Rediscovering A Lost London Talent
The UK has a system for dealing with its stars; we discover them and expect them to be humble and grateful, then destroy them if they get too big for their boots, or trot off to Hollywood. From the low comic to the intellectual author, we pride ourselves on turning our backs on them if they don’t pay their dues. We were once particularly hard on the Jewish East End authors and musicians.
To many, Anthony Newley was simply unbearable. The slick-tongued charmer came across as a barrow-boy made good. He married Joan Collins (and three others), sang, wrote and performed, working for years with underrated lyricist Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the song ‘Goldfinger’. They were nominated for an Oscar for ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’, had Nina Simone record their song ‘Feeling Good’, and wrote many hits together. Newley was an all-rounder who often played cockney chancers and smarmy characters that were hard to love, and clearly had a quicksilver mind – but he was largely disliked and distrusted in his native London. He certainly had a strange singing style, with long, flattened vowels, that didn’t find favour with critics. He was considered too common and too – Jewish. So was this a case of covert anti-semitism?
Hackney-born Newley rose to popularity after playing the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s ‘Oliver Twist’ in 1948, then had a string of hits that were popularised by superstars like Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis Jr and Tony Bennett. He starred in the archetypal Soho film, ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ and was highly visible in London nightlife – but like Lionel Bart, he flashed the cash and seemed a little too much for the delicacies of Gentiles.
In a time when satire was popular, Newley wrote a string of oddball morality plays about archetype-characters – God, the Devil, a man representing the upper class and another representing the put-upon worker – that he couldn’t get staged in London. Instead they went to Broadway and became hugely successful. Clearly class and faith had something to do with it, because where Britain saw an East End Jew getting above his station and rubbing our noses in his success, New York took him to its more generous collective heart.
‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off’ was followed by ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd’, a self-indulgent film called ‘Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?’, ‘Willy Wonka’, ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days’, ‘Dr Dolittle’, ‘Scrooge’ and some oddities, including a TV series way ahead of its time called ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, about a man trapped in a sitcom.
Recently I went back and looked at his films, and played a few of his albums – they’re far better than I’d ever realised. By today’s standards he’s not anywhere near as annoying as he was made out to be, and he and Bricusse were without question supremely talented. His sentiment and flash did not play well in the buttoned-down Home Counties, however, and America’s gain was our loss. Britain loved Matt Monroe, the silken-voiced crooner who had been a bus driver, and we never let him forget it.
In his final days, after working with most of America’s famous singers, Newley came back to the UK and toured the country. He died of cancer at 67. He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1989.