Winter in England, just before Queen Victoria ascends to the throne, and for the boys in the workhouse it's time to think about the slap-up meal they would like to enjoy when in fact all they receive is thin gruel in a wooden bowl, while the owners and administrators of the establishment consume the sort of rich repast they would actually wish to have instead. However, once the boys have completed their eating, some of them persuade little Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) to approach Mr Bumble the beadle (Harry Secombe) and ask him for more gruel, since what they have been given is hardly satisfying. Bumble is horrified at the suggestion - "MORE?!" - and chases the child through the hall: it's obviously time for Oliver to be sold to the highest bidder.
Lionel Bart was the man who had the idea of turning Charles Dickens' classic novel into a musical and it hit the London stage in 1960, with an equally successful Broadway show three years later. But quite often that is not the reason it is recalled, for among movie buffs, and in particular the science fiction fans among them, Oliver! secured the Oscars that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was rightly due, but did not get thanks to the song and dance shenanigans of the Brits. This has left it with a curiously conflicted reputation: if you like musicals, then you love Oliver!, yet if you consider yourself a serious scholar of the medium, you see 2001 as being snubbed by the squares who just did not understand it like you do.
Set all that to one side and you'll find the Dickens adaptation (which was really closer to the indelible David Lean adaptation of the forties, only in colour and with songs) was a genuinely enjoyable experience, it might not have expanded your consciousness like Kubrick's effort but it had more bite than you might have anticipated. That was thanks to the author's essential outrage at the social injustices he was bringing to light for his loyal readers, and the way it was impossible to be entirely eradicated from any version of his source, as the indignities a poverty-stricken innocent like Oliver has to endure were intended to do nothing less than place the need for social reform uppermost in all who read it.
So when you were watching Ron Moody hoofing it around his hovel as Fagin with his gang of pickpocketing urchins, you could easily be caught up in Bart's superbly written music and lyrics (not to mention the musical adaptation of Johnny Green and orchestral arrangements of Eric Rogers, best known for scoring the Carry On series), but there was always that unease that innocence was exploited and corrupted that would be in the background, and break through to the foreground at crucial scenes. Oliver is inducted into this underworld after walking to London (superbly designed by John Box) and meeting The Artful Dodger (the talented and tragic Jack Wild), who takes him on a tour of the markets to emphasise how important a full belly is to making decisions (that opening number Food Glorious Food is there for a reason) then invites him to meet his boss, the twinkly-eyed but morally dubious Fagin.
Moody's was really the best performance here, quite brilliant in places in the way he synchronises the avuncular with the sinister with a talent for delivering the tunes and routines (his solo Reviewing the Situation is a definite highlight in a film full of them), but that was not to do down the rest of the cast. Lester was never more than adequate, but Oliver was the character who the plot happened around so he did not need to dazzle; Oliver Reed was excellent as the dark-hearted Bill Sikes, the true villain of the work, notable in not joining in with the songs, as if he was too evil to indulge in anything that might be light and amusing, escapist even, and Shani Wallis as Nancy, his prostitute girlfriend, was brassy but sympathetic as she headed towards one of the grimmest plot developments in any musical, one which belied the film's reputation as fluffy and superficial. Every number from the intimate to the grand scale was handled with great care and attention by director Carol Reed, whose lighting could be bright, but he knew when to implement his knack for the dramatic weight the interplay between shadows and light could bring. You do feel the relief when Oliver escapes the criminals, and that was as Dickens would have wanted it.