THE WILLIAM ALWYN SOCIETY
President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE
Cover Painting: James Mason in Odd Man Out by William Alwyn
Odd Man Out
History of Mr Polly
The Rake's Progress
The London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Richard Hickox
Notes © by Mary Alwyn
William Alwyn became a pioneer in the great Documentary Film Movement of the thirties
when, through a mechanical fault, the recorded music for The Future's in the Air
failed to register and Paul Rotha asked him - well known at film sessions as a virtuoso
flautist - to compose a substitute score.
Requests for a succession of documentary films followed,
all made on seemingly inadequate budgets (£15 - £20 seemed a magnificent
fee then, out of which I had to arrange for copying, "fix" the orchestra and conduct
the sessions myself!)
During the war Alwyn worked for the Ministry of Information, composing for officially
secret films to instruct the armed forces as well as to boost home morale, and to
encourage America to join the ant-Nazi struggle. Among these were the historic Fires
were started, World of Plenty, the academy award winner - The True Glory,
The Way Ahead and the film which did so much for morale during the darkest days
of the war, Desert Victory.
Our efforts were so successful that our names were included
on Hitler's black-list!
Penn of Pennsylvania, in 1941, was Alwyn's first feature film. Later came
such classics as Reed's Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, Pelissier's
The History of Mr. Polly and The Rocking-Horse Winner, and the Film
Industries gift to the 1951 Festival of Britain, The Magic Box. He wrote the
score for the first stereo film, which inaugurated the National Film Theatre, and
was also commissioned to compose the Festival March for the opening of the
newly-built Royal Festival Hall.
For the Concert Hall he wrote five symphonies, Concertos for Piano, Violin, Viola,
Harp, Oboe and Cor Anglais, two major Operas, five Song Cycles and much Chamber music.
At the same time he composed the scores for over 200 films (including 60 features)
ending in 1962 with Reed's The Running Man. They range from dramas (A Night
to Remember, Malta Story and State Secret) to comedies, (The Smallest
Show on Earth, and The Million-Pound Note) and include Walt Disney's
In Search of the Castaways, Swiss Family Robinson and The Third Man on the
In 1958 for his "outstanding contribution to the art of the British Film", Alwyn
was one of the few elected to a Fellowship of the British Film Academy (now the Society
for Film and Television Arts) and honour shared with Sir Carol reed, Sir Michael
Balcon, Sir Alexander Korda, Sir David Lean, John Grierson and Paul Rotha. He served
on the councils of the British film Academy and the Edinburgh Film festival and lectured
for the British Film Institute. His pioneer work helped establish the international
prestige of British film music and paved the way for the present generation of film
But what happened to the scores for all these films? Immediately Alwyn had seen the
first viewing of a "rough cut" he sketched themes for the characters and the plot,
these sketches were enlarged when he had the cue sheets and then scored for orchestra
- but his Journal for October 1955 tells us:
Committee meetings of the B.F.A., where I learned quite
by chance that all my major film scores (Odd Man Out etc.) and Walton's score for
Henry V had been destroyed in a holocaust of tidying-up at Pinewood Studios. This
was devastating news as I had not kept the original manuscript sketches and I don't
think Walton has either. What makes it worse is that the original soundtracks were
junked at the same time, so all the work on these scores is irreplaceable.
After my husband's death I set to work to sort out the quantities of manuscripts
stored in the attic. There were pieces written when he was 8 or 9, and his first
opera, The Fairy Fiddler, piano music, orchestral music, songs, music for
the theatre and for some forty BBC productions - suddenly I found the piano sketches
and four pages of score for Odd Man Out, with some other film scores and
sketches. Together they represent about two thirds of Alwyn's film work: far from
complete, but more than I had ever hoped to find.
Odd Man Out
Johnny MacQueen (James mason), an IRA gunman, leads a raid to get funds, is shot
and so fails to escape with his comrades. Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) searches for him,
having arranged their escape by a ship due to leave that night. It is snowing when
he approaches the docks where she find him near to death. As the police close in
Kathleen fires two shots. Police, Friend and Priest stand, dismayed, by the lovers
bodies; behind them the ship sails. The camera pans and tilts up to the clock; it
is midnight. The music has to carry the whole action of the final scene.
Carol Reed, who directed Odd Man Out, was a director who always thought in
terms of music whilst shooting a picture, so Alwyn read the book and discussed the
film script with him...
....long before the shooting
in the studios started we worked out the very pace of the music with the aid of a
piano while I improvised and Carol limped up and down the room in the person of the
wounded ganster, Johnny. Most of the scenes were shot to pre-recordings and transformed
and orchestrated afterwards. I worked in the closest collaboration with the editor,
so that we knew what we were doing individually with sound effects and music, and
the final result is a complete integration of sound and visuals - a sound-film
in the real meaning of the word, where music has been allowed to speak in terms of
the Film as Fine Art.
The History of Mr. Polly:
based on the novel by H.G.Wells. Mr. Polly (John Mills) a draper's assistant, buys
a small shop, but after 15 years marriage to a nagging wife, stages his "suicide"
by setting fire to the shop. Free at last, he settles down as a handyman at "The
Potwell Inn" where Meg Jenkins is the landlady.
- Prelude: Mr. Polly's cycling theme, with a hint of the romantic
tune for Christabel (Sally Ann Howes).
- Wedding and Funeral: Polly has doubts about his wedding, followed by music
from his Father's funeral
- Fire ("Murder Arsonical"): Polly sets fire to the shop - but then rescues
an old lady from the roof top and is regarded as a hero.
- Christabel: The little romance in Polly's life.
- Punting scene: Alwyn's scherzo (scored for woodwind) is in the
form of a fugue. Polly tries his hand at punting - but with little success.
- Utopian Sunset (Finale): Mr. Polly returns to "The Potwell Inn" and, we
presume, lived happily ever after!
The Fallen Idol
Graham Greene wrote this screenplay from his short story The basement Room.
The action centres on an Embassy in Belgrave Square, where the ambassador's young
son, Félipe (Bobby Henrey) is left in the care of the butler, Baines (Ralph
Richardson) while his parents are away. He idolizes the butler but is terrified of
his shrewish wife. The boy is witness to her death and the butler's relationship
with the secretary, Julie (Michele Morgan).
Among the scores in his attic I discovered a complete photocopy of The Fallen
Idol, so the music is exactly as Alwyn wrote and scored it.
- Overture: the theme associated with Félipe.
- Prelude and Opening Scene: the household prepares for the ambassador's
- Love Scene (part one): Félipe interrupts Baines' and Julie's secret
meeting in a tea-shop.
the 1st violin and cello play solos over muted strings.
- Love Scene (part two): The lovers continue their conversation outside
the shop: Baines promises to speak to his wife about a separation. The music, scored
for full orchestra, plays molto appassionata a version of Love Scene part
- Hide and Seek: Félipe plays hide-and-seek in
the deserted, dust sheeted embassy - he becomes more and more excitable and frightened
until the tension is broken by his scream. The music is scored for muted strings
and muted brass, both playing fortissimo but held down in the dubbing to add
a sense of strain to the sound-track - almost like trying to scream in a whisper.
- Panic and Flight: Félipesees through a window a quarrel and a supposed murder.
He turns, runs down the fire-escape and tears through the deserted London streets
as if all the devils in hell were after him - until eventually he is stopped by a
night-patrolling policeman. Carol reed wanted to build a huge emotional climax in
order to start the second part of his film on a flat, unemotional level. The boy
could not possibly have heard the quarrel through the closed window and there are
few sounds to be heard in the dead of night in the London streets - so reed was only
able to shoot this long and most effective visual sequence, and build to an emotional
climax followed by silence, if he knew that the music would supply both the drama
and the tension suggesting the nightmare fear in the child's mind.
- Coda (End Titles)
After this film Alwyn's music was widely acclaimed by film critics and music critics
alike so that his prestige became such that he was from then on given a separate
"credit" on the film titles.
Calypso from "The Rake's Progress
After his disgrace at Oxford, the Rake (Rex Harrison) is sent to a West Indian coffee
plantation. All the settings for this sequence were built in the studio, so that
the composer was responsible for creating the hot, steamy atmosphere. Alwyn's short
piece is founded on two West Indian dance rhythms - the calypso and the rumba. It
is played by a classical symphony orchestra, the only additions being a guitar, and
maracas and bongos to the percussion.
An Alternative View
In Philip Kemp's Lethal Innocence-"The cinema of Alexander Mackendrick" (Methuen
1991), Kemp writes: Alwyn, in Mackendrick's opinion, wrote awful
film music, because when he saw a sentimental scene he'd say "Oh isn't it lovely"
and write sentimental music for it. And when the music is doing the same thing as
the picture, it never works because one of them is redundant. The good composer is
one who plays against the film and sees another meaning in it."
Mackendrick was director of such films as The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success,
Whisky Galore and The Man in the White Suit.
Notes © by Mary Alwyn