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Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be: The Lionel Bart Story by David and Caroline Stafford

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BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

BBC Radio 4, 26-30 December 2011
 
The rags-to-riches-to-rags story of composer/lyricist Lionel Bart is a familiar one. Born Lionel Begleiter in 1930 in the East End of London, he displayed an early talent for writing lyrics. After Natiional Service and a job in a silk-screen printing works, he joined the politically committed Unity Theatre in 1953, and subsequently moved on to join Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, By now he had changed his name to 'Lionel Bart.'
 
Bart first achieved recognition as a composer of pop songs - first for Tommy Steele, and then for Anthony Newley and Cliff Richard. Among his major hits were "Domesday Rock," "Little White Bull," and "Livin' Doll." His first musical success was Lock Up Your Daughters (1959), followed by Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be for Theatre Workshop (also 1950), Oliver! (1960), Blitz (1962) and Maggie May (1964). By the mid-1960s Bart was a major celebrity, spending vast quantities of money and hob-nobbing with the stars.
 
Things went horribly wrong after the flop musical Twang!! (1965), which only ran for six weeks in the West End. and La Strada (1969) which closed on Broadway after only one performance. By 1972 Bart was bankrupt with debts of 72,000. In later life he enjoyed few successes, apart from a commercial for Abbey National in 1989 where he sang "Happy Endings" with a group of children. The producer Cameron Mackintosh gave Bart a share of the production royalties for his 6.5m revival of Oliver! (1993), which at least ensured that the composer could live a moderately prosperous existence. Bart died in 1999 after a long battle with liver cancer.
 
Read by Alistair McGowan, David and Caroline Stafford's biography did not pull any punches. While they admired Bart's unique talent for writing songs - he never learned how to read music, but could nonetheless write very quickly - they also characterized him as a spendthrift; someone who simply could not cope with the celebrity life. They placed little emphasis on his homosexuality, and how that might have influenced his existence (it would have been interesting, for instance, to compare Bart's emotional life with that of his friend and mentor Noel Coward). Rather they saw him as a gifted man who was badly advised: Bart's decision to sell the rights to Oliver! in the early 1970s proved financially catastrophic. Nonetheless they suggested that Bart had no regrets about what happened - even during the 1980s when he had become an alcoholic.
 
In Emma Harding's production McGowan provided all the voices: Bart, his early business partners, Joan Littlewood, Barbara Windsor, Noel Coward, Cameron Mackintosh, Victor Spinetti. Sometimes McGowan's impersonations were difficult to distinguish - especially the Jewish characters (Bart, his parents, and his business friends). His Noel Coward sounded more like John Gielgud. While admiring McGowan's vocal dexterity, I did feel that it distracted our attention away from Bart's biography. We were listening to McGowan the performer rather than finding out about Bart the composer. 
 
Julian Wilkinson's abridgmenet omitted some aspects of Bart's life (we heard little or nothing about Lock Up Your Daughters, Blitz, or La Strada), but nonetheless provided diverting listening.