The twentieth century generously dealt British music a winning hand when it came to composers and musicians, a veritable royal flush of talent, and if Francis Chagrin (1905-1972) is one of numerous cards almost lost in the present artistic shuffle he is nonetheless a classical king, if not an ace. In this new millennium when perhaps we are even tempted to sometimes play the joker it is almost a revelation to rediscover the music of those like Francis Chagrin, Benjamin Frankel, Elizabeth Lutyens, Gerard Schurmann, Doreen Carwithian and even Richard Rodney Bennett who have unfairly been ushered under the shadow of current establishment favourites.
But luckily there are record companies and individual recording producers who strive to maintain the heritage of all worthy British music – who seek to establish fashion rather than just follow it - and paramount among these has been Chandos Records. That they have extended their boundaries beyond the concert hall to also encompass composition for film via a sterling and continuing series of recordings has enabled a truer definition of many a composer’s work to emerge. After all, can we really consider the output of Malcolm Arnold or William Alwyn or Alan Rawsthorne or even Arthur Bliss and Vaughan Williams without their film music being part of the equation? Historically the trend in Britain has been for composers with classical and concert hall credentials to score mainstream films, a happy two-way musical highway which netted vintage British films outstanding scores and the composers useful paycheques and the opportunity to experiment. The work of accomplished classical composers in film should surely be examined and celebrated.
Of course when considering any retrospective of a composer’s film commissions there is every likelihood that those who have scored particularly prominent films will predominate – particularly galling in that many once proud British films have become relegated to misty memory or the ignominy of middle-of-the-night television. And as these films fade into obscurity, so do their scores, no matter how admirable or valuable. Time has perched Francis Chagrin on a cusp, with his reputation for scoring films likely to tip towards the dark pit of anonymity with titles like The Intruder, Helter Skelter and Easy Money, but possibly saved from the chasm by the more readily identifiable An Inspector Calls and The Colditz Story. But now that reputation has been placed beyond doubt by this splendid new compendium comprising outstanding selections from ten titles.
I wasn’t aware of the farcical 1949 film Helter Skelter until I heard Chagrin’s witty and adroit Concert Overture broadcast by the BBC Concert Orchestra back in 1972. The music had “come home” so to speak, as the film had been set in and around the BBC, with Carol Marsh, David Tomlinson, Jimmy Edwards and Terry Thomas frantically keeping the froth flying. Thankfully An Inspector Calls regularly features in the television schedules and is now handily available on DVD. Alistair Sim perfectly embodied the mysterious inspector in this squarely rigged but faithful adaptation of J B Priestley’s old theatrical warhorse, but for the music on this disc we are treated to the delightful theme for a subsidiary character, that of Eva Smith.
1958’s The Colditz Story probably owes its continuing high profile to the later and very popular television series (scored by Robert Farnon) also recounting how British servicemen never lapsed in their ingenuity when planning escapes from the Nazi prisoner of war facility at Colditz Castle. Chagrin’s main title music is possibly one of the most raucous ever imagined for a film, its sledgehammer impact almost sufficient in itself to shatter the formidable Colditz battlements. Chagrin deploys bagpipes and a beguiling Gaelic lilt to leave us in no doubt we are “north of the border” for The Greyfriars Bobby, made by Walt Disney in 1961, and telling the tale of a loyal skye terrier who kept vigil over his deceased owner’s Edinburgh grave for years. Much of the scoring is delightfully flighty with emphasis on sympathetic strings and kindly woodwind. The 1959 television series Four Just Men proposed a crime-fighting quartet – Jack Hawkins, Richard Conte, Vittorio De Sica and Dan Dailey - each based in a differing part of the world and each in turn gaining the lion’s share of an episode in rotation. Francis Chagrin employed some natty syncopation and a smart reference to the Morse code SOS to lead us into the series each week.
The amusing concerts which Gerard Hoffnung devised in the Fifties plus his inimitable musical cartoons inspired a Halas and Batchelor animated film for BBC Television in 1965. In an inspired extravaganza of re-orchestration, direct musical quotes and pastiche Chagrin has inestimable fun with favoured works of Bizet, Liszt, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky et al. Who was it who dared to say that musical jokes were unfunny! Jack Hawkins starred in The Intruder produced in 1953, with the plot ignited when an ex-serviceman foiling a burglary at his home discovers the culprit to be an old comrade in arms. As with his music for Helter Skelter, Francis Chagrin compiled a concert work from this score, comprising four startlingly stark episodes, from the darkly reflective to the dramatically strident.
In pre-lottery days there was always the Football Pools if you fancied a flutter, and in 1947 Easy Money related the sagas of a number of fictional winners. The film was scored by Temple Abady, but the final tale to be told featured an orchestral bass player who falls out with his conductor and orchestra only to return with his cash winnings as the ensemble’s saviour when it gets into financial straights. Chagrin was called upon to compose the classically conservative but musically astute Basso Ostinato as the concert piece heralding the bass player’s triumphant return to the orchestral fold. Last Holiday, filmed in 1950, lingers in the mind of many as a poignant story about a man who imagines he has only weeks to live and yet falls in love – Alec Guinness starred along with Beatrice Campbell and Kay Walsh. Here Chagrin was called upon to embrace the potently dramatic, the yearningly romantic (epitomised by a beautifully languid solo violin) plus provide repertoire for Palm Court-type ensembles. Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s a requisite if intending to score films! I wonder if any of us recall The Bridge – a short documentary film from 1946 recounting how Yugoslavia set to rebuilding its infrastructure and social fabric following the ravages of the Second World War - but at least it is now enshrined in music on this disc. The suite of four pieces graphically celebrate a village feast, the simple joy of childhood, the cool of an evening and the building of a new bridge.
Chagrin was a prolific composer not only for the concert hall, but also for film and television, and at last we have this considerable and representative retrospective of his extraordinary, brilliant and diverse and music for those genres – although certain geeky fans of a specific and enduring television series may ask “where is the music he composed for that episode of Dr Who back in 1964?”!
Of course the interpretation of film scores by “classical” record labels has often been an area of contention for movie music aficionados, where the original musical intentions have been subverted by the adoption of inappropriate tempi, swimming bath acoustics, and yawning chasms of silence between cues (which are presumably considered “movements” by the said labels and therefore deserving of splendid isolation!). How fortunate then that Chandos have lighted on Rumon Gamba to conduct this ever-expanding, long overdue and very welcome miscellany of classic film music. Here is a conductor with seemingly an almost intrinsic feel for the material, even given its route source, diversity and complexity. Or it may be masses of dedicated “homework” which have resulted in Gamba’s sure touch with this genre of music - which is still perplexing to some, an affront to others, but to the observant and the informed one of the most extraordinary new art forms to emerge from the twentieth century. Mind you, there should be no “typecasting” of Gamba as a “film music conductor” – but this is not likely given his wide range of international concert performances. And tribute must also be paid to Philip Lane, who has reconstructed by ear or edited and arranged eight of the titles here, as he has reconstructed in the past countless film music manuscripts previously lost to us by cost-cutting accountants who consigned them to skips or bonfires.
This album is a truly valuable addition to growing amount of our home-grown film music heritage finally restored for posterity. And its not just that its “film music” – this is music of the first order per se, performed with vigour and feeling by a conductor and an orchestra obviously committed to the repertoire. The recording is set in quite an expansive acoustic, but the detail is still defined and the overall ambience warm and winning. Not everyone will have even heard of Francis Chagrin or many of the films he scored (although Philip Lane’s booklet notes provide an excellent potted biography and the low-down on all the movies represented), not all are particularly partial to this vintage mode of scoring British films, and still others, as mentioned above, would not give any film music a CD spin, but none of this can detract from these Francis Chagrin compositions making for a superlative listening experience.