Oliver!: A Visit to the Set (England, 1967)

Figure 1.--This is the workhouse scene where Oliver asks for more gruel. It is one of the most famous scenes in the history of motion pictures.

The film was shot in England at the Shepperton studio. A HBC reader writes, "I met Mark Lester once during the filming of Oliver. He was with his mum or someone who was looking after him. The other boys were a bit wild but when Carol Reed said 'quiet ' you could have heard a pin drop. Here is the story of my visit to the Oliver film set in July 1967."

Pen Pals

Having an overseas pen friend was a phase my friends and I went through in our teenage years. It was not something we were particularly interested in but we became more so when the Parker Pen Company ran a promotion. There were taking part in the New York World Trade Fair. There was a computer on their stand and it would match you to someone with similar interests. We had a lot of fun filling in the forms and then forgot about them once we sent off to them.

One day, out of the blue, a letter arrived from America. It had arrived from Bergenfield New Jersey. My correspondent was an American girl called Janet. It did not take long for a letter friendship to developed. In one letter I learnt that her mum was a famous chorographer called Onna White and that the family would be coming to London in the summer of 1967 because her mum was going to choreograph the new musical film called Oliver.

Shepperton Studio

In July of that year I was in London for 2 weeks and I looked them up. We went all over London site seeing. One of the big moments was being taken to the film studio at Shepperton to watch the film being made. This took place on Tuesday 18th July 1967. I regret not obtaining photographic memorabilia of the visit. I felt it was impolite to ask for a photograph to be taken of me with the main actors but fortunately I obtained a couple of autographs.

The Workhouse Scene

Janet and I were taken in a chauffeur driven car to the studio. We were with a chaperone and he stayed with us for most of the day. The sound stage I was taken to first depicted the Workhouse. There was a wooden frame over which hessian material had been fixed. Then plaster had been applied and the art department had turned this into the walls of a workhouse. The floor looked as if it was stone flags but these were ordinary linoleum tiles. There were tables and benches because it was supposed to be the dinning hall were the orphans ate their food. Written on the wall was ‘ God is Love.’ The scene being shot was Mr. Bumble singing the grace said before meals. ‘ There were several takes before Carol Reed was satisfied that the scene was in the bag.


We broke for lunch because another camera was to be erected to film another part of the movie in the afternoon. The fire and cooking pot were the porridge was kept was removed and the large camera was brought in and technicians began fixing it into place. In the restaurant I met other stars who included Sammy Davies Jr. I spoke with him. Lunch was had with several of the leading players. Harry Secombe was on our table. He was very jovial and his stories were hilarious. In the restaurant was Mark Lester who was eating lunch with his mother or minder. (Years later in Kenya the headmaster of the school I taught in had known Mark Lester at school.)

Motre Touring

Afterwards Janet and I were taken to other parts of the studio were other sets had been built or were being built. As we viewed our guide explained the scenes, which would be filmed. His explanations brought the sets to life. He told us where Mark Lester would stand during the filming of the song. 'Who will Buy?' The camera was not ready for use by the time the lunch break ended. The actors played cards on the film set. Janet and I were invited to join the game. There on the film we played cards.

Shooting the Scene

The scene shot in the afternoon was were Mr. Bumble had to hit the floor with his staff and say ‘eat’. Carol Reed wanted the children to sit very still and silent. They had to look at Mr. Bumble, while they waited in anticipation for him to tell them when to start eating. There were a couple of false starts because some of the boys moved, or spoke. Carol Reed made it very clear that there had to be no movement or sound while the camera rolled. You could hear a pin drop because I’m sure everyone held their breath I know I did.Mark Lester was rigid and looked longingly at Mr. Bumble, as if he had not eaten for a very long time. Then filming finished once Carol Reed was satisfied with the shot.

The Film

When the film was realised the following year I went with friends to a cinema in Blackpool to see the film. I was amazed to find that the days shooting took but a minute or so to watch. The film, the autographs and the souvenir magazine brought back the memory of that special day.

Other Famous Scenes

The scene that bill was privlidged to watch was one of the most famous scenes in the history of motion pictures. HBC has compiled a list of other notable scenes in movies involving boys.


Note the costumes in the workhouse scene. They seem quiyte accurate. The boys are dressed in ragged clothes and are barefooted. This is is a good indicator of how barefeet were seen as a sign of poverty in England. This was very accurate and would have been typical of the 1830s when child labor was still very common and problems associated with poverty such as child abandoment were also acute. Photography did not appear until the end of the 1830s and was very expensive in the 1840s and even 50s. Thus work house boys were not photographed. The English continued to operate work houses into the 20th century and there are images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conditions were so deplorable in many of these work houses that many children preferred to live in the streets and the street children were seen as a major social problem by the Victorians.

William Fergusson


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Created: August 19, 2003
Last updated: August 20, 2003