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by Philip Scowcroft

Wells is associated in the minds of many with two types of literary production: futuristic novels, often involving war; and novels of social comment such as Kipps, Tone-Bungay, The History of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica.

Of course he wrote other things as well, notably The Outline of History, which fascinated me in my early teens, but the music inspired by his writings has followed both the "futuristic" and "social" streams of his output.

To look at the latter first, this has most usually been expressed musically in light comedy theatre pieces, which have, naturally enough, concentrated on Wells’ plot elements rather than the social comment. Of three Wells musicals staged between 1963 and 1977 only the first, Half a Sixpence, an adaptation of Kipps with music and lyrics by David Heneker, may fairly be described as a success, notching up 679 performances at the Cambridge Theatre in 1963-4 (Kenneth Alwyn was the musical director) and many more thereafter with countless amateur productions. It acquired a film version in 1967. Much of its original success was owed to Tommy Steele but Heneker’s words and music, still popular forty years on, played a major part too.

Ann Veronica had been staged, non-musically, in 1949. Its then adaptor Ronald Gow joined forces with the author’s son, Frank Wells, in 1969 for a musical version and Cyril Ornadel was brought in to write the music. However it proved to be much less successful than Half a Sixpence; even the presence of Dorothy Tutin in the cast failing to save it. It managed a mere 44 outings, again at The Cambridge Theatre. And the third musical in our trilogy, Mr Polly, did not even make the West End, being put on for "a season" in Bromley in 1977, a meagre return for the talents of lyricist Ted Willis, composers Michael Begg and Ivor Slaney and actor Roy Castle, who all had an input.

Wells has been adapted for large and small screens, most notably his (The Shape of Things to Come in 1936, a watershed musically in that Arthur Bliss’s contribution was one of the earliest film scores by a major British composer. The music has become popular in the concert hall but its history has been confused as the music was written early on and a concert suite was heard (at the Henry Wood Proms) even before the film was finally, and quite savagely, edited, thus cutting from the film much of the music Bliss has written some of which has been heard at the Queen’s Hall. He did not do the cutting himself but left this to Muir Matheson and probably incorporated some of the discarded material in his ballet Checkmate. Fortunately it has been possible recently, with the aid of contemporary non-commercial recordings to reconstruct most if not quite all, of the music as originally conceived by Bliss (and approved by Wells: now available on a Chandos CD) and a superb piece of work it is.

Other Wells "science Fiction" scores were mainly done for American films and by American composers: Leith Stevens (1909-70) for The War of the Worlds (1954), Lawrence Rosenthal for Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Russell Garcia for The Time Machine (1960), W. Frank Harling for The Invisible Man in 1933 and Hans Salter for its various sequels in 1933, 1940 and 1944, which have little or nothing to do with Wells. Of television scores in the science fiction adaptations we may point to The Invisible Man (US 1958-9, Sidney John Key; 1975, US, Richard Clements; and 1984, BBC1, Stephen Deutsch) and The War of the Worlds (1988, US, Billy Thorpe and Ian Brown).

Of Wells' "social comment" works The History of Mr Polly was adapted for the large screen in Britain in 1948 with a distinguished score from William Alwyn. Earlier in the 1940s another English Wells film, Kipps (1941) had had music provided by the master composer of light music, Charles Williams. (The success of this, supposedly caused the re-christening of the Heneker musical version more than twenty years later). And even earlier, in 1936, Mischa Spoliansky wrote the score for The Man Who Could Work Miracles, also a British film.

By and large Wells was fortunate in those who composed music for the film adaptations of his books, whether these were made before or after his death in 1945. And the still popular stage musical Half a Sixpence perhaps does as much as anything else to keep his name alive.

Philip L Scowcroft


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