Oliver! (1968, Ron Moody, Oliver Reed)

Oliver! Mark Lester and Jack Wild

Ron Moody’s quick-fingered Fagin steals the show in this Sunday afternoon telly favourite by the maker of The Third Man.

Dickens’ classic tale of the poorhouse boy from noble stock who falls into the hands of a ruthless East End gang is the perfect source material for a grotesque, juicy, lustily performed musical. Director Carol Reed, maker of The Third Man no less, makes an impressive stab at producing just such a musical using Lionel Bart’s score to spice things up.

Reed’s film is hugely enjoyable as a raucous, intelligent family musical. The choreography, pacing and direction are impeccable and the film benefits from a fine cast. Moody sparkles as Fagin, American Shani Wallis gives a great star turn as the tart-with-a-heart Nancy and Oliver Reed’s Sykes is a wonderful silent and malevolent creation. It’s with the central figure, Oliver, that the good work comes undone. Spooky Mark Lester has the angelic looks of an Oliver but gives a pale-pink performance that even this most anaemic of literary creations does not merit. It takes Jack Wild’s spirited Artful Dodger to save the day.

Bart’s songbook is witty, but whitewashes some of the satirical aspects of Dickens’ tale, and Harris’ screenplay doesn’t quite capture the grotesqueries of the author’s dialogue – both, however, capture his keen sense of melodrama. The conception of 19th century London squalor is suitably unsavoury and the vision of Sykes shadow on a damp tenement wall is a chilling image that stays with you long after Fagin has skipped out of the final frame, his pockets full of gold.

Classic Quote: Mother came to us destitute. Brings a child into the world, takes one look at him and promptly dies, without leaving so much as a forwarding name and address! – Mr Bumble on Oliver’s unfortunate entrance into the world

Cast: Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Mark Lester, Jack Wild, Clive Moss, Hugh Griffith, Leonard Rossiter,

Director: Carol Reed
Photographer: Oswald Morris
Composer: Lionel Bart
Screen Writer: Vernon Harris