Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. Or Are They?

When Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be was resurrected for a brief run at The Union Theatre in Southwark last year, both critics and actors got not a little excited.  Lionel Bart’s 1959 musical ran for 18 months in the West End following its original production and then endured the fate of many splendid musicals; it won an Evening Standard Best Musical Award in 1960 and never played much again.  Anywhere.  For Bart, Oliver! eclipsed the rest of his compositions, but essentially Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be is an loud, obstreperous series of scenes that don’t altogether make a full, satisfying whole, yet its depiction of the world of 1950s brasses, criminals, gamblers and bent coppers is like no other musical I’ve ever seen, certainly not an English one. 

It was originally a play by Frank Norman, who had written his prison memoirs “Bang to Rights” in 1958.  Therefore, when Joan Littlewood’s theatre company picked up the play in 1959 it was already touched with the vicarious shiver of real crime, with a dash of notoreity.  Littlewood asked Bart to write the music and lyrics.  Lionel Bart then revealed himself as the uncrowned King of composing the English whore’s lament.   Give him a walker, a prostitute, or in his words, a brass, and he’ll expose the pain and doubt and fear and love in her.  In the small, scraping, pushing, underworld that Fings inhabits, amongst the knife fights (his taste for writing shows with exclamation marks in the title rears up with the strange song “Carve Up!” about a man who has to have 27 stitches), bookies, cut throat street law, the change in Soho underworld at the tail end of the 50s and the pimps, there are two of the best songs written for women in post-war English musical theatre. What Bart really exposes isn’t the working life of the streetwalker but rather the quiet thoughts that happen behind the scenes, when the knickers get pulled back up.  The song “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” is a heart-breaking ballad sung by a woman, now a retired prostitute, who realises that finally, her place and role in the world is over.  She remains, in a loveless relationship in a decidedly unlovely flat.  Who ever truly considers what happens to whores when they stop whoring?  Her dreams are more tragic for their ordinariness “To think I could have been a housewife, in a bungalow / No stairs…”  but it’s painfully too late : “The ceiling’s coming dahn…and we never even knew / We’ve been too busy doing / What we thought we ought to do….”.  The second, and better known, of these bittersweet ballads is “Where Do Little Birds Go“, which Bart gave to Barbara Windsor to sing in the original production and which Windsor credits with changing her career.

Where Do Little Birds Go” follows a similar idea as “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” in that in hypothetically asking where little birds go in the winter, our whore is, of course, asking what happens when the gaily working good time girl wakes up to discover that the worms have been caught by all the other early birds and there is absolutely nowhere else for this late bird to nest.  These are the moments these tenacious London prostitutes only allow in private,where the plaintive questions of life can be asked.  The world they inhabit will not comfort or keep them.   It is not a coincidence that when Oliver! appeared in 1960 it is Nancy’s song, her whore’s lament of “As Long As He Needs Me” that has them weeping in the aisles and momentarily forgetting the pesky orphan who should be the focus for their sentiments.   Bart recognises her type as soon as he sees her, realising Bill Sykes is just another ponce to Nancy’s brass.

The title song of Fings shows the timeless, exhausted, rolling eye with which native EastEnders gaze on the hapless, educated beatniks who have begun to encroach on their manor in the late 1950s.  “Toffs with toffee noses / And poofs in coffee houses....” etc, not to mention the university chaps and debs slipping in for vicarious thrills from the East End sidelines.  Meanwhile, the near, strident colours of the 1960s are approaching and there is a riot of interior design in the song “Contempery“, in which people try out rubber plants and cactuses in their houses and chuck out their chintz.  This rampant desire for domestic fashion sits awkwardly in the schpeilers (gambling dens) of the male protagonist, Fred Cochran, who wonders whether anyone’s going to bring him a cup of tea and doesn’t understand why he has to have art prints on the wall.    The Lord Chamberlain’s office, spitting blood and prudery at the repeated “piss off”s, “sod off”s and “bugger off”s, frustratingly found their censor system couldn’t work if the play was improvised nightly (which it was).  In his review for the Daily Express, Bernard Levin called Fings “A play of brilliant, bawdy irreverence”.   It shouts and struts and blasphemes.  Aspects of London underground life are successfully celebrated, but not idealised.

Unfortunately, in “Joan Littlewood’s Theatre” by Nadine Holdsworth, something appalling happens.  A load of academics get their hands on Bart and completely misread him.  Holdsworth woefully accuses the production of glamourising criminality. Then again, this is an academic book so only 12 people will read it but get this : “The problematic romanticising of criminality and aberrant behaviour associated with the powerful symbolic presence of The Krays arguably underpinned Littlewood’s production of Fings.  […] Littlewood resorted to representing an exoticised criminal underbelly rather than recognisable everyday domestic and working lives…From the late 1950s, Littlewood abandoned the discourse of the financially deprived but socially rich, proud and resilient Cockney figure embedded in their local geographical community to contribute to an alternative discourse of a criminal fraternity intent on self-advancement through dubious and often violent means.”

The Krays link is representative of the fact that Joan Littlewood held a post-opening night party at a club in The East End.  Would you Adam and Eve it, but it turned out to be ran by the Kray brothers, which is not surprising, because everything in the East End from home furnishing stores to creches seem to have been controlled by the Krays in the East End in 1960.  Her theatre was in Stratford.  If you live and work in a pickles barrel, eventually you’re going to have to come across some pickles. Either way, there is no exotic glamourising of criminality going on in Fings.  There is gleeful musing from some of the men in their peacocking strut of semi-criminal lives, but Holdsworth has made the mistake of confusing gallows humour and bawdiness with glamour, confusing celebration with triviality.  Also, neither Littlewood nor Bart are under any obligation to produce a particular kind of Cockney from “their local geographical community”.  If people are violent, it’s because people are violent.  Bart would just tell you he was displaying the world of his youth, which is his right. 

Her aversion to joviality knows no bounds: “…theatricality, in particular the use of songs, only served to heighten the sense that Littlewood had resorted to exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential and popular entertainment value.”

Grrr.  Here are two very real problems about the middle class view of working class theatre : First of all, Holdsworth sticks to a rather arbitrary and paint-by-numbers viewpoint often breezily batted about in discussions regarding theatre.  This view is that drama, good solid high quality theatre drama, is fine – you can say something serious in theatre.  People sound a bit posh in theatre.  There is a weight to the words.  But musicals are for the proles, musicals have dancing in them, are tainted by the unwholesome evolution they have travelled through via the mucky route from vaudeville.  Musicals cannot and will not, according to their nature, afford a seriousness.  I don’t know how people arrive at this point of view that music can only belittle and defile that drama which it comes into contact with.  Makes you wonder why Puccini and Verdi bothered really, doesn’t it?  How dare the working classes audaciously present their own London lives in song?  Prostitutes are not a suitable subject for comic songs, for GOD’S SAKE.  Are you MAD?  The other, second issue, is that middle class drama critics are only really happy and satisfied if they go to the theatre and see the working classes being bloody miserable.  They want to see political engagement and common whores railing against injustice and working class sacrifice outside the factory doors or banging away at kitchen sinks.  It suitably scratches the itches of societal conscience.  It placates their liberal, middle class guilt.  It makes them feel that a responsibility has been taken by the proletariat and that something is, conveniently and comfortingly, in hand, in the working class dialectic.  But show them working classes dancing, drinking, fighting and robustly shoving one in the eye for the landed classes and they shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.   The ribaldry inherent in larks, tenacity and that most important East End London characteristic that Bart understood – spirit – are incompatible with shoddy remnants of puritan progressivism.  In short, middle class academics and critics find it inappropriate if working class characters have their own character, rather than a tapestry pattern of social attributes.    Holdsworth writes above that Littlewood was “exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential“. Oh, shove it.  The Wolfenden Report in 1957 had already turned gay men and whores into problem statistics to be discussed by the political classes and, of course, rightly so. Its findings were extremely significant for the decriminalising of homosexual acts in Britain. But what does it feel like to actually be a “social problem”?  What does it feel like for other, moneyed, educated people to talk about you as if you’re just a whorish issue waiting to be cleared up?  How many working class people do you know sit around discussing themselves as “social problems”?   And, if you going to attack this show with claims of exploitation, then by definition all theatre that operates on a profit basis where people pay money to look at it is exploitation.  You could say the same about people going to watch Pygmalion and laughing about Eliza Doolittle’s oh-so-funny poor working class accent.    But that’s classic Shaw, so presumably it’s all right.

Yawn.  She goes on.  It’s the gaiety she can’t stand. It’s bad enough to have to look at the poor.  But now they’re out of the box, they’re jumping about like nutters and showing us their scars and their pants.  They’ve got knives in their hands and they’re failing to fulfil middle class fantasies:  “There are no reflective moments….”  and, apparently, it’s a “thinly-disguised freak show”.  But then she makes a point so stupid that I can’t believe an academic can make it.  It was so bovine I had to read it twice.  She writes : ” the infamous title song..laments the passing of a ‘golden age’ when ‘ponces killed a lazy whore’.”  The whole show, Bart’s whole alacrity and brilliance misses her completely.  It never once strikes the brain of Ms Holdsworth that Bart is, in his lyrical irony, revealing a truth.  The line she is writing of sits cosily in a verse that has the lines “Big hoods, now are little hoods / Gamblers now do Littlewoods / Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be/ Times were in days of golden yore / Ponces killed a lazy whore / Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.”  To think that Bart would be as puerile as to use this as a lazy nostalgia is offensive.   It’s ironic, Ms Holdsworth.  Things were, reveals Bart, always as bad as they might have been in the past, never mind as good.  They are, quite simply, just like what they used to be, and that people will continue to make fools of themselves making out otherwise.  Brutality slips to be replaced by a different set of brutalities. Petty crime mutates into another kind of petty crime.   The wheel keeps on turning and the bent copper is, of course, destined to take over the betting shop. This is world these characters inhabit.  Holdsworth has chosen not to interrogate Bart’s lyrics, for reasons that are not clear.  On a different note, in his recent biography of Bart, David Stafford is right to point out that “In its time Fings, in its subject matter, its production style and in the relaxed ensemble of the actors, was nothing less than revolutionary.”

David and Caroline Stafford’s book on Bart is far more illuminating and deftly composed and well-written than any academic text.  It’s highly recommended for anyone who is interested in both theatrical culture of the 1950s and 1960s and also the early birth pains of British Pop.  It was Bart, after all, who discovered Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and convinced Reg Smith to change his name to the more popworthy Marty Wilde.  Why are academics not more willing to engage with the heart and humanity of certain kinds of theatrical figures?  If Lionel Bart hadn’t been, in his own words a working class “homosexual Jewish junkie Commie” with a penchant for vulgar humour, who remained totally musically illiterate, would his work have been received and judged in a different way?   Anyway there’s no need to shovel a load of shit in Bart’s face because life eventually did that for him anyway.  Eventually he was so broke that Cameron Mackintosh opted to give Bart a royalties percentage during the revival of Oliver! in the West End, despite Bart having sold all his rights when struggling for cash 20 years earlier. I’ve had to read a shedload of academic books about literature, and I think they’re wonderful, but as soon as I read any concerned with my former training, musical theatre, I start spitting.  So many glaring, wonderful points pass completely unnoticed.  Why do academics not quite get it?   Perhaps another question is, does anybody care?  But one thing’s clear – when it comes to good old-fashioned cultural snobbery, Fings Are Exactly What They Used T’Be. 

Don’t read Ms Holdsworth.  Read this – David & Caroline Stafford’s enjoyable biography on Lionel Bart – it’s much better!  On Kindle over at Amazon.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.


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