Film music – Part three: Britain and its Golden Age

Douglas from the Music Library continues his personal history of film music. In the third of a series of posts he will take us through the ‘history’ of how the film soundtrack became what it is today.

Britain’s film industry or the music side, seems at the casual glance to be a microcosm of the Hollywood model. After the early silent movies, films of the 30s and on, employed the very great talents of the great and the good of the British classical composers. The earliest of these, possibly great works, is a now lost score/soundtrack for a film called ‘The Bells’. The score was written by Gustav Holst in 1931 three years before the composer’s death but still very much at the height of his powers.

Available to stream or download via Naxos

The first great British film soundtrack available to us, is for ‘Things to Come‘, Alexander Korda’s first sci-fi film from the book by H.G. Wells, ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, with a score by Arthur Bliss. Korda had bought the rights to the Wells novel but Wells was allowed to retain a great amount of artistic control over the making of the film. One of those controls was the employment of Bliss as composer of the soundtrack. Wells also asked Bliss to write the score first, to allow the film to be based on it rather than the other way round. This novel approach appealed to all Bliss’ modernist ways and he duly produced the score before the film was started, however Bliss refused to edit any of his work to suit the film, this cutting and fitting was left to composer Lionel Salter.  

As the British Film Industry grew from successful release to even more successful release, the industry called upon the great and the good of the musical world to provide the go-to scores for the go-to movies. Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten all made significant contributions to film and documentary making from the forties onward. Arnold provided scores to very many films of the fifties and sixties including ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’. Vaughan Williams provided the score for ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, which became the basis for his Seventh Symphony, also known as Sinfonia Antartica. One of the most important and often mentioned works of that period is the Famous ‘Night Mail’, a documentary film from 1936 from the General Post Office Film Unit with a screenplay/ poem W.H. Auden and a score by Benjamin Britten.

In a precursor to the film/music relationship between Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Brannagh which we will come to, the cinema of the forties, fifties and sixties saw the pairing of director/actor Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir William Walton in the films Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. Walton also produced the scores for ‘The Battle of Britain’ and many other noteworthy British films of that time.

As with the film industry throughout the world, the scales which had been weighed on the side of composers from the concert hall who dabbled in film, the weight changed and swung in the direction of composers whose specialism was film.

In that camp, were composers like John Barry, Ron Goodwin, Laurie Johnson, Stanley Myers, Richard Addinsell, Robert Farnon.

Available to stream or download via Naxos

John Barry is well known for his work on the James Bond franchise amongst others. Ron Goodwin provided the soundtrack for the ‘663 Squadron’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and over 70 other movies. Laurie Johnson scored over 30 films but is maybe best known for his TV output which includes ‘The Professionals’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Animal Magic’ which was reused as the theme for the wonderful ‘W1A’. Stanley Myers another who worked in both film and TV, including ‘Prick up your Ears’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’. Amongst Richard Addinsel’s many highlights include the score for the best film version of ‘Scrooge’, the 1951 Alistair Sim outing, ‘Blythe Spirit’ in 1945 and his Warsaw Concerto for the 1941 film, ‘Dangerous Moonlight’. Canadian born Richard Farnon lived in Britain for most of his life and produced much light orchestral and film/TV music.

Available to stream or download via Naxos

As mentioned earlier, Scottish born Patrick Doyle and Knight of the Theatre, Kenneth Branagh have collaborated on many films. Like their illustrious predecessors Olivier and Walton, they have also made versions of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Henry V’ as well as ‘As You Like It’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and non-Shakespeare outings like ‘Sleuth’, ‘Thor’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.

Perhaps more importantly, Patrick Doyle was my piano teacher when I was at Hillhead High School, Glasgow in the mid 1970s. 

Join Douglas next week for the fourth and final part of his film music ‘history’.

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