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Barry Gray Centenary Concert – Thunderbirds Are Go!: Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire (Ondes Martenot), Crispin Merrell (piano), Christos Parlapas (harmonica), Pete Whittaker (Hammond organ), Brian Blessed (presenter), Voces8. Philharmonia Orchestra; François Evans (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 8.11.2008 (JPr)

The BBC celebrated the music of Dr Who at the Proms in July (see review)  and with taxpayers’ money being no object and using all their presentational expertise gave the young-at-heart a wonderful afternoon of visual images, costumed characters, TV personalities and, of course, music. For the fledging impresario with fairly empty coffers it would be difficult to repeat these splendours so although whilst an undoubtedly a jolly occasion,  this tribute to Barry Gray should have been a lot better.

Barry Gray was born in 1908 and this concert was organised by Ralph Titterton, a fan of both Gerry Anderson, the writer, director and producer and of Gray's music for Anderson’s films and TV shows. (Yes, this concert was for all those of us grew up in the days of black-and-white television and the early days of colour with the likes Twizzle, Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray … and Thunderbirds itself)
. Many of these epics were  ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’ which meant the best puppetry and special effects that the available techniques and the limited budgets would allow. You always saw the strings and – famously – they could never make the puppets walk properly, but in those naïve times these things never, ever, mattered. It was all pure, mind-blowing, escapism for anyone with a vivid and innocent imagination. On behalf of the Barry Gray Estate,  Titterton has helped produce CD releases of the Anderson soundtracks for both the fans and commercial market since the composer’s death in 1984.

The glossy souvenir programme was a rip-off at £10 because although colourful and generally informative,  it did not seem to have been proof-read, including amongst its many faults the Thunderbirds character 'Brains' becoming, yes you’ve guessed it, 'Brians'. In the programme's introduction, François Evans recalled how ‘The biography of that British music director … Muir Matheson (1911-1975) claims: There is a theory that human beings have a subconscious longing to return to the environment in which they lived at the age of seven.’ I believe this to be  essentially true and I also think that for some people it is also a fact that at a certain age we consciously realise our growing-up is over. So, this audience was a gathering of perennial seven year olds who despite managing to  reach puberty on time and having aged physically like me, all had minds that were ageless. Most of them, also like me, apparently enjoy many of the same things that they did decades ago, including Dr Who and the work of Gerry Anderson.

Gray himself wrote in 1982 that ‘It was Gerry’s idea not to write kiddie music for the puppet shows, and I should not let the fact that the shows were puppets affect the music at all … I treated the puppets as if they were people. And that is what we did more or less throughout the whole of those series.’ So ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Thunderbirds Are Go!’ opened the evening of many musical memories to clips on a large screen of International Rescue in their new Blu-Ray splendour.

Unfortunately the screen was not used enough. The music soon showed that Gray’s characteristic signature of descending pronouncements from baritone saxophones plus tinkling xylophone illustrating impending danger, recurred elsewhere in the excerpts performed during the evening. The mind was then engaged in recalling Gray’s musical influences and those he may well have gone on to inspire. There was the jazzy theme to Fireball XL5, the Mancini-like Latin rhythms and sub-Mascagni music of two Thunderbirds episodes (‘The Cham-Cham’ and ‘Path of Destruction’). He often used a big orchestra,  so the swelling chords brought back memories of Bernard Hermann in the theme to Doppelgänger, recalled  Mikós Rózsa  soundtracks and  the sea-picture music of Korngold for Stingray and Gershwin with the ‘International Concerto’ from an episode of Joe 90. Surely John Williams and the late Jerry Goldsmith in their distinguished careers must have at some time encountered the theme from the feature film ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ before composing their symphonic space music for Star Wars and Star Trek?

Gray was also a pioneer of electronic effects in his scores and from Fireball XL5 onwards a prominent feature in the music was the Ondes Martenot. When I saw 'Ondes Martenot' in the listings for the event I thought this must have been a character in one of the series, but no it is an early electronic musical instrument from the 1920s capable of producing the eerie sounds needed for Sci-Fi music. [JPr doesn't review Messiaen. Ed]. The instrument hasn’t been made since 1988, superseded by microchip development no doubt, but in a uniquely French way they still teach it there and Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire is currently professor of the Ondes Martenot in Paris.

The amplified and enhanced forces of the Philharmonia Orchestra played valiantly for their conductor François Evans.Unsurprisingly, he is a great fan of Barry Gray’s music and also has a doctorate concerned with  electronic music as well being a composer and arranger. Everything in the notes on the page was extremely faithful to Gray’s concert and lovingly recreated. What was unfortunate was the involvement of Voces8 when there were lyrics to be sung. They are an a capella octet formed by ex-choristers of Westminster Abbey. Their mugging and many moments of high-camp were distracting and although most had good voices,  the individual singers given a robot costume or a cowboy hat to wear looked ridiculous. There is a fine balance between affection and ridicule and occasionally Voces8 crossed the line in their appearances during the 2¼ hour show.

Skipping quickly over the amateurish lighting effects, two other words  distracted me from my personal celebration of Barry Gray on the night and these were ‘Brian Blessed’. He used more adjectives in five minutes than there appear in any of my florid 1000 word reviews in Seen and Heard.   ‘Remarkable … Legendary … Great … Lovely … Magical … Inspirational … Sensational … Wonderful’ were repeated time and time again. His booming self-indulgent voice and the panto-antics of this OTT Yeti-like -character who has made three attempts at climbing Everest brought only one other adjective to mind (voiced loudly by someone sitting behind me) for Blessed himself … ‘Mad’! It would have helped if he could have read  the title of the series he himself starred in correctly too - it was Space 1999 not 99! Similarly  he appeared never to have heard the opening titles of Stingray or Captain Scarlet that he was asked to speak over,  otherwise he wouldn't have messed them up.

Yet in the end none of this seemed to matter. When the music of the ‘Thunderbirds March’ died away at end of this long evening, childhood memories had been rekindled by the excellence of the soundtracks. Barry Gray was very much more than just Dame Vera Lynn’s musical arranger for many years before working for Gerry Anderson: he had served with distinction for  instance in the RAF during WWII. After a glimpse of the composer's personal life  was shown on video, there remained on the screen his genial face and the simple acknowledgement ‘Barry Gray 1908-2008’. And at last Brian Blessed’s script got it right when he concluded simply that Barry Gray was a ‘hero, fighter pilot and composer’. The audience responded with a standing ovation in his memory followed by ‘Three Cheers’ for Gerry Anderson who was present at this tribute concert to his long-term collaborator. Both tributes were thoroughly deserved.

Jim Pritchard

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