Best known by Riverside audiences for The Wharf Revue, Phil Scott chats with guest writer Jason Blake from Audrey Journal about his upcoming show that explores the life of composer Lionel Bart.
It’s true, apparently. The story about the two glass bowls composer Lionel Bart kept at his front door when throwing a party – one full of cocaine, the other full of cash.
“That was at the height of his fame,” says Phil Scott, who researched Bart’s life for a biographical cabaret named for one of his most famous songs, Reviewing the Situation, and for a show coming to the Riverside, Phil Scott Sings Lionel Bart.
“The cocaine, well, that was obvious, but the cash was so that people could get a cab home afterwards,” Scott explains. “He was a famously genial host.”
Bart’s fame and money were derived from the success of his pop writing (he penned Living Doll for Cliff Richard and Little White Bull for Tommy Steele, among others) and the enormous international success of the musical Oliver!
Scott grew up with Bart’s music. “I’ve known his songs since I was a kid but then, of course, I didn’t know anything about who wrote them. He also wrote the theme to From Russia With Love, which is still my favourite Bond film.”
In Phil Scott Sings Lionel Bart, Scott takes on the role of the composer who late in his life, is looking back over his tumultuous career in music, one that took him from poverty to worldwide celebrity.
Bart was born Lionel Begleiter, the seventh surviving child born into a family of Jewish immigrants who escaped the pogroms in Ukraine during the aftermath of WWI and settled in working class Stepney, London. His father was a master tailor and a keen gambler.
A precocious child, Lionel excelled in art. Aged 14, he was accepted into Saint Martins School of Art on a scholarship (where his first life-model was the inimitable Quentin Crisp) and after graduating worked as a screen printer.
He started writing songs for amateur shows in the early 1950s, and later began composing songs for the politically left leaning Unity Theatre in Liverpool where he was spotted by Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Workshop, then one of the most acclaimed companies in Britain.
Recognition came through his pop songs, however. He was awarded three Ivor Novello Awards and his songs were picked up by stars such as Andy Williams, Adam Faith and Jack Jones.
“He’s interesting as a composer because he was musically illiterate,” Scott says. “He had to get people in to write everything down and that got him into a lot of trouble later on. After Oliver! became a huge hit, the woman he got to notate it sued for royalties claiming she had written parts of the score. Bart settled and she got royalties in perpetuity, long after the point when he was getting nothing.”
Bart was a natural talent. “He never trained, couldn’t read or write music, but his harmonic progressions are perfect,” Scott says. “He used to go to a Jewish theatre with his family, as people did back then, and I suppose a lot of what you hear in his music is the result of him hanging over the balcony listening to the orchestra.
“And this was also a time when people had pianos in the home,” Scott adds. “People played music even if they weren’t any good at it. Most folk had some kind of hands-on appreciation back then. It’s very different to now where music is something in the background – but don’t get me started on that,” he laughs.
Bart’s music and melodies work perfectly together, says Scott. “He’s like [Broadway composer] Frank Loesser in that way, brilliant at mirroring the words in the harmonic structure and melodies. Even in songs that aren’t much chop, you still hear it.”
Bart was a natural lyricist too and his gift was recognised by Noel Coward, who made him a present of a rhyming dictionary with the epigraph: “Do not let this aid to rhyming bitch your talent or your timing”.
Bart’s free and easy talent was reflected in his personal life. He made millions from his songwriting then frittered it all away, seemingly unconcerned about his financial security. “I hated money and had no respect for it,” Bart would later say. “My attitude was to spend it as I got it.”
“He’s a classic rags-to-riches and back to rags story,” Scott says. “That’s what drew me into making the show, I think. When [co-writer] Terence O’Connell and I were working on the idea I watched a documentary on the revival of Oliver! and there was a scene with them all singing I’ll Do Anything or one of those big songs and afterwards they interviewed Cameron Macintosh who said Bart is one of the least bitter men I’ve ever encountered in show business.
“I thought great, that’s the hook. It’s not going to be a big whinge about all the bad things that happen. It’s going to be him saying, well this happened … and then that happened. It’s a celebration.”
Scott spoke to Barry Humphries about Bart. Humphries briefly worked with the composer as an actor in one of the composer’s more notable flops, Twang!!, a 1965 musical based on the story of Robin Hood starring comedian Ronnie Corbett and Carry On stars Barbara Windsor and Bernard Bresslaw.
“He wanted Barry to be in it and Joan Littlewood was directing it. But at the time Barry was teeing up his first tour of Australia as Edna Everage and he asked Littlewood what he should do; stay with the show or go back to Australia.”
Littlewood, who would soon quit the production herself, advised Humphries to head home. “She spared him a tremendous flop,” Scott says. “They opened in Manchester, got shocking reviews, the audience in total silence, apparently, but Bart still insisted on taking it to the West End – on his own money. He lost the lot. But money never seemed to matter to him.”
In order to payback debts incurred by the failure of Twang!!, Bart sold the rights to Oliver! to comedian Max Bygraves for a paltry £350. Bygraves went on to sell them on for £250,000.
Scott’s show also touches on Bart’s private life. His fame brought him into contact with the aristocratic circles of Princess Margaret. He was a friend of Judy Garland and Liberace. He briefly managed the Rolling Stones (helping out Andrew Oldham, who was too young to sign the cheques at the time). His Kensington house was party central for the London jet set and the gay scene.
“He was in the closet almost all his life,” Scott says. “He had a boyfriend who stole a lot of things from him – even took paintings off the wall – but he couldn’t report it to the police because homosexuality was still a criminal offence at that time.” Homosexuality in Britain was not decriminalised until 1967.
Scott sees hints of Bart’s sexuality in one of his best-known songs, As Long As He Needs Me. “A song like that has particular resonance, I think,” Scott says. “I’m not saying it’s his coming out but it shines an interesting light into his life.”
Bart’s style of musical fell out of favour with the advent of rock and roll shows such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. His jaunty melodies – the stock and trade of shows such as Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oliver! – struck a new generation of theatergoers as quaint.
In a late-in-life interview with musical historian Mark Steyn, Bart explained he would never write a through-sung musical in the Andrew Lloyd Webber style,
“because in my case it would be slightly pretentious. I’m not a composer, I just make tunes and sing them, and I sing harmonies, and some of my chord progressions are not logical, but often they work. For Oliver! I thought in terms of people’s walks. The Oliver theme was really the Beadle’s walk, a kind of dumde-dum … Fagin’s music was like a Jewish mother clucking away. But I don’t want to get high-falutin’ about it. Music is important, fair enough. But just to have some kind of drab tune fitted to even more drab dialogue seems rather pointless to me.”
Even the worldwide success of Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver!, released in 1968 and starring Ron Moody, couldn’t pull him back from the financial brink.
Bart declared himself bankrupt in 1972. He died aged 68 in 1999, alcoholic, suffering the effects of diabetes, still working (on a revival of another failed project), but in obscurity.
“I don’t think he ever really found a way to cope in that extraordinary world of fame and success,” Scott says.
Phil Scott Sings Lionel Bart comes in the wake of Scott’s retirement from Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue, the annual satirical showcase he co-founded with Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe and stayed with for 18 years.
The final show – on December 30, 2017 – was an emotional one, Scott says, but teary with laughter as much as sadness.
“The audience were a bit quiet – they often are on a Saturday night – but at the end of the show Drew made a speech about me leaving, which a lot of people in the house didn’t know. But what I didn’t know was that the team had made a little slideshow presentation of all the characters I’ve done over the years. It was quite moving but honestly you can’t get too teary when me as John Howard as Yoda comes up on the screen.”
One of Scott’s fondest memories of his Wharf Revue career will be one that audiences likely won’t remember: a dud sketch known as The Frugals.
“It was a little segment with songs about these people who were always fixing things and mending bits and piece with string. It was something that was much funnier for us – it hardly ever got a laugh from the audience. It got so bad that we had immense trouble getting through it without cracking up. It died every single time and we would be in hysterics.”
Scott’s successor has yet to be announced. His musical duties will be taken over by Andrew Worboys but his sketch comedy replacement has yet to be found. It’s a big gig for whoever takes it on: writing, performing and touring The Wharf Revue now takes up six months of the year.
“Some actors dismiss revue as sketch work, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that anyone can do it,” Scott says. “If your character is onstage for only a minute or two, you have to establish everything the audience needs to know about him or her instantly. The same might be said of small character roles in Shakespeare.
“Again, some actors think telling jokes is beneath them, but in our shows we don’t tell jokes. Our characters do. There’s nothing like a laugh that is no longer landing to keep you on your toes during a run. It’s a reminder
that you can’t relax.”
Not that there’s much opportunity to relax during The Wharf Revue. “We never have dressers backstage,” Scott says. “All our quick changes are done with the cast helping each other in and out of costumes. It’s part of the show plot. Twice in the last show I literally ran backstage from O. P. to prompt side, wearing only socks, undies and a mic pack, to make a quick change and an entrance.
“I think what I’ll miss the most about The Wharf Revue is the sheer physical momentum of it.”
The next Wharf Revue will be something of a different beast, Scott says. “It needs to change. The show is at a point where it needs a refresher. It’s gone from being a cult late-night thing to a show feted by the critics. Audiences have built and built over the years. But where does it go from there?
“You don’t want to hang on too long and this last show was one of our best. The year before was nothing but trouble but this was most enjoyable. People say to me, ‘but you have so much raw material, why not go on?’ I always say, it’s not the raw material, it’s what you do with it.”
Phil Scott Sings Lional Bart plays at Riverside Sunday May 27 at 3pm.