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Who can say where he may hide?
on 24 January 2012
To paraphrase a lyric from his most famous musical. Apt, because the authors have to admit on practically every page that a story may or may not have happened, that many pieces of this troubled and splintered life are missing - presumed written only on cigarette packets - and that the only thing anybody really agrees on was that they loved this difficult `creative genius.'
Most readers will instantly know that Lionel Bart wrote "Oliver!" Those of a certain age will be able to hum the cleaned up version of "Fing's Ain't What They Used To Be" - and might even know that it came from one of the most revolutionary experimental theatre productions of its era. Some may also remember the old pianist with the toothless kiddie in an "Abbey National" commercial. A few musical theatre fans will also speak of "Blitz!" "Maggie May" and "Lock Up Your Daughters" with affection, simultaneously shuddering at "Twang!!"
The `pub quiz' bore will know all about Bart's connections to Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard among a host of other 1960s stars. It's really in the collation of these connections that this biography scores. Alma Cogan, Judy Garland, Kenneth Williams - just a few of the myriad names who drifted into and out of Lionel's circle, supported by him and lending him support in return.
The biography does a reasonable job of recording the occurrence of an interaction, noting where possible those for whom he wrote songs, gave advice or simply 'walked' into a glittering premiere. Of his non-celebrity friends, staff and family, there's clearly been some long conversations sifted to provide a few insights into how a man can be a millionaire one moment, at the height of his creative powers, then lose everything including health and home in a few short years.
`Fing is... there's little beyond anecdotal evidence left. A fairly short book is padded with `scene setting' period descriptions and the odd half-decent unconnected one-liner, because there simply isn't much else recorded as fact. Unlike most biographies which can verify stories of meetings and commentate on their significance to weave an integrated career tapestry, here the threads are tangled; and most surround holes that a lack of records and departed characters cannot fill.
Consequently, this is a slightly shaky chronology of highs and lows, with stories held together by the factual evidence of his public recordings legacy. Readable, despite padding and spelling errors, Bart emerges as more than just the "pity case" beloved of tabloids on a `slow news day.' We now have a reference work that should prove helpful to anybody researching the period, it's music and greatest characters.