H.G. WELLS AND MUSIC
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
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