But the reason I am writing about it here is my astonishment at the level of historical accuracy in the film. Don't get me wrong. I know that cheery chimneysweeps and well-scrubbed milkmaids didn't dance around pristine London squares singing 'Who Will Buy?' -- but amidst all the inevitable flim-flam of a musical there was real attention to the intricacies of costume and ambiance. For a couple of hours I really believed I was in Dickens' world.
Now, is that because I was in a good mood; because the director, Carol Reed really got things right; or because my idea of what Victorian London was like was shaped by the same filmic traditions out of which Oliver! was born? However hard I try, I will never shake from my DNA the mutations brought about by exposure, Sunday by Sunday throughout my childhood, to BBC dramatisations of classic stories set in the past, and black-and-white film such as the David Lean classic Oliver Twist (1948).
What I'm getting at here is that our view of the past is coloured by (at least) two things:
1. The reality - actual facts, which can be ascertained (or at least got close to) through research on primary sources.
2. The generally accepted view of what things were like - which may not be the same at all, but which may be so strongly engrained in the national consciousness that to challenge it is to ask for trouble.
I thought of this again a few days after my trip to the cinema, when I was reading a student essay on Barbarella (also released in 1968). That film is a sci-fi comedy sex romp, directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jane Fonda.
The essay discussed whether or not Barbarella is a feminist film. What interested me most were the assumptions the young student made about women, and their attitudes, in the late 1960s. We were, apparently, semi-conscious clones, unaware of our enslavement to men, and completely lacking in aspiration, sex drive, or a sense of humour.
Now, I was there. I know that wasn't so, But it was apparent to me that my view of the time carried little weight, because the rival picture was endorsed by respected 'academic' writers, and shared by the tutor for whom the essay had been written - who was probably not much older than the student.
This was mildly annoying, but I didn't stay irritated for long, because I realised that at the same age I made exactly the same mistake. In the late 1960s, I bought in to a popular depiction of the women of the early twentieth century which was similarly patronising and censorious. It's only now, through reading their letters and diaries (and novels) that I have come to admire the women who lived through the two World Wars. OK, so their economic horizons were limited (Oh how my generation benefitted from exposure to schoolmistresses who these days would be running hedge funds, publishing houses or government departments) but they were no less clever, funny and diverse than us.
That generation still isn't fully rehabilitated in the public mind, but things may shift -- for images can change, and often it's one particular book, exhibition or film that starts the shift.
Take, for example, the popular view of the First World War. When I was young, it was discussed only in terms of international diplomacy and military tactics -- softened occasionally by a consideration of the works of the (male) war poets. Then, in 1979, the BBC dramatised Vera Brittain's diary Testament of Youth
and, almost simultaneously, Lyn Macdonald published her account of the front-line nurses The Roses of No Man's Land.
é -- but that's a matter for another day.
Back to Oliver! and a couple of random reflections:
Isn't it always the hairstyles that give away when a historical drama was made?
It's a bit worrying to realise that in 1968 we thought Harry Secombe was fat. Now, even done up as Mr Bumble, he looks smaller than most of the men at the bus stop.
Have we lost the art of hiding smut in songs like Oom Pah Pah (or radio programmes like Round the Horn)? Can anyone think of a something filthy that's happily peddled to children these days either with confidence that they won't understand it, or without any awareness on the part of some adults of what it actually means?