President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE

Cover Painting: James Mason in Odd Man Out by William Alwyn


Odd Man Out
Fallen Idol
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.

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.

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 Mountain.

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 composers.

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:

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...

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.

  1. Prelude: Mr. Polly's cycling theme, with a hint of the romantic tune for Christabel (Sally Ann Howes).
  2. Wedding and Funeral: Polly has doubts about his wedding, followed by music from his Father's funeral
  3. 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.
  4. Christabel: The little romance in Polly's life.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. Overture: the theme associated with Félipe.
  2. Prelude and Opening Scene: the household prepares for the ambassador's departure.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 I.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Finale
  8. 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

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