in Whitechapel in 1930, the 11th child of a Jewish tailor, and it was his childhood that formed his songs. “Oliver! was a strange marriage of the Jewish music of my barmitzvah and the street cries of my childhood,” he recalled. “Fagin’s music was like a Jewish mother hen clucking away!”
It was a colourful background, but one Bart was fond of embellishing still further. Many of his friends talked of his constant rewriting of his childhood, a habit which drove the ghostwriters of his biography to despair.
Certainly, although he never learned to read or write music, there were early signs of musical ability. Aged six, one of the young Lionel’s teachers told his father that the lad was a musical genius, and his proud dad bought him a violin. Lionel soon got bored with the discipline required and dropped his lessons.
At 16, he decided his artistic future lay with painting, and won a scholarship to St Martin’s School of Art. That didn’t last either, though. He was expelled for “mischievousness”, but didn’t regret leaving the lonely life of the artist in his garret. “I like a good mob working around me,” he explained, an esprit de corps that would be fulfilled in the huge musical productions that were to make his name.
One thing he did acquire during his studies was that name. His bus journey from Whitechapel to the West End every day took him past Barts Hospital, and Begleiter reinvented himself as Bart.
After National Service, Bart set up in business with his RAF pal, John Gorman. With a borrowed £50, they started a printing firm in Hackney. But business was never Bart’s forte – this was the man who later sold the million-spinning smash hit Oliver! for a paltry £15,000, and poured in £80,000 of his own cash in 1965 in a vain bid to save the flop musical Twang!!
Tommy Steele and Soho’s 2 I’s
Anyway, music was changing, with big bands giving way to rock’n’roll, and Bart was spending time up West, mixing with young hopefuls like Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard in Soho’s 2 I’s coffee bar. At the same time as he was producing his first stage show, Wally Pone of Soho, which debuted at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford, he was banging out the hits for Britain’s answers to Elvis. It came easily. He claimed to have written Living Doll in six minutes on a Sunday morning – about twice as long as Cliff took to sing it!
But what came easy, went easy too. Bart was hugely generous with his cash, a legacy, he reckoned, of his gambling father. “There were endless arguments about money,” he said. “I hated money and had no respect for it. My attitude was to spend it as I got it.”
By 1972, Bart was bankrupt, with debts of £73,000, and a huge drink problem. What cash hadn’t been ripped off by casual acquaintances had been poured into unsuccessful stage shows. Often, his pals saw the warning signs in his shows long before he could. His friend Noel Coward, on reading the script of his Quasimodo, remarked: “Brilliant dear boy. But were you on drugs when you wrote it?”
But towards the end of his life, attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and with a percentage of the profits from the stage revival of Oliver!, Bart was reconstructing his life. And Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of that revival, made one of the most telling quotes on Bart’s death. “Of all the people in this business who have had ups and downs, Lionel is the least bitter man I’ve ever come across. He regrets it, but he’s never been sour, never vindictive.”