The book

The book under the spotlight today is an autobiography coming out 10 years after the death of its protagonist, actor Jack Wild, whom many of us still remember for his unforgettable role as Dodger in Oliver! at age 15. It is not a sad and depressing memoir, but,  on the contrary, is the lively recount of a man who deeply loved life and acting. 

Many thanks to Ms Claire Harding Wild for finding the time to answer my questions about her beloved husband and about the book she completed. 

Propelled to stardom at the age of 15, until his tragic death from cancer at the age of 53, this is the story of actor Jack Wild, in his own words - published for the first time.
Jack was just an ordinary young boy, whose talent was spotted by chance by a theatrical agent, and propelled onto the world stage through his performance in the 1968 film musical Oliver! It brought him an Oscar nomination and international stardom.
As his fame grew, Jack also began to battle with alcoholism, which eventually dominated most accounts of his life. After the glittery highs of the 60’s and 70’s came the “lost decade” of the 80’s; the lows of debts and sectioning under the Mental Health Act. The real story of this is here, in Jack’s own words.
But this isn’t a memoir of pity and darkness. Jack loved life, and loved his life. In the 90’s, and fully sober, Jack returned to the screen in films such as Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Even in the face of the tragic diagnosis of mouth cancer which eventually killed him, he remained resolutely optimistic about life.
His story contains vivid behind the scenes accounts of many great names he worked with, from British favourites such as Diana Dors and Ron Moody to international stars like Bing Crosby and Kevin Costner.
Completed by Jack's widow Claire, the book is in Jack’s unique narrative voice with honesty, roguish charm and a breath-taking lack of self-pity.

My interview with Ms Claire Harding-Wild

Jack and Claire

Welcome, Ms Harding-Wild, and thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Let’s start from your favourite memory of your husband.

There are so many wonderful memories of Jack that I couldn't possibly pick just one, so let me tell you one from quite late on.  In 2004 Jack was very ill with cancer and was invited to take part in a reunion programme with others from the cast of the film of Oliver!, including Ron Moody, who of course played Fagin, and several of the others who had been the boys in Fagin's gang. Jack was so very happy to see everyone again: after all, these were the lads he'd spent one of the best years in his life working and playing with every day. I was there throughout the weekend they filmed the programme, and Jack loved every minute of it. Of course, there's a big section of his book which talks about the making of Oliver!

Would you choose three adjectives to describe him?

Again, it's difficult to choose just three, but he was certainly strong, optimistic and professional.
Strong: not just physically strong, though it was astonishing to see how strong he was when he was battling his cancer, even surviving his operation in 2004 was a tribute to his amazing strength, but he was strong in the sense of being solid and dependable: you always knew where you were with Jack and in ten years he never let me down.
Optimistic: he stayed incredibly optimistic even when things were a matter of life and death. When he was preparing for the operation which removed his tongue and voice-box, he said 'it's not the end of the world', and that other people were worse off because at least he had a chance of living. The night he died, the last thing he did when conscious was to do his lottery numbers: it was just a routine for him, although he never won! He loved life and loved his life.
Professional: Jack had a huge amount of fun in his work, but he took it very seriously and would prepare very carefully for whatever he was doing, he really cared about the audience. Because he had done so much film and TV his technical knowledge about cameras and staging was great. Jack loved entertaining people and always gave his best. The best example I can give you is: before he lost his voice we had been booked to appear in a pantomime, and fulfilling that commitment became a major focus of his recovery: he didn't want to let anyone down, the part was re-written so he didn't have any lines, and he didn't miss a single show.

He got to fame on stage as Dodger in the hugely popular musical Oliver! What did Jack use to remember of those exceptional years?

Mark Lester as Oliver and Jack Wild as Artful Dodger - Oliver! (1968)

A lot of people think Jack played Dodger on stage, but he didn't. When he was twelve years old, in the autumn of 1964, his stage school got him into the original West End run of Oliver! which was then in its 5th year. He was in the show for 18 months, and for part of that time he played the part of Charley Bates, his brother Arthur payed Oliver, and their friend Phil Collins played Dodger. Jack wasn't tall enough to play the part, and even when they started making the film in 1967 and he finally did get to play Dodger aged 14, he still had to have lifts in his shoes to make him a bit taller! But Jack thought Phil was a great Dodger on stage. Unfortunately Phil only played the part for a few months because his voice broke and he had to be replaced.

How does it come his autobiography is due to release only now, ten years after his tragic death?

When Jack died we had been working on his autobiography for several years, and some of it was  already written and finished. Some of it existed in the form of notes Jack had typed or written, and we had recorded a lot of his memories and stories in a series of interviews. So my task was to finish the book, of course, but I wanted to make sure it was all told as Jack would have told it, in his style of writing and expressing himself, in his unique voice.  Many celebrity memoirs are ghost-written, and you sometimes lose the sense of the real person at the back of it. We also had a large archive of material, and this needed organising to identify photographs and establish a proper chronology for Jack's life. I worked with a researcher on all this and it took a long time.  Then I wanted to find a proper publisher who believed in the book and would produce something that looks really good, as well as getting a professional editor to go through it all, and Fantom have done a great job on it, I think. Also, I had to keep working during this period, I couldn't afford just to stop for a couple of years! It was like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. To give just one example: Jack had talked about several appearances on the 1960s TV police show Z Cars, and it took a while to find out which episodes these were and when. The BBC Script Archives were very helpful in getting Jack's career in order.  I also wanted to set up a dedicated website to document Jack's life and career: jackwild.info

What can a reader learn from Jack Wild’s true story? What’s the message he wanted to convey to his readers while writing this autobiography?

I think different readers will get different things from the book: if you're interested in what it was like to be famous at a young age, Jack has a lot to say about that; if you're interested in what it was like to work on stage and TV in the 60s and 70s, in both the UK and the U.S., there's plenty about that; also about working in films and being a bit of a pop star; and of course how alcoholism nearly destroyed Jack's life and how he came back to recover from all that; but there's a lot of the book that is just about the time he lived in and the people he met and knew, and Jack had a very distinctive way of telling all his stories.  Jack didn't have a message, but he did want to tell his story in his own words, partly because so much nonsense was written about him over the years, and once it's out there you don't have much control over it!

The book contains curiosities and anecdotes involving theatre and movie stars. Can you tell us about one or two?

Jack Wild as Much - Robin Hood Prince of Thieve (1991)
I don't want to give too much away, but Jack had some great stories about filming Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1990, with Kevin Costner of course, and the sort of things that the actors playing the Merry Men got up to.  When he was younger, he'd worked with some great entertainers, but probably the biggest was the singer Bing Crosby. It was a huge honour for anyone to do Bing's Christmas TV show, and Jack learnt a lot from how Bing treated everyone he worked with.

Let’s go back to your life together. When and how did you meet Jack?  Did you two hit it off immediately?

In 1995 I was appearing in a pantomime in Worthing, and when I arrived at the house where I was staying the landlady warned me to be quiet and not to disturb the star of the show, Jack Wild, who was also staying there. I thought he must be a bit full of himself if he expected special treatment like that, but that wasn't the case at all, it was just the landlady being a bit star-struck. The following morning I was in the kitchen when Jack popped his head round the door, smiled, and said 'Any chance of a coffee?' I soon got to know him and realised how kind, generous, strong and funny he was, and by the time the show ended a few weeks later, we had become inseparable, and that's how it was for the next ten and a half years until he died.

Do you have a special happy moment you’ve treasured all these years?

There are too many to pick one, but what I really think is that it was special all the time when you were with Jack: he was unique, had an incredible energy, and was the sort of person who made even the most challenging and awful times bearable as long as you were still with him.

How did you both manage  to face the hardest times? And how hard was it for you as his wife in those years?

It wasn't just a case of 'Jack got cancer and died': he was unwell for a while before he was diagnosed, then he had treatment and went into remission, then the cancer came back and he had to have his operation, and so on. But life doesn't just stop because of illness. During that whole time we continued to work as much as possible, and make plans. Being busy was really important for Jack, and we did a lovely stage tour together just a few months after his initial treatment. Of course there were times when it was incredibly difficult, but because we were together we just kept going.

What did Jack especially like and what did he especially hate  of his acting career?

Jack was very critical of his younger self and his work, but he was very proud of things like Oliver! and Pufnstuf. He was pleased with a role which should have been a turning point in his career, in a film released in 1973 called The 14. This was a fact-based drama and Jack played his first proper adult role in it. Unfortunately the film didn't do as well as hoped, but he had a great time being directed by David Hemmings.  I don't think there was anything of his work that Jack actually hated, but he was very disappointed if he had to let anyone down, and there were a couple of productions he pulled out of during the time he had his drinking problems. He made a musical film called Alice in 1979, and I know he was disappointed that he wasn't allowed to do his own singing: all the songs had been pre-recorded with other people and the result didn't sound like him at all.

Do you have any suggestion or advice for young people who dream of working in the show business?

Don't go into it to be famous. Go in to learn the job, work hard at it, and hope to keep working. Anything else is a bonus.

That’s all, Ms Harding-Wild. Thanks a lot for being my kind guest. Best wishes !


Simon Harding said...

A super bloke, a much talented actor and a greatly missed man.

dstoutholcomb said...

sounds like an interesting bio