Classic cinema review: Oliver! (1968)

Showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank as part of their Dickens on Screen anniversary season, the Lionel Bart musical, filmed by Carol Reed, is a worthy addition to the adaptations of this most quintessential English writer’s novels.

Oliver! made its stage debut in 1960, using the novel ‘Oliver Twist’ as its source material – freely adapting the complex tale of an orphan who runs away and falls amongst thieves, omitting a few peripheral characters and one subplot (you’ll find no Monks here), and generally making the major characters more sympathetic. By the time the film was released the musical had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, having premiered on Broadway in 1963.

The film features Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Mark Lester as Oliver, Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Bumble, Joseph O’Conor as Mr Brownlow, Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate, Sheila White as Bet, Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as the Sowerberries, and Kenneth Cranham as Noah Claypole.

Fagin in particular is depicted as a rich comedy character with a touch of pathos (and more than a touch of the Jewishness which also distinguished Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1948 David Lean film), and his songs ‘You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘Be Back Soon’, and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ are undoubted highlights of both show and film. Nancy is depicted as both a survivor and a victim, a former child thief trapped in an abusive relationship she doesn’t want to leave (as highlighted in her torch song ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’), while she tallies each night in the tavern waiting for her man to return from his day of crime (‘It’s a Fine Life’).

Shorn of his song which worked well on stage, Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes exudes an air of menace but clearly cracks up when he makes one fatal mistake – here the tension rachets up a notch and the mood swings of the plot are handled extremely well. In fact the handling of both serious and comic situations throughout the film should be noted with praise, as should the performances of the two child stars, Jack Wild and Mark Lester, who are both superb, especially Wild who is a cheeky chappie, a tiny toff who will always make his way in the world, but also a child who knows he cannot yet protect those who need it (the scene where Nancy is attacked by Sikes being a case in point).

Special mention to the ensemble numbers, ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy’ which look superb on the big screen, and the funny/tense ‘Oom Pah Pah’. Numbers for the Sowerberries (who are rather less comical in the stage version), and Mrs Bumble (Corney on the stage; she is not yet married to the Beadle at the start of the story) are not missed from the film and would perhaps have slowed the action down. What remains is of course superb – a song for Mr Bumble, ‘Boy for Sale’ showcasing Secombe’s gift for opera; a diverting piece for the children, Bet, and Nancy (‘I’d Do Anything’) and a plantive number for Oliver before he escapes to London (‘Where Is Love?’).

The film is perhaps one of the greatest literary adaptations even without the songs; it does not trivalise the story of Oliver Twist and, the plot omissions aside, manages to be fairly close to the book, with all the characters fully drawn and perfectly cast, from the drunken magistrate through to the kindly Mrs Bedwin (Megs Jenkins) and the jovial bookseller (James Hayter). A longtime favourite film of mine, which still looks and sounds terrific.