Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
We are in for a real treat today!
For those who don’t know, I’m a huge fan of musicals, and perhaps my favorite of all time is Oliver. Even better, my daughter has recently become in love with it as well.
So, I have to say that it was an absolute thrill to get a chance to Zoom with the star of that movie about his experiences filming it. And let me tell you, he couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious. So, please help me welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Mark Lester!
JR: Hi Mark, and thanks for joining us! To start with, I was reading your bio, and saw that you came from a theater family, and got your first roles at the age of six. The movie The Counterfeit Constable and the TV series, The Human Jungle. At any point were you aware of how different that was from what most kids experienced, or did you just think that was what everyone did?
ML: I guess I thought that’s what everyone did. We were always going up for auditions, all the kids for commercials or TV parts, so we thought that was a normal thing. I was in Drama school, so I was okay with the auditions.
JR: I’ve read that there were thousands of kids auditioning for the role of Oliver. Were you nervous or it didn’t really faze you?
ML: I didn’t see thousands of people, I was only in small groups of people. So, I kept getting asked back, asked back, and asked back, and in the end, I obviously won the role.
JR: And I’m certainly glad you did! What was your reaction when you found out that you won the part?
ML: I think I was just like this is great, I’ve got time off school.
JR: That’s funny. Yes, I think that would’ve been my reaction as well. Had you read the book or watched other versions of Oliver Twist prior to filming?
ML: I hadn’t read the book, and I haven’t read it even until today.
JR: Really? That seems almost sacrilegious!
ML: No, I’m not a big Dickens fan. I had seen the previous movie with Alec Guinness. It was quite dark, and it wasn’t a musical. So, I knew the story, but until I got involved, I hadn’t known anything other than the movie.
JR: Now, you were 8 years old when you started filming Oliver, which is amazing to me, considering how incredible your performance was. The cast was perfect. So saying that, how was it for you to come into a production with such seasoned actors such as Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, Harry Secombe, and Jack Wild who had already done the play on the West End? Were you intimidated at all?
ML: No, not really. Everyone was really supportive. The director, Carol Reed, was very good at getting everyone together. It was quite easy, really. Oliver Reed was a bit frightening. A method actor who got into the role of Bill Sykes, so he was a bit terrifying. Everyone else was pretty amazing to work with.
JR: Let’s go through them a little. What can you tell us about your experiences with Jack Wild the Artful Dodger?
ML: Jack was great. He was about five or six years older than me. So, he kind of took me under his wing. And right until the very end, when sadly, he died very young, we were still in contact with each other quite regularly. It was the same with Ron Moody. Fortunately with Ron and Shani, we did a couple of Comic Con things in the states. We did one, I think it was called the Hollywood Show in Los Angeles, and then we went to Chicago.
JR: Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble?
ML: I didn’t really get to know him, even when we worked together afterwards, since I was a kid, and these were adults. I didn’t really get to hang out with anyone other than Jack and a few of the guys from Fagin’s gang, who I still keep in touch with.
JR: Oh, you still keep in touch with them? That’s great. Any anecdotes about Ron Moody as Fagin?
ML: Ron was great. He was very nurturing and very easy to work with. He was a very kind man, very gentle. He gave us a lot of encouragement.
JR: Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes?
ML: He came on the set as Bill Sykes. He held Ron up by his throat. And he dragged me around the rooftops of London.
JR: Oh my gosh. Were you scared during that time for real?
ML: No, people ask were you scared, but we were about two or three feet off the ground. I think the highest we got was three feet.
JR: That’s some great movie magic, then. Do you still have contact with Shani Wallis who played Nancy?
ML: Yes, in fact, we do. She emailed me a few weeks ago. She lives in LA. Her husband, sadly, died. Her daughter lives out that way, and looks after her. It was really nice seeing her again at the Oliver reunion. The last one I did must’ve been around a couple of years ago.
JR: Oh, I wish I could’ve seen that. What was your favorite number from the film?
ML: Who Will Buy.
JR: It’s one of mine as well. I read that Who Will Buy took six weeks to film. It was a stunning sequence. What can you tell us about that particular number?
ML: I liked it because of the way it built up from one rose girl and developed into this huge musical routine. The set was amazing. The whole square was built. The fronts of all the houses were held up by plywood. A lot of people ask me, was that filmed in so and so and so and so? I say, No, it wasn’t. It was filmed in Shepperton Studios on a set. It was an incredible feat to make that, and that was only one of the sets. It took a long time, we filmed over the summer. We were really lucky and had really good weather for it. I was most of the time on a cherry picker, holding me up behind the window.
JR: That’s incredible. I never thought it was a set. Any other anecdotes that you can share from the filming?
ML: Harry Seacombe who played Mr. Bumble, they decided to play a joke on him. He has to pull Oliver around by his ear when I asked for More. So, the make up department made me up this little plastic ear to go over my ear. I think it was his birthday or something. So, when Harry got a hold of me, the fake ear came off in his hands. He just didn’t know what to do, and obviously, everyone fell about behind the camera.
JR: I love that. I can imagine his face. How often do you go back and watch the movie? And can you just watch it as a film or are you too invested in it?
ML: I don’t think I’ve actually watched it since maybe ten or fifteen years ago. My youngest daughter, Olivia, watched it when she was about three, and she thought it was actually my childhood.
JR: So funny! A couple of years later you reunited with Jack Wild for Melody. How was that experience to be back together again?
ML: It was great. Jack and I always got on really, really well. That whole movie was fun. It was just a bunch of kids having a good time, having to do a bit of work in between, which wasn’t really that difficult. Lots of guys who I knew from my school were involved in the film. It was great fun.
JR: The last full movie you made in the 70s was the Prince and the Pauper, or Crossed Swords here in the states. You reunited with Oliver Reed, and the film also had more big stars such as Ernest Borgnine, Raquel Welch, and Rex Harrison. Any anecdotes from the making of that?
ML: Oh my God, yeah. I remember cause I was seventeen, but I turned eighteen during the making of the movie, so I had to have a chaperone by law. She was with me when I turned seventeen, but when I turned eighteen, they sent her home. After I turned eighteen, Ollie invited me out for a meal with around a dozen other people. He got really, really drunk, as usual, so we decided to eat the meal in reverse, so they started off with brandy and then, and the dessert was some sort of chocolate pudding. And then someone flicked some around, and someone flicked some back, and it turned into a massive food fight, and we were asked to leave the restaurant in Budapest. And we were all still covered in chocolate. So, we go back to the hotel, and because of the brandy, I couldn’t do very much, and just fell asleep.
The next day, I had to get up early for filming, and later when I came back to the room, I noticed the maids hadn’t made the room up. I asked what was going on, and the maids said, “You’re a disgusting man, you’re a disgusting man.” I asked, “What do you mean?”
They thought I pooed in the bed. So, I explained to them and put my finger in the chocolate, and they started to scream, “No, you can’t do that!”, but eventually, they realized that it was chocolate pudding.
JR: That is hysterical! That scene is like something out of a movie. According to your IMDB page, you’re in two upcoming films? Fighting Talk and 1066, is that true?
ML: Fighting Talk was a project to help a mate out. We filmed about three days and it was pretty rubbish. It would’ve gone straight to DVD. So, that never really happened. I can’t even remember where we filmed, it was around three years ago.
There was another movie called 1066, which was on the cards for a bit, but I don’t think they can get the funding for it. It was a good idea and would’ve been quite a bit of fun to make.
JR: Are you open to doing more roles in the future?
ML: Yeah, if the right thing came along. I really enjoy it, it’s fun. I mean, it’s probably a little bit different now than when I was making them. There’s more freedom with using CGI and you can do more things on screen. Like, I just saw that movie Tenet and it was great. There’s no way they could’ve made things like that back then. There’s an awful amount of CGI in that, but it worked. It’s a very clever film, and it’s great. We used it a bit in Prince and the Pauper, but it was new technology. It would be fun to do something if the opportunity arose.
JR: Well, I would love to see you in more roles. We’ll have to get some casting directors on it! You currently have a successful practice, The Carlton Clinic, can you tell us about that, and how you got started doing it?
ML: I’ve been practicing as an osteopath and acupuncturist for about twenty-five, twenty-six years. I got into it through sports injuries. I did a high level of karate. I trained starting back in the late eighties. I used to have a practice in the town where I live, but now since Covid, I built a log cabin on my property, and I’m working from here, and it’s working out pretty well.
JR: Other than it being a bad time for it, do you still do conventions and meet the fans?
ML: I’ve done a few in the states, and one in Japan. I do like the American ones, though, because I love your country. It’s a great country.
JR: So, come move!
ML: Well, my girlfriend is from Dallas. We go back and forth a lot. I was in New York, actually, when Covid kicked off. We saw the last Broadway show, before they shut everything down. Tragic.
JR: That’s sad. What’d you see?
ML: We saw the Bob Dylan show, Girl from the North Country. It’s kind of based on his songs. It was a fantastic show, but sadly, the next day they closed everything down, so we saw the last show.
JR: How often do fans reach out to you?
ML: Maybe three or four times a month. Usually sending photographs for me to sign and then I send them back.
JR: That’s really nice of you. I need to do that! Since we’re a site devoted to children’s books, what was your favorite book as a child?
ML: I used to read a lot of action books. I loved the author, Alistair Maclean, who wrote The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, those types of books. Where Eagles Dare was one of his popular books, and I loved reading that kind of stuff. And then, comic books.
JR: I grew up reading comics. Who was your favorite?
ML: I used to like the DC stuff. Flash.
JR: That’s my daughter’s favorite.
ML: They had really good stories, as well.
JR: And so many people love Oliver, what was your favorite childhood movie?
ML: Good question. I remember being taken to see The Exorcist when I was like twelve years old.
JR: That was your favorite childhood movie?
ML: Terrifying. I couldn’t sleep for around a week and had to go to bed with the lights on. I also saw The Godfather, which was a fantastic movie.
JR: You liked heavy movies as a child.
ML: I was never into Disney stuff, really, I was more into these.
JR: How can people follow you on social media?
ML: I have a Twitter account @MarkaLesterMark, but I’m not really active.
JR: Well, you might be getting some new followers now, so you might need to change that.
Mark, I thank you so much for your time today. It was a real pleasure!
That’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers! Hope you enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed doing it. Until next time . . .
What a fabulous, funny and insightful interview!! So great to hear some background into the making of the movie. This is one of my all time favorite musical movies!
Thanks, Donna! Love Oliver!