'Oliver Twist' melds modern style with authentic Dickens
Back in the days of the Charleston there was a pop song called ''Do, Do, Do the Oliver Twist.'' Well, in its new version of the Dickens masterpiece, CBS has really done done done ''Oliver Twist'' as it has never been done done done before.
''Oliver Twist'' (CBS, Tuesday, 9-11 p.m.) starring George C. Scott as Fagin, Richard Charles as Oliver, and Tim Curry as Bill Sikes is a triumphant melding of modern technique and relevance with authentic Dickensian gold. It works phenomenally well as both a revered novel and a lively action-adventure drama.
Credit must be given to executive producer William F. Storke, a familiar network figure who was responsible for most of NBC's most important specials when he reigned for many years as the culture king of NBC. Utilizing a skillfully simplified and modernized screenplay by Academy Award-winning writer James A. Goldman (''Lion In Winter'') - and putting at the helm as director Clive Donner, a man experienced in contemporary themes - Mr. Storke has managed to convert a traditional literary classic into a new television classic.
Every schoolboy is aware of the basic story line of Dickens's originally serialized socio-economic tale of a young ''orphan'' in search of his ancestry. Dickens provided an indelible picture of the plight of poor young people in the England of the period, with poor laws that often put youngsters in dreadful asylums or apprenticed them to merciless masters.
Weeding out many of the subplots which Dickens provided in order to stretch his novel into magazine-serial form, this version of ''Oliver Twist'' manages to extend some measure of understanding and sympathy to the often reviled stereotype of the Jewish Fagin (played with unforgettable style by George C. Scott), although he remains a villain. The totally unsympathetic character of the alcoholic Bill Sikes is also portrayed skillfully by Tim Curry with harsh but understandable villainy. Newcomer Richard Charles plays Oliver with roguish charm, eliciting all the sympathy called for in the original.
Shot entirely on various authentic English locations or at Elstree Studios near London, ''Oliver Twist'' provides an impeccable feeling of time and place. It is the England of Dickens which most contemporary foreign travelers must usually search out for themselves, existing here and there in places such as York and Bath.
Previous stage and screen versions of ''Oliver Twist'' have never quite managed to overcome the obstacle of master-thief Fagin and the apparently anti-semetic nature of Dickens's attitude toward him. This version makes it apparent that the role of the Jew in British society at that time barred Fagin from most respectable professions, sadly forcing him into thievery and usury. This is probably the only version of the Dickens story in which viewers may shed a tear or two for Fagin as well as Oliver.
''Oliver Twist,'' always a jolly good story about sad and ''merry old England ,'' has once again proved to be ''jolly good entertainment.'' Chat with director and 'Sikes'
Both director Clive Donner and actor Tim Curry (Bill Sikes) have journeyed to New York to help celebrate the advent of the new ''Oliver Twist.''
''The story is even more relevant now than ever,'' says Mr. Donner, ''Look around you at all the street kids here in the city.''
Mr. Donner is especially impressed by the reach of television. ''Why, the original didn't ever reach the very people Dickens was writing about - the masses never really got to read it. Now they can all see it on television. It's a thumping good story in any era.''
Despite the awful conditions under which young Oliver is forced to live, Mr. Donner feels that there was a sense of camaraderie and loyalty which makes for poignant moments. ''If we have done nothing else,'' he says, ''we bring more understanding of villains to this version.''
Tim Curry agrees. ''The book is really a sociological document,'' he says, ''there are still lots of Fagins and Sikeses around.''
Mr. Curry portrays another villain by the name of Rooster Hannigan in the soon-to-be-released movie version of ''Annie.'' Recently Mr. Curry played the part of Mozart in the Broadway production of ''Amadeus,'' and he is now en route to London to take part in a new production of ''Pirates of Penzance.'' He was also well-known for his role in the cult-classic movie ''The Rocky Horror Picture Show'' (which some people considered objectionable).
Mr. Curry, a curly-headed rock singer as well as dramatic actor, says he first read Dickens when he was seven, then went back ''and plowed through the lot between the ages of 8 and 12. They're all thumping good stories. I identified with Oliver, not with Bill Sikes of course. But I also felt terribly sorry for the villains because I was aware that they had so little chance to be different in those times.''
A few years ago, Tim Curry starred in a British TV biography of Shakespeare in which he played the part, believe it or not, of Will. Although partly funded by ABC, it has never been shown in America, and he is hoping that ABC's active participation in cable TV will, somehow, help to relocate that lost series and bring it to American TV audiences.