Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be: The Lionel Bart Story

Consider yourself one of the musical greats, Bart?

By Paul Lester, March 2, 2012
Rowan Atkinson plays Fagin

Rowan Atkinson plays Fagin

David and Caroline Stafford
Omnibus £19.95

Lionel Bart, writer and composer of Oliver!, was as dominating a presence in the world of British musicals in the 1960s as was Andrew Lloyd Webber in the '80s and '90s. And yet he was, like Lloyd Webber, somewhat a figure of fun, regarded by many as a lightweight talent. There was a question mark over his artistic credentials - he penned his own lyrics, for sure, but there were doubts about how his hummed tunes wound up as fully transcribed melodies, ready for the stage, with rumours that there was a greater reliance on his more formally skilled collaborators than was imagined. The subtext of all this was, how could this nice but largely musically uneducated Jewish boy from East London possibly be capable of creating a musical masterpiece to match the American giants of the form, the Rodgers and Harts and Sondheims, without having outside assistance?

Actually, the nice Jewish boy was a self-styled "homosexual Jewish junkie Commie" - the authors of Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be (titled after a Bart song and play) pull few punches in their portrayal of the man born Lionel Begleiter in Stepney, in 1930.

Yes, he made a name for himself writing hits for Tommy Steele, giving Cliff Richard his first number one, composing the first James Bond song, advising The Rolling Stones in their early years and Judy Garland in her later ones. But he was also an "irascible, egotistical, infuriating, competitive, jealous, lying" loudmouth who arguably never recovered from his early-to-mid-'60s moment in the sun and spent the next two decades in a drink and drug-fuelled haze haphazardly trying to recapture his glory days.

Bart's life reads like a three-act melodrama, with a rise and fall, followed by a revival of sorts when the Renaissance Man, who was as happy cavorting with the likes of Noel Coward as he was chatting to cabbies, enjoyed a renaissance towards the end of his life, in April 1999. They present him as a kind of Zelig who was there or thereabouts in the coffee bars of Soho in the late '50s as they fell under the spell of the beat poets and the French intellectuals, and in the clubs of Swinging London as mod and then hippie held sway.

Lionel Bart, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the 1960s

But the overall impression given of Bart is that he was something of a Tin Pan Alley throwback, a hustler whose major accomplishment, Oliver!, just happened to coincide with The Beatles' dolce vita.

There was nothing countercultural about him, for all his coarse language and LSD intake, or his work. And you sense that at heart he knew, notwithstanding the approbation of Coward and some of the minor players of British theatreland - the Barry Humphreys and Barbara Windsors - that he lacked the gravitas of his US heroes.

The cockney kid would, in the words of the artful dodger, Do Anything to be regarded as a true musicals colossus. The tragedy, and this book tells it rivetingly, is that he never really would.

Paul Lester writes on pop music for the JC and other publications

Last updated: 11:13am, March 2 2012