The Forgotten World of Anthony Newley

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Anthony Newley, who died 22 years ago today, was a true renaissance man. Actor, writer, composer, pop star, cabaret singer, comedian: his achievements are too extensive to list here. Unfortunately, despite the rediscovery of his film and television appearances, his contributions to theatre have gone largely unrecognised. The occasionally problematic nature of the scripts, as well as Newley’s general fading from the public consciousness, have condemned his intensely personal and touching plays to the cultural waste-paper bin. What a shame; and what a star.

Originally a child actor, with appearances in films as distinguished as David Lean’s Oliver Twist, Anthony Newley’s musical career began in the late fifties, with a starring role in Idol on Parade. This British pastiche of Elvis Presley’s army career included pop songs, some of which were written by Newley himself, even producing a hit single in 1959. More pop singles followed, as well as a lauded appearance in comedic cabaret Cranks, one of the many of such shows to pop up in the mid-fifties. These, in turn, led to albums of jazz standards which rejected the pop framework Newley had been pressed into and showed, for the first time, some of his vocal hallmarks. Here, on albums such as Tony and Love is a now and then thing, can you find the tenderness, playfulness, and distinctly Cockney vocals that would later become his trademark. Anthony Newley’s reimaginings of ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ and ‘Strawberry Fair’ also demonstrate his flair for comedy, and desire to talk directly to the listener, which then translated into his shows.

The first of these was in 1961, written with consistent collaborator Leslie Bricusse. Stop the World I Want to Get Off established the conventions of the concept musical, presenting the life of a clown, Littlechap, from birth to death. This incorporated many of Newley’s real life preoccupations: womanising, the role of comedy, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of being out of step with the world. It produced the standard ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’, a song about feeling as if you’ve wasted your life and loves, as well as ‘Someone Nice Like You’, a teasing paen to lengthy romances, and the melancholically hopeful ‘Once in a Lifetime’. A star vehicle for Newley, the show established him as a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

This was reinforced in subsequent show The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. This very 1960s and rather heavy-handed social satire further demonstrated Newley’s clowning abilities, and produced the songs for which he’s best remembered. ‘Feeling Good’, a song performed by Cy Grant and Gilbert Price in the role of an unfortunately named character, has become an anthem for black empowerment, described in early reviews as a “booming song of emancipation”, and covered by everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Nina Simone. ‘Who Can I Turn To’ was Newley’s star turn, a prayer to God for support when none can be found on earth, and arguably the greatest song he ever produced. Most famously recorded by Tony Bennet, Anthony Newley’s various versions, from the original cast recording to his album of covers, show the greatest understanding of the song’s hopeful hopelessness.

Other starring roles included as Matthew Mugg in the 1967 film of Doctor Dolittle and Merkin in Can Hieronymus Merkin Even Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?. The amount of joy, style, and playfulness Newley brings to Mugg, in a film where Rex Harrison frequently threw tantrums and made anti-Semitic remarks towards him, demonstrates his commitment to performance. Newley’s songs are the highlight of the film. Although a huge box office failure and misfire, Hieronymus Merkin represents the culmination of Newley’s preoccupation with himself, to the extent of casting his real life children and wife, Joan Collins, as well as presenting his own interest in younger women. It does however produce the achingly triumphant ‘I’m All I Need’, and deserves to be seen as a curio of those strange 60s years.

Arguably, Anthony Newley’s last great triumph was as composer for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Joyful and delicate, it has been frequently praised as one of the best movie musicals. After this, Newley’s star began to decline. His voice began to be consumed by its own individuality and theatricality; later shows, such as The Good Old Bad Old Days and Quilp failed to attain much commercial success. But the later years too should be re-evaluated: Quilp has strong songs, and the one-song, mini-musical ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ deserves to be the theme tune of the comedian. Re-recordings of the songs he had written in his thirties, at a time when Newley had been racked with the cancer that would eventually kill him, have a tender melancholy that dispell the popular perception of his later career as artistically barren. There was life, talent, and flair in the old dog yet.

A comeback in the form of appearances on EastEnders and The Upper Hand was quashed by his death at 67 of cancer. What he left behind is a canon of musicals, films, television series, albums and appearances that are unmatched except by the best. I haven’t even mentioned his contributions to the British satire boom, James Bond, or early electronica. Hardly an unflawed character, the integration of personal circumstances, his vocal flair, and versatility make Newley one of the great stars of the 20th century.

It’s time to rescue Anthony Newley from obscurity, and give him a golden ticket to posterity.

Words by Issy Flower.


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