It is apparent that for Elliot Davis, Lionel Bart (who died in 1999) is very much alive. We — that is me and Davis — are talking at the gorgeous Theatre Royal Stratford East where Davis’s reworked version of Bart’s 1959 musical Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be, starring Jessie Wallace from EastEnders and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, is opening.
This is the stage where the show was first seen. Old black and white photos of the musical, which is set in a gambling den, adorn the bar along with those of other landmark shows created at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.
Davis is remembering how things used to be when he worked for Bart in the mid 1990s. At the age of 21 he had contacted the legendary composer (not through Bart’s agent but, a little weirdly, through his accountant) for advice on how to make a career in musical theatre. Davis ended up working for him.
“I would have done anything,” says the 41-year-old composer, unintentionally almost quoting a line from one of Bart’s songs in Oliver! “He’d say: ‘I need you to write this, can you come round?’ And he would give me his dictaphone. He’d been walking around Hyde Park or wherever going ‘daba, daba, daba, daba...’” To every “daba” Davis attaches a higher note in the scale. “So I would sit at the piano and go: ‘Like this?’ And he’d say: ‘Darker, moodier — what about that chord?’”
But Bart could not read music. Everything he did musically was innate.“A lot of directors [and] actors have a musical sense. My job is to tune into what he was doing and translate it musically. Lionel is not musically illiterate.”
This is not the first or last time during this conversation that Davis talks about Bart in the present tense. Bart is so much a part of his life at the moment that Davis talks about him as if he were next door sitting in on rehearsals with the cast and director Terry Johnson.
The show is the latest in a series of revivals at Stratford East marking the centenary of Littlewood’s birth. Her Theatre Workshop was the powerhouse of innovation that created the recently resurrected Oh What A Lovely War! However, Fings was in no state to be plonked back on stage as was. Based on Frank Norman’s play about an ex-con who leaves prison to find that he is no longer the big cheese in his old manor, Littlewood brought in Bart to add songs. This was three years before Bart’s defining work Oliver! launched him into the big time.
“I’ve loved the show for a long time because I thought it was an interesting as a precursor to Lionel’s success. The score of Oliver! was so sublime that everyone who has seen it goes: ‘How did that come about?’ But then you look at Bart’s pop songs and they were instantly hummable — Living Doll [a hit for Cliff Richard], Do You Mind [Anthony Newley]. Obviously I knew the title song [made famous by Max Bygraves].
“Originally Fings was devised by Joan’s company. And if someone got a laugh one night she’d go: ‘Don’t do it again’ because she would instantly require that everything on stage was ‘real’ and of the moment. The script was a very curious beast.
“Songs were in funny places. It didn’t feel like it would survive a modern audience. But the spine of it was good. So I ripped it apart and put it back together again. I wrote some new scenes and character journeys and I’ve also raided the Bart catalogue. I’ve put Living Doll in there, Do You Mind and Sparrers Can’t Sing.”
There’s barely a syllable in the script or a lyric in a song the hasn’t been put through the Cockney mangle by Norman, Bart and now the distinctly un-Cockney Davis, who was born in Totteridge. The cabbie’s son is, however, uniquely qualified for the project. Not only was Bart his mentor. He has since carved a career as a writer of musicals, the most conspicuous being the Olivier-nominated Loserville which he wrote with Busted front man James Bourne. And now he’s also writing the screenplay to a movie about Bart in which Geoffrey Rush will star — and like Fings, will feature a soundtrack comprised of Bart’s songs.
The film will chart the famous Bart rags-to-riches-to-rags story. When Davis knew him, you could say that Bart was just emerging from the second rags phase. He made nowhere near his due of the royalties from Oliver!
When Cameron Mackintosh revived the show in 1994 at the Palladium, he generously cut Bart back into the box office takings. But on the occasions Bart called Davis to “come over” to do some work, Bart was still living in an Acton flat.
“It was above a launderette,” Davis recalls. “I remember looking out the window and the buses were very close. It was the most modest of flats. And he had some odd memorabilia. He drank out of mugs [inscribed] ‘More’. When you walked into his flat there was a picture of him with two Beatles on either side of him.
“He was bigger than they were at the time. I loved him. I understood that he wasn’t easy to a lot of people who he had fallen out with because of his tantrums.”
The film will not only be about the wilderness years. It will cover the years of largesse at Bart’s parties when he lived in Fulham.
These were “absolutely legendary. The 1966 World Cup party was held at his house — with the [England] team. You would bump into the Rolling Stones. But what was great about Lionel was that he was maybe the first to be on the cusp of theatre, culture and, because of the pop and rock hits, modern pop culture too. You could bump into Noel Coward at the same party as Mick Jagger. And Lionel was at the centre of it all.” And then back in the present tense, the composer adds: “He is as fascinating as he is complicated,” as if it was not just the show and Bart’s songs that Davis has revived, but the man himself.