Who Will Buy?

The hit musical, Oliver, grossed an amazing $77.4 million dollars worldwide at the box office and won six Academy Awards and two Golden Globes following its release in 1968.

The film was based on the 1837 novel by Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist was about London's 19th century criminal underworld and impoverished orphans living in the workhouse, so its transition into a 20th century musical was nothing short of miraculous.

Charles

The novel

Dickens was only 25 when he wrote the Parish Boy's Progress - originally for publication as a serial in the magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, but eventually published as a novel in 1839.

It wasn't intended to be fun. It was a satire highlighting the hypocrisy of society in 19th century England, when the upper classes had supposedly impeccable morals, yet they turned a blind eye to horrific poverty, child labour and kids living on the streets.

Dickens' original idea of writing a social comment wasn't entirely lost in the musical. For example, when two street boys singing Consider Yourself bump into clergymen leaving a church, the priests brush the kids aside with contempt.

Yet seconds earlier, the same priests could be seen smiling and bowing towards a wealthy wedding party, implying it was all for show because the bride and groom had money, while the street boys had none, thus retaining the author's original portrayal of 19th century hypocrisy.

 

 

Stage show

There have been many theatrical, TV and movie adaptations of Oliver Twist, but the 1960 stage musical, Oliver (with music by Lionel Bart) set the standard in the 20th century. Following its premiere in the West End in 1960, it went on to Broadway and continues to be staged today, in both amateur and professional productions.

It tells the story of an orphan called Oliver, who is brought up in the workhouse and ends up homeless and penniless in London after running away when he is sold into child labour.

He is taken in by a gang of child thieves, led by the elderly career criminal Fagin, but ends up under arrest after his new pal, streetwise gang member Jack Dawkins, tries to teach him how to be a pickpocket. The wealthy victim, Mr Brownlow, takes pity on naïve Oliver and looks after him when he is released by the courts.

 

Motion picture

Released by Columbia Pictures in September 1968, the film version of Oliver featured the same lively songs as the stage show, such as Consider Yourself, Food Glorious Food, I'd Do Anything, Pick a Pocket or Two and Who Will Buy.

It featured child star Jack Wild as Dawkins (aka the Artful Dodger) and newcomer Mark Lester, aged nine, as Oliver. Ron Moody reprised his stage role as devious Fagin and Oliver Reed portrayed the evil gangster, Bill Sikes.

Filming began at London's Shepperton Studios in June 1967, where some of the most ambitious sets ever created were the backdrop for the movie's classical musical numbers.

 

Who Will Buy?

One of the greatest and most memorable scenes is Who Will Buy?, which shows London transforming from early morning tranquillity to the hustle and bustle of the era, when street traders appear selling their wares and generally spieling, as we would call it today.

 

 

Created by production designer John Box, the location of the scene (modelled on Bloomsbury Square) was a massive film set built outdoors on Shepperton's backlot. Fans found it hard to believe such a mighty set wasn't a real location and that it had been built from scratch.

The scene begins in a low-key fashion, with Oliver waking up feeling happy at his guardian Mr Brownlow's home, looking out on to the cobbled street below and proclaiming it's a "wonderful morning." He first notices a woman selling flowers, offering "sweet red roses" priced two for a penny. She begins to sing, advertising her flowers.

Gradually, other street sellers appear joining in the song, including tradespeople selling milk, fresh strawberries and freshly-baked bread. All the street traders join in the song - knife-sharpeners, policemen, maids, window cleaners, bakers, flower-sellers and others are joined by teachers and school children on their way to the park.

The intricately-choreographed song and dance routine involves hundreds of people, as Oliver watches in delight from his balcony.

 

Reality of street traders

Of course, Oliver depicts a romantic version of life for 19th century London street traders. In reality, it was a hard life, with the poor eking out an existence as hawkers on the harsh streets, most of them barely scraping by.

The sentimentally cheerful tones of 'Who Will Buy?' contrast sharply with the hard work and resilience of the real-life street traders, who worked from dawn till dusk to keep their self-respect and earn enough money to keep them from the workhouse.

Throughout the 19th century and beyond, there remained a suspicion of street traders in general, with the upper classes commonly viewing them as socially ambivalent characters, only one step up from vagabonds.

This resulted in street trading becoming a controlled activity in England, under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 1982. Those who didn't have an official licence were committing a criminal activity under the Act - whereas in parts of Europe, street trading remained an automatic right of every citizen.

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