Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1968) has a lot to answer for. Ever since the runaway success of that tuneful and exuberant musical, people began to quarry the works of Charles Dickens in an attempt to find a sequel.
This smash-and-grab raid on the canon is an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop with music and lyrics by Anthony Newley, musical direction from Elmer Bernstein, a screenplay by Louis and Irene Kamp and finance by Reader’s Digest.
The production lacks the unashamed delight in emotion and sentiment that characterises the book. Here, Little Nell (Sarah- Jane Varley) seems nothing more than a subsidiary character, and the story of her mysterious, romantic wanderings with her grandfather lose their resonance.
Quilp (played by Newley), the dwarfish grotesque who diabolically intervenes in their affairs, occupies centre stage; and even the Old Curiosity Shop seems little more than a trendy boutique up for grabs.
It’s also a poor choice for a full-scale musical treatment – There seems no logical reason why shabby-genteel Dick Swiveller (David Hemmings) should start telling us in the opening reel something about happiness being apple pie (or perhaps apple pie being happiness).
And Quilp’s own credentials as a Machiavellian schemer lose their validity when in his seedy Thamesside lair, he starts behaving like a seasoned Broadway trouper doing a slow-motion strut in front of a curtain.
Admittedly one number, Sport of Kings, succeeds because it uses the sudden switch of location in mid-number that Wyler so brilliantly exploited in Funny Girl (1968). But when people start pluckily cavorting around a threepenny-bit-sized lawyer’s office, one is only reminded just how bankrupt the musical conventions now seem.
On the plus side, David Warner makes the ingratiating solicitor, Sampson Brass, a true Dickensian eccentric; Michael Hordern plays Little Nell’s grandfather with unmannered sincerity; and Paul Rogers lends his brother a sweet, uncloying benevolence. There is also an early appearance for Peter Duncan (later a Blue Peter presenter) as Kit.
But Newley’s Quilp – a galvanised Quasimodo on a permanent high – is something of a strain to watch (and Newley seems to sing at people rather than to them, substituting aggression for sustained characterisation).
Mister Quilp is, in fact, Dickens shorn of sentiment, melodrama or love, and without those qualities, the film never gets airborne.
Released in the US as The Old Curiosity Shop.