Monday, 16 December 2013

Please sir can I have more Shani Wallis - An interview

I stood with the others outside the stage door... Oh to meet my idol, what a exciting moment. At any moment Shani Wallis, star of 'Oliver!', the one true Nancy, was going to be leaving through that door and if I was lucky, I would be able to talk to her, maybe even get an autograph...

I held on tight to my programme, getting crumpled and damp, curled up in my sweaty hands and waited. People pushed and shoved to get to the front, but I just stood patiently, knowing if it was meant to be it would be...


Then suddenly, like a tap was turned on, the heavens opened and the rain came pouring down, everybody ran to take cover, but I stood there, a little rain wasn't going to put me off meeting my idol.


Shani Wallis was born in 1933 in the Tottenham borough of London, she is perhaps best known for her roles on the West end and of course her role as Nancy in the 1968 Oscar-winning musical Oliver! A friend of the stars, she now lives in California with her husband, Actor Bernie Rich.

The rain got heavier and there was still no sign of Shani, most people had left, soaked through, but I stood fast. Then finally the door opened and out she came, looking radiant. A few fans rushed to her and she signed their programmes, but then she noticed me, hair clinging to my face, my dress sodden, gosh, I must have looked like a sorry excuse for a person. She smiled at me sympathetically and excused her self from the crowd and rushing forward towards me. Grabbing my hand she pulled me under her brolly and said in her soft, still very British voice "How about a cuppa and a chat eh?"


We dived into the first little cafe we could found and sat down, ordering a couple of cups of tea she asked me, what I wanted to know...

I started off with an obvious one. I asked, how did you get the part of Nancy? Is it true that having a really cockney accent helped? 

"Oh definitely, definitely. But what truly happened was that I was doing a Broadway show and the Broadway show, believe it or not, was called A Time for Singing and it was, you must know the book How Green Was My Valley?"

I nodded,

"Well you know that and I played Anne Harred and Ivor Emmanuel, a beautiful Welsh singer, played the male lead and um that’s what was happening at the time. If you ever get a chance to hear the music from A Time For Singing it is glorious! Glorious! But unfortunately it was a very sad ending and at that time, you know there are a lot of musicals now that have sad endings, but at the time it didn’t work so it didn’t last very long. 
But Ed Sullivan came in to see the show and he saw me sing the ballad and it’s a very beautiful ballad. I was in period costume and he said “Would you come on my show and sing the song?” and I said yes I would. So I went on, the song is called Let Me Love You and I was seen by, well, obviously seen by millions of people, I mean his show was very popular. Mike someone, head of Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, was looking on the television and saw me. He knew me from England, he was also head of Columbia in England and he saw me in Irma La Douce and a lot of other shows but he happened to see me on television and sent me a telegram. It said I have a role that will suit you totally and completely, fly out to Hollywood! And that’s how I, and I went out there and of course he wanted me. 
His partner was John Wolf in England and John Wolf was not too sure about me but he said “Well, we’ll see, does she have a Cockney accent?”. I had to go to England and I had to record a lot of the dialogue in my true Cockney accent because I am a Cockney. It took me a long time to get that role. I mean I went through the mill, they put wigs on me and they didn’t look right, and eventually I said oh come on, let me use my own hair, which at that time was very nice and very strawberry red but they said but she’s always had black hair. I said well, it doesn’t suit me! I’ve got a tiny little face and it just won’t do! So eventually I landed up with my own hair. I know I took a long time to get to that, but that’s how it happened."

Wow, so you’re a real, true Cockney Londoner? Where were you born?

"In Tottenham. In North London. I’m very proud of it, I’m very proud of coming from Tottenham. I went to Tottenham High School and I used to go to the Royal Tottenham which was a, I had a, my biggest desire was to be on Dancing with the Stars, which I will probably never make but the Royal Tottenham was the ballroom place and I used to stand outside hoping that somebody would take me in, you know, you needed somebody to take you in those days. So I’m very proud of coming from there. "


I know you now live in California, Do you get home much? 

"Um, well my husband is sitting here with me, we don’t get back to England that much do we? I mean I’ll do a show there, I used to do TV, my own television show I did there and then I did a play there, a musical, but...oh yes, then I’d go back for the Tom Jones show, the Humperdink show, you know, and oh yes of course 42nd Street! Oh my God, I did that for almost 2 years. They wanted me to stay and I said my husband’s going to divorce me if I don’t go back! You know, that was wonderful, I really enjoyed doing that. Actually I started off doing it with Frankie Vaughn."

Oh wow! I exclaimed

"Yeah, and then um, he had problems and he wasn’t able to finish his contract. I mean, apropos of nothing, it’s a little incidental thing, but there was a lovely young lady in the show who used to be very interested and used to come and see me in the dressing room and everybody was off and she was the understudy to the understudy and she went on one night and she was absolutely fabulous! It turned out to be Catherine Zeta Jones..."

I read that you practiced for six months before you even had a camera on? 

"Oh yes, yes, totally. I mean we did a lot of dance movements, you had to limber every day and you know, everybody was learning the songs and oh yes, it took a long time, that musical. But, the wonderful part of it is, that everybody, when you see it, it doesn’t have a digital work like it does today, you know, instead of their being six people on screen they go de dum de dum de dum and they multiply it, everybody that you saw on that screen was there."

It was all filmed indoors, wasn’t it?

"Noooo, I mean there were huge huge huge studios yes, there was Fagin’s Den and there was where the whole of Fagin’s Den sort of disintigrated and where I did the song If He Needs Me, and that was a huge cold, very cold studio. But, um, all of the, that, that was a facade all built, that whole Bloomsbury was all you know, the homes and the houses that was all a facade. Then of course it was a natural, all the lawns and everything was all natural, it was outdoors."

I blushed cursing my error... Oh, it was outdoors? 

"Of course, yes, and then they had the street, you know, but I’m thinking of Harry Secombe’s song, ohhh, what was it?"

Boy for Sale? 

"Yes, Boy for Sale, yes, the filmed that whole thing on a wonderful exquisite set with all the snow and everything outdoors.

Oh wow! Well, how did it feel just to walk around? Did it feel like it was real when you walked around it?"

"Definitely, because you know it was a whole different era and I mean, I look back on those pictures and on my photographs and everything and you see us just looking, well, pretty gross standing there in the freezing cold and talking to our friends on the set. But then you look around at the set and it’s all in a totally different era. It was quite amazing and especially Consider Yourself with Jack Wilde and Mark Lester, that set. And the train, the train going across. That was built. That was all built outdoors! Then, you remember the boat that goes by in Be Back Soon, that was in a studio, in the big studio.

I’ve just been with Ron Moody. I was with him in Chicago, when...a couple of months ago? And with Mark Lester, we were all reunited and we had a great time and it was wonderful. And of course Ron, there is no other Fagin. There is no other. There is no other. You can’t go any further than that."

... And you are the only Nancy, I said...

"Yes, well this was the thing, they always want to do the same thing. You know, oh well we’ve got this and they put you into a little box but if it doesn’t suit you you have to stick to what you believe and nothing about the look when I first was chosen, you know, I had to do a lot of, I had to do a film test just the same as everybody else. I was with great company and I felt....Lewis Gilbert did the test and it was strange because Sir Carole Reed, who directed the movie, did not do the test, did not actually meet me then. When he did meet me, one evening with all the big wigs you know, he said “but you’re so tiny and you looked so enormous on the screen!”. So, you know, I was a tiny person in person but very big on the screen. "

And I had to ask about Olly Reed... He had a fearsome reputation, I wondered if it was justified...

"You know, I think, Sir Carole Reed was the most amazing director, I shouldn’t say this....one of the biggest reasons why Oliver was so incredibly successful and so incredibly good was because Sir Carole Reed insisted, even though the music was great, even though the dancing was great, and everybody there used their creativity and everything was so great....the main thing about Sir Carole Reed was that he was stubborn. He said I will not give up this story, this story means everything. This drama means everything. You know, when you think about musicals, oh it’s music and it’s all happy, but no, he insisted that everything was drama first then music. He had more rows, he didn’t get along with I think Oom Pah Pah, which everybody loves, everybody loves Oom Pah Pah. But the whole drama of that scene was that Nancy was taking Oliver away, how was she going to do it? He was being guarded by the dog! And the whole reason for Oom Pah Pah being the success that it was was not just the song but the drama that went with it. Am I going on? 
But you’re asking about Oliver Reed. Oliver Reed was a very strange person. Yes, I think you said in one of your questions have I ever seen him besotted? Yes, I have, and he was very rude, which didn’t help with the Screen Actors Guild when they were showing the new vision of Oliver when it was redone. And um, he obviously he had gotten worse since Oliver, but he was very intense, very intense, everything had to be so darned real. I mean if you take that last scene where he kills her, and Nancy goes to the bridge and takes the little boy, well he said to me “You do what you want. I will do the rest”. And that’s how that became so dramatic, that last scene, because when I went out I did not expect it, I said ok go to Oliver for him to go up the bridge and um, he just grabbed me, I mean the way the camera caught it was real! "

So did he actually hurt you?

"He grabbed me and I fought him, I scratched him and I punched him, but he’s a strong son of a gun and he made it, and that’s what made him such a good actor. But I think he went too far, I do. He was very intense, a very uncommunicative type of person. I did not find him....I mean if you talk to Ron Moody perhaps he’d tell you a totally different thing about how charming he was and how sweet he was. I never found him that way. And Mark Lester, and various other people. But then, you know, it’s your own version of what you see about a person. Everybody has their own vision of people. Or their own version of people.
As an actor, of course, he was great! He was wonderful! And he was wonderful in the role."

But he was perfect for the role wasn’t he? Very unnerving...

"Perfect....and the very first day he went into it, that very first line “Three Days!!” and I reckon he must have done that line about fifty million times...Carole Reed had him doing it over and over and over again."

Was it Carole Reed who didn’t like it or Oli Reed who didn’t like it?

"Ummmm, I don’t know whether he liked it...I had very little contact with him, I don’t know whether he liked doing Oliver, but he must, I mean, I think he must have wanted to do it, don’t you?" 

I just had to ask this next question...  as a mum, I have birthday parties and there are lots of children about and sometimes it's hell... But some of these kids were so young were there any tantrums or major strops? Did you have any problems working with so many little kids or were they professional theatre children?

"No they weren’t! They weren’t all professional theatre children. Not at all! But when it came to it you had Sir Carole Reed, you had Honor White who did the choreography, I mean, you better mind your manners, Cockney or no Cockney! I mean they’d walk out with these wonderful characters, the children, and I mean the shots of those children....and when I went back to do the reunion, to see all these guys who are like 50 years old or something, they were very funny! Very funny, wonderful, warm individuals. Warm people, we had a great time."

From Judy Garland to Sinatra, I knew Shani had worked with them all... But I had to ask about her friend, the very glamourous, the very fabulous, Liberace...

"Ohhhhhh! I travelled with Liberace, I travelled with Jack Benny, I travelled with many people. But Liberace was a dear friend, a dear dear person. It was so funny, I get a lot of fan mail and I just got a letter from a little girl who is 9 years old, her name is Christiana, and she asked “Who are your favourite people?”. Mine are Al Jolson, Liberace and somebody else, I don’t know. But Liberace I travelled all over the world with. I went to Australia with him, I went all over the United States, I was in England, I mean it was just amazing! And what a wonderful guy! A wonderful, wonderful person....

....Do you want to hear a good story? A true true story. We were in Vegas, we did Vegas together quite a few times and I used to go to the dressing room and he’d be sitting there in his underwear doing his make up and I’d say “Hi Lee”, I used to call him Lee, and I’d sit down and we’d talk. And he’d say, Shani, I’ve got a robe, you know the robes he used to wear? He said, “I’ve got a long robe, I really don’t want it, the only piece I want his the neck area because it’s a really beautiful piece of fur, I can’t give you that but do you want the rest of it?”. And I said “Lee, I’ll make my husband Bernie a pair of shorts and a shirt, I’ll make myself a dress, yes please, I’ll take it”. I made two dresses out of his robe, one was from the inside which was gold and the other, which was the outside, was silver and all diamonds. I still have that dress. I still have that dress, and when it was finished I went on stage, I surprised him and he looked at me and he said “Oh Shani! Oh! Where are my sunglasses!” Just like that! It was like he knew it was his dress, you know, I mean not his dress but his robe! But he was a wonderful man, I still have that dress. I’m trying to say to myself what shall I do with it, you know, should I give it to a Liberace museum or something?"

But unfortunately I’ve had it cleaned so many times that the cleaning fluid smell won’t come out of it, but I still have it! And as far as Jack Benny is concerned, Jack Benny, I don’t know whether you know of him or have heard of him, but he was like a father to me. My husband adored him, we travelled all over the world. You know, I have been a very very lucky person, I’ve been so lucky and so blessed and I can’t tell you. It has been a wonderful life and it’s not over yet!"

So, names were flying everywhere, so I wondered, which one was her favourite? 

"I haven’t worked with Judy Garland, I’ve only met Judy."

I think my heart stopped beating for a second ther.... Have you met Judy Garland?! I cried, What was she like?


"Oh, she was lovely! I mean, just lovely! Obviously incredibly talented. One woman, there’s one woman I haven’t met that I just loved as a young person and her name is Doris Day. She still is living, I’ve never met her but I’ve always wanted to meet her. So there you are, you see. But as far as, Katherine Hepburn I loved."

Katherine Hepburn?!

"I met Jimmy Stewart, oh I’ve met a lot of people...."

I begged for another story...

"Edward G. Robinson, have you ever heard of him?"

I nodded with anticipation

"Well, we met him with Jack, in Vegas, and he was deaf and my father was deaf, my father never heard me sing! And when I met, I was with Jack Benny, I was appearing in Vegas with Jack and Edward G. Robinson came backstage and sat with us. We all went in to Jack’s dressing room and I could communicate completely with Edward. G. Robinson because he lip read and that’s how I used to communicate with my father...."

And my husband, not forgetting my husband, he’s met everybody! From Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, well you know, we both met Frank Sinatra but that was Vegas...I spent a lot of years in Vegas. It’s been a wonderful adventure.
My priviledge and my gain and my blessing to to work with these people. So, you know, I feel the same way as you do in a way because I looked up to them too."

But, I only read about them in books, watch their films or stare at their photo's, I said... You got to meet them!

"Yes, yes that’s true and I know I did the Hollywood Palace with Buddy Epsom but of course I come from a different era, you’re young, you’re the same age as my daughter, you know, so it’s a whole different thing. So going back a lot of years, I’m getting very old!"

A bit older maybe, but still as charming and as beautiful as she was in Oliver!

I could see the bottom of my cup now and my hair had dried into a lovely frizz, Shani checked her watch, it was getting late and the tubes stopped soon. I thanked her for not only her time, but for the tea.

She got up to leave, but I had one more question... A very good question to end this perfect evening with... 

"What do I think she would have done? I think that this little boy, Oliver, brought out all the goodness in her and I think, I really believe the only way was the fact that he would kill her. I do think that was the only thing that could have happened to this poor woman. And even though her love was beyond belief for Bill Sykes I think the love for the child was even more. And I think she probably said to herself, I know this is what’s going to happen to me but be that as it may I am doing what I have to do. That’s the way I am, that’s the only way I can answer that question."

No that was perfect.... Just perfect

Find more infor on Shani at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shani_Wallis

5 comments:

  1. Brilliant, really interesting about Oliver Reed esp x

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  2. Awesome. What a fascinating lady she is!

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    1. Thank you, I'll look into it... What does HBA stand for though?

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