Charles Dickens, Anthony Newley and Real Books

September 1st, 2020 by Max Allan Collins
Dark City (Wolfpack Edition)

The physical editions of my books at Wolfpack have started to kick in! You can get Murder – His & Hers right now. And all four Ness novels are individually available – [Amazon links] The Dark City, Butcher’s Dozen, Bullet Proof, and Murder by the Numbers. They share the same cover as the Eliot Ness Mystery Omnibus, but with variant colors.

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Barb and I – thanks to the efforts of our son Nate – were able to watch Bill and Ted Face the Music on its opening night, streaming it. We love Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and also like the sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey; I would put this long awaited third installment on at least a par with the sequel.

Like its predecessors, it’s a very smart movie about a couple of lovable dudes who are perhaps not as dumb as they appear, rather are just of their time and generation. As Nate commented, in the midst of this Covid/Trump reality, for one sweet funny evening, the world felt normal again. Like nothing had changed.

But we shouldn’t get too cocky about the past. Of late, Barb and I have been watching a lot of film and TV adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, escaping from 2020 into the 1800s. That escape, though, has an uncomfortable number of parallels – homeless people (check), government-abused kids (check), an unfair court system (check), corrupt politicians (check), an uncaring wealthy class (check), pollution (check), disease (check)…and on and on.

Still, it’s another time and place and kind of a relief to be anywhere but here. So I’ll recommend a few of the really worthwhile Dickens adaptations. All of these are available on DVD and some on Blu-ray, with many available for streaming.

If you have the time, nothing beats the eight-hour-plus stage version (on video) of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), the Hamilton of its day. Standouts in a huge cast are Roger Rees in the title role and definitive Dickens actor Alun Armstrong as (among other characters) the ignorant, sadistic schoolmaster Squeers.

David Lean was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his two Dickens adaptations are as good as movie versions get: Great Expectations (1946) with John Mills and Alec Guinness; and Oliver Twist (1948) with Robert Newton and Anthony Newley (not the main actors but favorites of mine). Add to that list, of course, Scrooge (1951) with Alistair Sim (which I’ve lauded here many times).

Andrew Davies has scripted two relatively recent BBC mini-series that are the gold standard of Dickens TV adaptations: Bleak House (2005) with Gillian Anderson and
Charles Dance; and Little Dorrit (2008) with Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012), scripted by Gwyneth Hughes, is first-rate, too, especially Drood actor Matthew Rhys, who is now (of course) Perry Mason.

As good as David Lean is, the BBC’s early ‘80s long-form renditions (often a dozen half-hour episodes, which suggest the serialized format of the original Dickens works) are in some ways superior, as they tend to adapt each novel in its near entirety. When certain colorful incidental characters in Dickens are, understandably, omitted from films two hours or less in length, much of the richness and humor of the original novels is lost.

Also, aspects of Dickens are distorted in the shorter form of films and TV movies. Yes, there are wild coincidences, but when woven throughout a very long narrative, filled with characters, those coincidences seem a part of the fabric of life and not convenient plot devices. And without the deeper characterizations, the principal characters can seem to be chess pieces Dickens is moving, a feeling one doesn’t get from the books.

For example, not just including David Lean’s version, Great Expectations has been filmed a number of times quite effectively. The BBC mini-series with Gillian Anderson and David Suchet is excellent. But the far less lavish 1981 BBC mini-series, with its six-hour length, tells the entire story of the novel, with much deeper characterizations than any other adaptation, especially for Pip (Gerry Sundquist) and his convict friend (Stratford Johns. The definitive Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, turns outalso to be the definitive Miss Havisham, bringing remarkable depth to a character who can be a cartoon.

Less celebrated Dickens novels come to worthwhile life, too, in the longer-form ‘80s and ‘90s BBC adaptations – Domby and Son (1983), another Andrew Davies script; Martin Chuzzlewit (1994) with Paul Scofield and Tom Wilkinson; David Copperfield (1999) with Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith; and Our Mutual Friend (1998) with Steven Mackintosh and Keeley Hawes.

I mentioned actor Alun Armstrong above. Of the films and TV versions I’ve mentioned here, he is in about half. He has played villains, lovable sorts, and even made a great Inspector Bucket. We thought he did a great job in Martin Chuzzlewit, too, until we realized that was Pete Postlethwaite.

Look, there are plenty of good and at least watchable Dickens adaptations. But these are worth your time. Are there any that aren’t?

Hard Times (1994) with Alan Bates and Richard E. Grant is a hard go. Bates is a fine actor but he hams it up here, in a grotesquely arty, misjudged take on Dickens.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1979) is, in my probably worthless opinion, as bad as Dickens ever got; he seems to be spoofing himself without his readers realizing it, like the Turtles doing a parody of themselves with “Elinore” (“I really think you’re groovy, let’s go out to a movie”) and nobody getting it. But the novel deserved better than the 1979 BBC mini-series with its cringingly over-the-top Trevor Peacock’s Quilp at centerstage.

Of course, the ridiculously villainous Quilp is part of why I think Dickens is having a laugh at himself and his audience (right down to, SPOILER ALERT, killing Little Nell). Much better, though little seen (particularly in its longer, richer version), is Anthony Newley sending Quilp and himself up in the 1975 musical variously known as Mr. Quilp and The Old Curiosity Shop. The assumption that audiences who enjoyed Carol Reed’s recent Oliver! would adore Dickens’ dreary self-parody was probably the first mistake; still, this version is pretty good.

Newley, who as a child star made his first major claim to fame playing the Artful Dodger for David Lean, was coming full circle with his outrageously over-the-top Quilp, throwing in for good measure a solid score he wrote himself (not his best, as that was invariably reserved for his collaborations with Leslie Briccuse). Newley, who died at 67, enjoyed a final triumph starring in the Briccuse musical Scrooge on the West End and touring the UK provinces.

I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned Newley here before. He is on my very short list of “ideels” (as Li’l Abner described Fearless Fosdick). It’s a list including people like Bobby Darin, Mickey Spillane, Audie Murphy and Jack Webb. My ideels, each and every one it would seem, somehow demand defending – Darin was an obnoxious pretender, Spillane ruined mystery fiction, Murphy couldn’t act, Jack Webb was a joke. I have defended all of them and will continue to do so till my dying day.

As for Newley…

He is a genuinely quirky and willfully mannered performer, his distinctive vocal style the kind of thing that kept impressionists in business in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He is also the primary influence on David Bowie as a singer and performer, something Bowie often admitted.

With Briccuse, Newley wrote two great Broadway scores, each filled with standards: Stop the World I Want to Get Off and Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd. With Briccuse and John Barry, he wrote the theme for Goldfinger. He and Briccuse wrote the music for Willy Wonka – “Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” and even the ditty sung by the Oompah Loompahs.

While to my knowledge it’s never been revived (Stop the World has been a number of times), Roar of the Greasepaint has not. Among the songs are “Who Can I Turn To,” “On a Wonderful Day Like Today,” “The Joker,” and the remarkably resilient “Feeling Good.”

In 1965 in New York, on summer vacation with my parents, I saw Roar of the Greasepaint at the Shubert Theater. I have seen many musical plays, including any number on Broadway and many more in Chicago, and countless concerts by stars of both the Vegas variety and the rock persuasion.

I’ve never seen anything better than Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd. Nothing as compelling or as funny or as mesmerizing. Newley’s was the single best performance I’ve ever seen. He was not unsupported: Captain Hook himself, Cyril Ritchard, was a regal “Sir” to Newley’s cockney Cocky – both were tramps, bums, with more than a hint of circus clown. Amid urchins out of Oliver!, with other contestants a beautiful woman and a black man, they played the Game of Life, with Sir making up and changing and rearranging the rules as they went.

I am going to share with you some of what I saw that night. Newley, right around the time I saw him performing at the Shubert, appeared on Ed Sullivan. In costume and in character, he delivered an amazing “Who Can I Turn To,” a song brilliantly conceived by its authors to work as an unrequited love song and, in the show’s context, as being addressed by Cocky to the God who has abandoned him. Have a look.

We’ll talk about his film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? another time.

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Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher is deemed one of six true crime books you should be reading right now.

Finally, you kind of have to dig for it, but a discussion of one of my Batman stories can be found in this essay about Batman vs. Batman.


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16 Responses to “Charles Dickens, Anthony Newley and Real Books”

  1. Chuck says:

    Picked up my copy of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher at the Boulder Bookstore this past Saturday (just had to go there and spend some money for Independent Bookstore Day). I’m looking forward to digging into it over a (hopefully) tech-free Labor Day weekend. Thanks for all of the output these past few months!

  2. Mike Doran says:

    Since you brought up Anthony Newley:

    Sometime in the late ’60s, Newley made one of many appearances with Merv Griffin (this was the Westinghouse show “… from the Little Theatre off Times Square!”).

    At one point, Newley mentioned, almost in passing, that he’d written many of his lyrics in the bathroom.

    The following exchange ensued:

    Merv: You wrote What Kind Of Fool Am I? in the bathroom?
    Big audience laugh.
    Merv: I’ll top that! You wrote Who Can I Turn To? in the bathroom?
    Bigger audience laugh.
    Merv: I’ll top that! You wrote Feeling Good in the bathroom?
    Even bigger audience laugh.
    Newley: I’ll top that! I wrote Gonna Build A Mountain in the bathroom!
    Absolutely biggest audience laugh, and into commercial.

    I can remember how Anthony Newley would appear on talk shows and get asked to sing some of his hits – which he would, but sometimes (if the mood struck him) he’d ad-lib off-color lyrics (“Who can take tomorrow?/ Stick it in your ear?“)

    Tony Newley was truly sui generis – ” … of his own kind”, as the Latin goes.

    Heck, I even liked him in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (but I was probably in the right frame of mind for that …).


    Eliot Ness And The Mad Butcher and Murderlized! are received (thanx Amazon).
    Waiting and seeing on the forthcoming output.

    My favorite (favourite?) Alun Armstrong moment, from his long-running series New Tricks:
    He’s in a public library with his wife, just looking around; it’s probably a weekend, and there’s a lot of hubbub around, with kids singing, customers fussing, and suchlike.
    Eventually, it gets to Brian (Armstrong), and he lets fly:
    “SILENCE! This is a bloody LIBRARY!”
    (The episode gets even better from there.)
    Sadly, it’s been a while since I saw this, and I can’t recall exactly which episode this happened in (I guess I’ll just have to rewatch all the DVDs – but the search will be worth it).
    Hey, it’ll be something to do while TRUMPZAPOPPIN’ lurches on to its inevitable bloody conclusion.

    Hoping this finds you in some form of familial bliss …

  3. Fred Blosser says:

    We’re about one step (or one re-election) away from the wholesale return of Oliver Twist’s work house. On a happier note, if memory serves, the 1985 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of BLEAK HOUSE with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott was pretty good too (and in supporting roles, both TP McKenna and Peter Vaughn from STRAW DOGS). Looking forward to your thoughts on the once-notorious and probably now mostly forgotten HEIRONYMUS MERKIN.

  4. Tim Field says:

    I peaked too early and had my greatest experience in the theater in 1980 at age 22. I’d just completed my student teaching in England (a small school near Wales named Wyedean – years later I found out that young Joanne (J.K.) Rowling was a student there, but not in any class I taught) and spent a few weeks checking out London.

    A magazine article alerted me to this phenomenal play at the Aldwych – the RSC performing an adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. You could choose to see it over two nights or as an epic Saturday matinee. I chose the two night option and was thrilled by the Part One and couldn’t wait for the conclusion. The only seat I could procure was way up in the nosebleed section, but it was fun because you had the same seat mates as the first evening and could talk to them like old friends. On the second evening of the play before the curtain rose, cast members circulated through the theater in costume chatting up the audience. I turned to my right to see Roger Rees as Nicholas Nickleby leaning down to speak to me – upon learning I was American, he told me of the plans to bring the play to Broadway the next year.

    As for the play, it was so inventive and full of the wonder of theater with actors playing multiple parts, reveling in performing the play within a play where Shakespeare’s tragedies were massacred, capturing the essential flavor of Dickens at his most humorous and most heart wrenching. At the end, when Nicholas held up the dead Smike in his arms, everyone in the theater was weeping. Adding special resonance to the play was the subtext of Margaret Thatcher’s hard-edged rule as prime minister. Unforgettable and vivid. I just scored the A&E DVDs on eBay and look forward to viewing them.

    On a related note – have you seen the 1988 six-hour movie version of Little Dorrit with Alec Guiness and Derek Jacobi (among many other fine British actors)? Quite good and influenced by Nicholas Nickleby production.

  5. Thanks for these comments, guys.

    I have never watched Garbage Pail Kids but I own it. It’s one of a handful of Newley movies I haven’t seen yet.

    Tim, I just got that version of Little Dorrit in the mail. But I loved the more recent version. We’re waiting a little to let the memory of that fade. We’re watching a good early ’80s Oliver Twist with tons of stuff left out in other adaptations. We were absolutely blown away by the eight-hour Nichols Nickleby. It reminded us, and compared favorably, with one of our very favorites, the stage version of Sweeny Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn.

    I will one day devote a blog to Heironymous Merkin, one of the most stupidly maligned films of all time. I saw it in the theater half a dozen times and have an uncut version from the UK (gray market). One of the really unfortunate things about Newley is he turned down the opportunity to have Stop the World film as a stage production and it went ahead without him — with his understudy. A criminal loss.

  6. JohnJ says:

    I also have been a fan of Anthony Newley, probably since seeing him on Sullivan, although it seems like so many of his songs also remind me of Robert Goulet performances. I found a bootleg tape of “Merkin…” years ago through CBG, recorded from olden days when Bravo would show commercial-free movies, possibly overnight. I also went to see it 5 days in a row during its theater run and still have my LP of the score as well. I’ll be interested in your review, although this mention might be enough to dig out the dvd I burned from the tape long ago.

    Mostly though, I wanted to mention some LPs of his music I bought off ebay a few years ago, with the main surprise being an autographed copy of another collaboration with Bricusse “The Good Old Bad Old Days!” It’s a personalized note “Thank you for the letter and your kind words. Sincerely,” with his signature, dated July ’78. A huge surprise to find that among the pop songs of the other albums I bought. It’s the original London Cast Recording of a play I’d never heard of. Not sure if it ever made it to Broadway.

    Have you ever had the chance to watch the movie that launched his musical career, I believe it’s called “The Idol Singer” without looking it up to be sure. Still one that I hope TCM will dig up some day.

  7. JohnJ says:

    Correction: The musical was “Idol on Parade” from 1959. He has acting credits going back as far as 1944.

  8. Thanks, John. Lots of good thoughts in your post, though I see absolutely no similarity between Newley and Goulet, beyond their Broadway abilities that can sometimes overwhelm audiences. There’s a good gray market Merkin DVD available, and I may link it when I get around to writing about the film. My copy came from the UK courtesy (well, I had to pay for it) of a Newley fan group guy who had copies of both Merkin and Quilp uncut. I knew about The Good Old Bad Old Days, which never made it to Broadway, for a long time before the LP and (finally) a CD came out. Merkin has never made it onto DVD or CD and I wish it would. There’s much Newley stuff on CD — e-bay has a lot of this stuff, and I’ll recommend some things eventually. Idol on Parade has been available in the UK a long time, and it’s actually available here, too.

  9. Fred, we watched the BBC BLEAK HOUSE from the ’80s and not too much later the version with Gillian Anderson from 2005. The cast was good in the ’80s one, and we generally like the feel of that period (one of the first things we binged was the original POLDARK). But the ’80s BLEAK HOUSE had a script that constantly skipped narrative material that left you wondering where you were and what was going on and even when you were in the story. The 2005 is much better, starting with coherent.

  10. David Laurence Wilson says:

    Hi Max! I was in London in ‘73 after a summer of study in Oxford and then An archeological dig in North Wales. By chance I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show and then The Good Old Bad Old Days. It would be an understatement to say I was unprepared for either of the productions. The takeaway, of course, was Tim Burton strutting down the aisle beside me, a wacky, unforgettable power. The Good Old Bad Old Days seemed to be a jumble of skits and songs about contemporary Social and political issues. Towards the end the story-line turned to a tableau of assassinations and I have never heard such booing from an audience before or since. Nor have I heard of any reference of that musical since. Until now. All these years later it feels like a very dreamy experience, including hostels and nightly “camp-outs” in the center of the city. Maybe it’s time for a revival of the unloved Newley production.

  11. When he was at his STOP THE WORLD peak, Newly did a comedy record of political skits called FOOL BRITTANIA! (it was the Profumo scandal period) with Peter Sellers and future wife Joan Collins. GOOD OLD BAD OLD DAYS sounds very much in that vein. I would guess audiences were expecting the mime/clown Newley approach of STOP THE WORLD and ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT and it didn’t go over. The score is good, though. Newley, fairly late in his relatively short life, did a musical about Charlie Chaplin’s life that he struggled unsuccessfully to get to Broadway after (I believe) an LA run. No cast album of that was released that I ever found.

    After his initial success, Newley seemed to have a lot of missed opportunities, some his fault (like refusing to do the STOP THE WORLD film) and others not (like offering to play the candy shop owner who sings “The Candy Man” in WILLY WONKA and being turned down because his star power would supposedly be a distraction..remember how lousy the guy they used instead was?). He was huge in Vegas but what a waste of his talent that was. Bricusse had great success on his own (but in my opinion nothing he ever did compared to his Newley collaborations — this seemed to be largely Newley’s fault because he got caught up in the Vegas money trap).

  12. JohnJ says:

    Just a little more about Stop The World. I had seen this a few years ago on TCM and was of course disappointed that Newley wasn’t in it.
    I just did a little searching on their site and found two clips, the song “I Wanna Be Rich” and a mime performance of “Each Night We Decide.” With Tony Tanner in the lead, of course.
    Was this the play where the blonde co-star went back to London and appeared in “A Hard Day’s Night”? Don’t remember much of her part other than she flirted with Lennon.

    There’s also mention on TCM’s site about a 1996 made-for-tv version of Stop The World, starring Peter Scolari and Stephanie Zimbalist. No video seems to exist of this. Too bad, since I wasn’t aware of Scolari ever singing before.

  13. Tim, we couldn’t make it through the ’87 LITTLE DORRIT. So slow and the sound mix is woeful (everything louder than the dialogue) and the character Little Dorrit herself so poorly acted. The production tried hard to overcome its meager budget but it really looked like a regional or even local theater. And with so many good actors! But we after an an hour and a half, we bailed. The later BBC version is so excellent, that caused problems, too.

  14. Tim Field says:

    MAC – That’s unfortunate. I remember reading at the time that the film was a labor of love on a shoestring budget. I recall that the cinematography was quite dark and hard to see at times. Thanks for the warning – it will remain a good film in my memory, left unsullied by a disappointing rewatching.

  15. The Maltin Guide, which doesn’t like the film much, says viewers will either love it or hate it. My understanding is that the lead actress was an amateur and never appeared in another film. She is a void at the center of this very slow-moving film. Again, I may have reacted differently if I hadn’t already seen an outstanding version of it.

  16. Mike Doran says:

    This Just In:

    I see by the ‘Net that Tony Tanner, who took Anthony Newley’s part in the movie of Stop The World, has just passed on at age 88, following a long theater career as actor and director.
    Tanner had played Littlechap in road companies of Stop The World for a couple of years before he did the movie, with Newley’s blessing.
    Just thought you’d like to know …

    Oh, and while I’m in the room:
    Newley’s composing partner was Leslie Bricusse – one c and two ses.
    He once wrote a lyric in which he explained that his name was pronounced BRICK-us.
    Yeah, I always said it the wrong way too …