An interview with Derek Wadsworth by Steven Simak
Interviewed and written for CinemaScore, 1984 (Unpublished)
Posted in memory of Derek Wadsworth, 1939-2008
Derek Wadsworth has been perhaps best known to American audiences as the composer behind the second season of SPACE: 1999, but that’s only a small part of his repertoire which spans classical, jazz and rock. His earliest musical experience was at the age of ten when he joined a local brass band in the town where he lived.
“We have a big tradition up in the north of England where they take their brass bands very seriously. It’s a kind of working man’s pursuit. Every factory has their own brass band and they are all very proud of it and they all work very hard at it. They are all amateurs, you see, and it was really that background I grew up in. I learned to conduct the band and that’s how I learned to conduct. I also got to write short scores and things, mostly hymns and church music.”
But it was the film THE GLENN MILLER STORY that ultimately shaped Wadsworth’s direction toward a career in jazz and big band music. Previously, he was a successful fabrics designer and had worked for a company that manufactured wools for the underground. “I saw the film and I had a very romantic notion of the whole thing, particularly when the band got stuck in the snow and he was playing this superb trombone solo. It looked to me that this was a very romantic lifestyle and here I was going to the factory everyday from 9 to 5. Although it was a very artistic sort of job apart from that I wasn’t too happy at all. I wanted to spread my wings and get out.”
So aided by a small inheritance on his 21st birthday, Wadsworth would set off in search of summer season work which would generally earn him enough to last through the lean winter months. The proverbial big break came when he went on tour with Dusty Springfield, who was one of the most popular singers around. “Up until that time I was primarily interested in progressive jazz. I still kept an interest in orchestral and classical music but rock & roll was too frivolous for me. It was too basic. I was into advanced chords and advanced harmonies.
“But it was when I started working with Dusty that I began to see the good side of rock & roll. She said she couldn’t find anyone to write arrangements for her because she wanted to do a kind of Motown material, at that time progressive rock stuff. Everyone who wrote arrangements for her wrote in a jazz style. She pointed out that I was listening for the wrong things. I was listening for good harmonies, good melodies, but the essence of rock & roll is rhythmic.”
Soon Wadsworth found himself in great demand working across Europe with some of the top musicians of the day including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Diana Ross, and Rod Stewart. “Later on groups started experimenting not with just rhythms but with using orchestras too. String sections started to come into play, brass sections, woodwinds, chorus, the whole lot.” he recalled. “During that period I got experience in all sorts of music.”
Wadsworth became involved with film scoring in the late 60’s when Manfred Mann suggested him for some, work in commercials. Those early experiences were important in exposing him to the realities of time and budgeting but he still had some difficulty with the “mystery” of synchronization. “I did a film called SPRING AND PORT WINE. Alan Price had written the music and he hired me to orchestrate it. I worked very hard getting the timings right but on that day it didn’t quite fit. There was a troubled panic phone call because this was a big session for Denon and they had to call in a conductor who came in and conducted it to fit. He did some calculations that I didn’t quite understand and made the thing work so we got it done in the end. But eventually I did learn how to synchronize music, mostly to click tracks.”
The opportunity to score his first motion picture came while on tour with Alan Price in New York. Wadsworth had just arrived at his hotel when he was approached by Peter Sardonsky, an independent pro¬ducer in search of a composer for his first film entitled A CHILD IS A WILD YOUNG THING. After hearing them perform, Sardonsky met with Wadsworth at a Howard Johnson’s ice cream parlor and expressed an interest in having him compose the music for the film. Unable to begin scoring immediately, though, because of prior commitments, Wadsworth suggested that be bring the project to him later in London where it would be less of an expense to record.
Two years passed and then, the knock on the door. “It was a rainy evening in the typical Wadsworth household, the dogs barking, shouting and arguing with the wife, the kids screaming. The doorbell rings waking up the baby who had just gone to sleep. I opened it and there stood Peter with a suitcase and he said, ‘Hi Derek, I’m here!’” Sardonsky proceeded to move into the Wadsworth household while the music was being written for the picture. “We cleared the baby out of the spare bedroom and he actually came and lived with us for a couple of weeks and it was hell!”
Obviously, Wadsworth had really wanted to score that film. “It was the most God-awful film you’ve ever seen!” he said. “The whole film was about this boring little baby and it was crawling on the beach and there were close-ups of it. And for completely unknown reasons there were shots of an old pair completely naked, nothing to do with the story, and there was this vague, flimsy murder story about some¬body who gets pushed over a cliff. There was bad lighting, bad continuity, and all that but it was still exciting to me because it was my first film.”
“As we were watching it Peter was saying, ‘Right, at this point the violins come roaring in with the harp and I want the brass to hit there and then the woodwinds to take over and then the choir. Maybe at this point, what do you think about this Derek, maybe at this point Alan Price should sing.’ And I said just a minute Peter how much money have you got? I said you’re talking about orchestras, strings, brass, and he said he had about 2,000 pounds and I told him that for 2,000 pounds you wouldn’t get a minute of that kind of music.”
Wadsworth’s solution was to record the music for the film in one 3-hour session which, as per the musician’s union rule, would allow them 20 minutes of usable music. He also arranged for Maxine Nightingale, who subsequently had a #1 hit in the U.S., to sing a song for the picture. “She sang some of the stuff and we got through it. It was all scrappy and scratchy and things went wrong but we somehow got through it and he was happy. I never got any money from him and I don’t know if he ever got any distribution but he did send me back some reviews he’d gotten in the art press. He got a terrific write-up in the art world. He actually meant it to be a serious film for general distribution and somehow the artists in Greenwich Village saw it as piece of modern art!”
After completing A CHILD IS A WILD YOUNG THING, Wadsworth went on to score INTO INFINITY for producer Gerry Anderson. Anderson had previously hired synthesist Steven Cole to write the music but, disappointed with the results, asked for a new composer to be brought it. Wadsworth provided a score that was primarily orchestral but with rock and electronic elements combined into it. Anderson was so impressed with his work that he asked Wadsworth to score the second season of SPACE: 1999 for which he wanted a similar musical approach.
“Barry Gray had used the orchestral approach,” Wadsworth recalled, “and Gerry said to me that Barry sees space as a fairly grand orchestral thing and he really fancied trying something a bit different.”
Most composers will attest to the difficulties in scoring for television and Wadsworth was no exception. Union rules, for example, required that he use the house television orchestra which at that time was more traditional than he would have preferred. “They were swing,” he remarked, “when I was trying to do rock rhythms there was a bit of that swing feel happening and that was wrong.”
As with all series time proved to be a major factor. Wadsworth was called upon to compose music for the first six episodes that could also be used to track the rest of the season. “The first six episodes were coming off the production line once a fortnight and I got 5 days to write it and one week to record it.” He candidly pointed out that inexperience was also a factor in some of the difficulties that arose on scoring SPACE: 1999. “I wrote too much. I was trying too hard and I wrote some stuff that was difficult to play. And of course, when you’ve got to get it in, you’ve got three hours and you’ve got to get the music done or the budget’s gone. The musicians were struggling very hard to try and play and I shouldn’t have given them that hard a time.”
Derek Wadsworth Although given carte blanche to do basically whatever he wanted, Wadsworth admitted that SPACE: 1999 was not one of his great successes. With experience behind him, he would have approached the series differently, had it continued, gearing the music more toward library tracks. “For instance, if there was an oriental scene in a Chinese market then obviously you’ve got to do something of that flavor but for the general usage – runs, chases, stings, Eagle takes off, Eagle comes down – I would have just done a lot of sections of indeterminate length because in fact that’s what happens. In the end you’re reusing the music over again so I would have made them more all-purpose than what I did. So I might have done a little bit for ‘The Metamorph,’ in the mines say, which worked okay there but then you had to reuse the music somewhere else in another piece and it wasn’t quite as usable. So therefore my experience from that has taught me that first of all I would write simpler music.”
Wadsworth has always held a great respect for film music and was eager to continue his work as a composer, arranger, and musician. “Both film and music over here is a very respectable way of making a living,” Wadsworth said. “All the major orchestras survive by doing film scores. The London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, they all want to work and they bring their own particular good things to it.” “I’d like to do more films. I’ve often thought about going to the states and chancing it, but I love this country too much.”
Derek Wadsworth indeed worked often in films and television throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in many roles. He arranged and conducted music for THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987; music written by Alan Price), scored naturalist Miriam Rothchild’s 1995 documentary SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD, directed by Christopher Sykes, and scored Sykes’ 1997 documentary, DO VAMPIRE BATS HAVE FRIENDS? He also continued to act as an arranger and session performer for a number of pop stars in the British and American recording industry. Wadsworth died on December 8, 2008. While his work for SPACE: 1999 (and a 1975 Gerry Anderson TV special, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW) may be best remembered, in part due to the tremendous following that the show, and Gerry Anderson, continue to hold, his efforts in popular music and film and television music have left him well remembered, and missed.
Randall Larson, former editor/publisher, CinemaScore The Film Music Journal, Dec. 15, 2008.