Interview: Ron Moody

The star of the musical ‘Oliver!’ reveals how he planned to make Shakespeare’s moneylender irresistible


By Michael Freedland, December 22, 2010
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Ron Moody in costume  as Fagin for his role in the 1968 film of the musical, Oliver! He says chazanut inspired his singing performance

Ron Moody in costume as Fagin for his role in the 1968 film of the musical, Oliver! He says chazanut inspired his singing performance

Every journalist hopes he can make predictions that, eventually, come true. Remarkably, as it may now appear, I made one in my first month as a junior reporter. I was sent to review a production by an amateur dramatic group in a Luton school hall. What I wrote was a few simple sentences: "The best performance of the evening came from a man who should think of becoming a professional. If he does, he's going to go places. His name, Ron Moody."

Well, of course, the places he went to included the West End, Broadway and Hollywood. What he did was to provide a totally new look to his kind of showbusiness. And he did it in dozens of different roles. Above all, he gave a brand new interpretation to what had traditionally been regarded as one of the most antisemitic characters in English literature - Fagin, the miserly fence whom Charles Dickens describes in his novel, Oliver Twist, as a "merry old Jew", and which Alec Guinness turned into a gutteral, long-nosed figure who could easily have decorated the pages of the Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer.

Instead, Moody, star of Lionel Bart's musical version, Oliver!, on both the stage and in the subsequent movie, made him a loveable rogue. Others have played the role since he introduced it all of 50 years ago. (He refuses to say anything unpleasant about the two whom he has seen.) But it was he who set the template for the part - frequently contrary to the wishes of Bart himself.

Sitting in his terraced house in Southgate, in suburban north London, Moody reflects that his interpretation stemmed from his self-confessed anarchic tendencies and from the fact that he was an observant Jew who most of his life kept kosher and who now belongs to the New North London Synagogue.

I knew in my Jewish bones he was a funny character

"I couldn't possibly have played the role if it was seen as antisemitic," he says. "I knew in my Jewish bones, he was a funny character, who would get laughs, because I played him anarchistically."

Indeed, he once hoped he could do the same with Shylock. He played that part briefly when The Merchant of Venice opened - and closed - in Bromley. Then he wrote his own musical of the Shylock story, which he called All the Way To The Bank. For my benefit, he sang the title number. Sadly for him, I was more impressed than were the managements to whom he took it. Shylock needs to be played for laughs, he still maintains.

It is one of the ideas he describes in his new book, which comes with the somewhat anarchistic name, A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography. It is an autobiography, although it mixes the anarchy with the other profession that Moody says would have suited him as well as did Fagin's rags. His degree at the London School of Economics was in sociology. As his friend Maureen Lipman might have said, having an "ology" immediately put him in a different class from most other players. "I would have liked to have been a professor of sociology," he says. But the stage got the better of him, as secretly he knew it would from the time as a five-year-old he would raid the wardrobes of whatever house he was visiting and give a show dressed up in the clothes he found there.

It was as a putative LSE sociologist that he got to know the Luton schoolmaster, Frank Steigal, who asked him to appear in the show he was presenting at his technical college. "Frank died of old age," he says, "very sad".

Moody is speaking as a mere 85-year-old who has no intention of doing any such thing. An 85-year-old (he will be 86 in January) who still acts - he recently played a Scottish bagpiper in the TV series Casualty - who has written his book and who goes round the country plugging it, talking about the people he has known. "Surprisingly, some of the people who were big stars, they have never heard of them," he says.

Almost immediately after that amateur show he became a professional, appearing first in revue, that old fixture of the West End that died at roughly the same time as its less exalted cousin, variety. Shows like For Amusement Only and For Adults Only gave him full rein to be both - and he comes back to the words constantly - a sociologist and an anarchist. The sociologist took the opportunity to study audiences and their reaction to the performance. "I watch people constantly," he says. And their reactions. He hated the fact that when he did one show, the warmest comment he received was a polite thank you. "We need to be able to hear the applause and for people to tell us it was excellent."

That was his philosophy with Oliver!, and which annoyed his co-stars, particularly Georgia Brown who played Nancy. "She was into the Method, which meant she wanted a whole lot of silence." That plainly was not his way. He changed his lines constantly, which he admits drove the rest of the cast mad. Bart himself complained about it. "Do it like you did on the first night," he told him. But then Moody never did anything again like on the first night. Theatre is an evolving thing for him. It is all part of his anarchy philosophy. He took it to Hollywood with him when he made the film version, which won him an Oscar nomination, although not the statuette itself. "I was so lacking in self-confidence that when we actually started filming I was still not sure I had got the part." There were rumours that both Peter Sellers and Rex Harrison were after the role.

Bart might not have liked it, but he had reason to be grateful that Moody was cast because his Fagin interpretations are the ones people remember. The great numbers like Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two and I'm Reviewing The Situation could have got a totally different reaction had they not had the Moody touch - with what the actor likes to think owes a great deal to grand opera and, with the latter, to chazanut, which he loves. It was the chazanim of Los Angeles' shuls who made him think more of going to synagogue regularly.

Being Jewish remains a cornerstone of his life. He recalls a dinner in the 1980s when he told me that he was having no luck finding a Jewish girl to marry. "She has to be Jewish," he emphasised. Then he met Therese, whom he married after she converted. He was a mere 60-years- old. But he made up for lost time. They have six children, and he talks about them the way , as he might put it, his "Jewish bones" dictate.

Eighty-five is not old for Ron Moody. He gives the impression that there is a lot more anarchy to come - because that is what makes him happy. Although, of course, he is always reviewing the situation.

‘A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography’ is published by JR Books at £18.99

    Last updated: 3:39pm, December 22 2010