“Please Sir, can I have some more?”. Mark Lester nabbed the classic line as Oliver Twist in this immensely popular musical film version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel.
Set in 19th Century London, the film tells the story of a little orphan boy who escapes the harsh life of the workhouse and tries to cope with life on the streets.
Oliver is taken in by a band of street urchins, headed by the lovable Fagin, his fiendish henchman Bill Sikes and his loyal apprentice the Artful Dodger.
Through his education in the fine points of pick-pocketing, Oliver makes away with an unexpected treasure . . . a home and a family of his own.
John Box, who designed Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), literally reconstructed 19th Century London at Shepperton in a dazzling array of architectural splendour, with such an eye for detail you can almost smell the cabbage leaves and horse dung under the carriage wheels.
The workhouse where Oliver Twist and the other orphans are abused, the steaming docks and sweaty smoke-filled pubs, the whirling vendors, the marching Queen’s Guards, the shimmering green parks full of girls in bright pinafores, and the white birthday cake splendour of Bloomsbury are really marvels of movie excess.
Songwriter-arranger Johnny Green was hired as musical director, and with his assistance, Director Carol Reed was able to package the songs with maximum dramatic impact.
By almost universal agreement, the high point of the film is Who Will Buy? – the beautiful medley of street songs that opens the second half of the film. From the first a cappella, pure-soprano statement of the main theme by the flower girl in the deserted Bloomsbury Square (in reality, a facade built at Shepperton), the music builds gracefully into an oratorio of the ordinary.
The other peddlers arrive gradually, sounding the variations and secondary motifs, and are eventually joined by policemen, maids, lords and ladies. Finally, the now-sunlit square is flooded with a river of humanity.
Mark Lester is a blue-eyed photogenic Oliver; Ron Moody is a scene-chewing Fagin: Shani Wallis is a voluptuous and vibrant Nancy, and Oliver Reed is just about the evilest villain you could conjure in one of his juiciest roles as the murderous Bill Sikes. There is also a battered old dog named Bullseye, who steals the picture.
Oliver! deservedly won the Best Picture Oscar in 1968, and features 14 songs, many of them now classics – such as Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, If I Was A Rich Man and Where Is Love?.
While undeniably a jollification of the Dickens novel (comical chimney boys anyone?) – complete with a softening of some of the original characters, including the transformation of Fagin from a grasping villain into a lovable rogue (albeit one brilliantly played by Ron Moody in a recreation of the role he had created in the original stage production) – one is simply swept along by the sheer exuberance of the staging and performances, leaving you wanting more.