An Interview with Harry Robinson by John Mansell © 1994
Composer Harry Robinson became known during the 1970s for his score to Hammer horror pictures. Films such as THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and the excellent TWINS OF EVIL became firm favourites with soundtrack collectors. I met Harry some years ago, and eventually got around to interviewing him during the summer of 1994. He was a gentle and courteous Scotsman, who was always prepared to answer questions and give you as much information as possible. The interview I did with Harry was on a Saturday afternoon which was a hot and very dusty day in London. We sat by his pool at his home and I remember him telling me he had managed to get out of going to a wedding reception by telling his wife he was being interviewed by a very important journalist. Which is something I did giggle about for some time. Harry was born in Elgin in Scotland on November 19th 1932; his real name was Henry MacLeod Robertson. Harry’s career was a varied one. He not only composed music for motion pictures, but acted as musical director on West End shows such as Lionel Bart’s FINGS AI’NT WOT THEY USED TO BE and MAGGIE MAY and took care of the musical duties on show such as OH BOY and SIX FIVE SPECIAL, Harry worked with some of the best known artistes from the 1960s including THE BEATLES, LIZA MINELLI and JUDY GARLAND.
I began by asking the composer how he became interested in writing music.
It was a film that got me interested in music, I went to see DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT as a kid. The film I don’t think I can remember but I did take notice of the music which was THE WARSAW CONCERTO by Richard Addinsell. The melody kept going around in my head; even after a few days I still kept hearing it. It virtually haunted me and I felt that I had to do something about it. I became determined that I would have piano lessons and learn how to play this music but I set myself a time limit of just 12 months. I don’t think I realised just how difficult that would be but I was young and I suppose a little bit naive. I pestered the life out of my Mother and finally she gave in and agreed to let me have piano lessons; I think because I was so enthusiastic I learnt very quickly and soon managed to play the Richard Addinsell piece. I even performed it in front of an audience and won a competition for my rendition of the music. I would have been contented with that but as time went on I began to discover other types of music and wanted to learn more. I pestered my Mother again, who found a music teacher who was English, but was living close to my home town of Elgin in the Highlands of Scotland. He was recovering from the illness tuberculosis and had been told that the air in Scotland would help his path back to fitness. He was actually a composer but had begun to teach to pay his way. I had instruction in composition, harmony and counterpoint from him. After finishing my lessons with him I became bored with music; probably one of the many phases that I went through and I decided that I would become an archaeologist. I went to University to study the subject but I then contracted TB myself and had to cease my studies; after all I could not go into damp places etc. with a weak chest, so my days in archaeology were cut short. I went back to music and I ended up teaching but this I found so tedious. I don’t think that I am one of these people that can relay to others my love of music via lessons so I decided to head south and ended up in London.
When Harry first arrived in London, it was a bit of a struggle as he was not known and needed to try and establish himself.
I must tell you and also any aspiring young musician out there that might read this in years to come, that the streets of London are not paved with gold, far from it London can be one of the loneliest cities in the world. After a while I eventually began to pick up jobs here and there, and started to work as an arranger in a recording studio in Denmark Street. After a chance meeting in a coffee bar, I ended up doing some work for DECCA and arranged and conducted the music on a record called THE TOMMY ROCK STORY, which was basically a send up of Tommy Steele, but it must have caught his attention because I ended up being his musical director for a while. It was whilst working at DECCA that I had to change my name. This was because the cheque that they paid me with was made out to HARRY ROBINSON and not Robertson. It would have been a nightmare to try and change it and the bank would have been difficult, so out of laziness I suppose I opened an account in the name of Robinson. And that’s how Harry Robinson came about, plus I was living almost from day to day then and I needed the cash to eat.
Was this around the time that you became interested in writing for films?
No, not really, I had not actually thought about doing that at this time; this was in the late 1950’s remember, so I did not start writing music for films till around the mid 1960’s. It was at this time that I had a number one record. I formed a group, well sort of formed a group, it was session musicians really, we called ourselves LORD ROCKINHAMS XI. The record was one of these novelty tunes called HOOTS MON, that was quite fun. But I never started writing for films until I became involved with the Children’s Film Foundation, this was firstly as a writer and then I started to actually direct the films. OK they were not blockbusters or Hollywood material but these movies gave young talented actors their first break into the world of film.
When did you first become involved with Hammer films?
This was in 1968, but not for a film, I was asked to write the theme tune for a television series called JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN. Hammer were the line producers for this; it was a 20th Century fox production overall. Phil Martell, who was Hammer’s musical director at that time was going to be conducting the music. I had heard that he could be somewhat difficult, or at least I had heard he liked to get his own way, so as you can imagine I was a little apprehensive about even walking into the studio. But after our initial frosty meeting, we went for some liquid lunch and things settled down. I ended up writing the theme for the series and also scored four of the episodes. It was about a year later when I had a call from Martell, asking me if I would be interested in doing a film for him. Of course I said yes and the movie turned out to be THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. I must admit I was worried when I first started work on the movie, after all Hammer had a reputation for using classically trained composers, such as James Bernard, Benjamin Frankel, Malcolm Williamson and their like. I was basically a pop music arranger, so it was all very new to me, I felt like the odd man out. I had however had some indication of what it was like scoring films because of my connections with the Children’s Film Foundation and also I had in that same year scored another horror picture for American International Pictures entitled THE OBLONG BOX, which was produced by James Nicholson. I think this is why I got THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, because A.I.P. were co-producing the picture with Hammer. So maybe someone at A.I.P. had asked Hammer if I could do it. This helped me also as I had a fair idea of what A.I.P. expected from composers and was not going in completely blind – anyway Phil was there to guide me. Both Hammer and A.I.P. were tuned into what they wanted musically and also were very supportive of composers. I did think that maybe there would have been some sort of conflict between the two but they left me to my own devices I composed the score in a style that I thought suited the film and apart from a few timing tweaks by Phil Martell, the music you hear on the soundtrack is what I wanted to do. I had always been a big fan of American International’s Edgar Allan Poe stories, and of course Hammer’s gothic horrors had always impressed me, so it was a privilege and something of a dream come true to be working for both the companies at the same time.
Harry worked on a spoof horror during the 1970s called HOUSE IN NIGHTMARE PARK; he had some strange memories of this assignment.
HOUSE IN NIGHTMARE PARK – that still sends a shiver up my spine (laughs). It was a comedy horror with Frankie Howard and Ray Milland if I remember correctly, strange little film, the producers asked for a meeting because they wanted to hear what music I had written but the budget was quite small and they would not let me have any musicians until they were satisfied with the music so I had to play the entire score to them on piano. Now I am not the best piano player in the world, and I was a little nervous, so I kept stumbling over the keys and making mistakes; I think they thought this was all part of the score, anyway they liked it, and approved the use of musicians.
Your next Hammer assignment was LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.
You know, I did not like that movie, I thought it was a very weak picture. There was no real story, just a load of tits and bums wobbling around; some of the acting was less than professional – it relied on the uncovering of flesh rather than the unfolding of a storyline. 1971 was a very busy year for me with Hammer. I scored three pictures for them; LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, TWINS OF EVIL and COUNTESS DRACULA and it felt like I was constantly in the studio. It’s funny, all the vampire movies I scored for Hammer have in recent years attained something of a cult status, probably for all the wrong reasons, but they are popular.
COUNTESS DRACULA was not really a vampire movie was it?
Not as such, apart from the title. It was based on some factual material and I think the movie worked well but it was not that popular at the box office. I think audiences felt cheated that it was not a vampire movie in the time honoured Hammer tradition.
TWINS OF EVIL is a bit of a swashbuckler; loads of action plenty of bare flesh and your score which sounds like a western soundtrack. What made you decide to score the picture like this?
LAUGHS… You know, I had always wanted to score a western and had never been asked, so when I saw the first rushes of TWINS OF EVIL I thought, well there’s horses in it and people dashing around the countryside so why not. I will do a western theme of sorts to match this. Surprisingly it worked and everyone loved it.
I spoke to Harry about a recent Silva Screen release MUSIC FROM HAMMER FILMS. This was a re-recording of some of the Hammer music, but Harry was not represented at all on this recording. Had he been approached by Silva at all?
No I only heard about this after it happened. I remember that some of my VAMPIRE LOVERS music made it onto an EMI LP some years ago. It was a Studio 2 record with a Dracula story on the A side and I think four suites of music on the B side. They were arranged and conducted by Phil Martell; I had nothing to do with them. I would like to see the original Hammer music released; and now with the popularity of the compact disc there are so many possibilities. Technology has moved on so much it might even be possible to release some of Hammer’s real vintage scores (remember this interview took place before GDI records came on to the scene JM). I have often thought that I could arrange some of the music I wrote for the vampire movies, TWINS, LOVERS and LUST into a suite and have it recorded or maybe performed at a concert. We could call it music to watch Tits and Bums by, or something like that (laughs). But seriously, I would like to do something so that my music will be heard away from the movies.
Have you heard the Silva Screen re-recording?
Yes, as I said it was a bit of a surprise, but I did get the CD. I thought it was OK; pretty faithful on the James Bernard music but I thought VAMPIRE CIRCUS was a little slow and drawn out to be honest, which is surprising because Phil Martell was present at the recordings so I am told. I thought Phil would have said something – maybe he has mellowed in his old age.
What would you say was your favourite score for a Hammer film?
It’s always difficult when you get asked a question like this. I always feel if I say “Oh, loved that score” I might sound a bit full of myself; do you know what I mean? Well, you will probably be surprised at my answer, I think I prefer DEMONS OF THE MIND to any of the others. I also thought the film was very good. It was a horror I suppose but a film that made you think a little. It was to be called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD but the censors decided that you could not have blood in the title twice – why I am not sure? The film called for a score that obviously matched its storyline, but I also got a chance to be melodic on this picture which was a nice change from all the atonal and loud non musical stuff. I used traditional instrumentation and enhanced this with a moog synthesiser. I also liked my score for COUNTESS DRACULA a lot. I tried to infuse some sort of credibility into the sound of the score – I used cimbalom and romantic sounding strings for the main title, which seemed to work well.
You worked on DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. What happened on this assignment?
I am so glad that you asked me that (laughs). Yes, well, lets just say that I had artistic differences with the director and the producers. I did not like the movie – I thought it was a rather shoddy production, so I asked Phil Martell to get me off of it. I have one saying in life and that is IF YOU ARE NOT HAVING FUN THEN GET THE HELL OUT and I was certainly having no fun on that particular film. Phil was great about it and suggested another composer for the picture; David Whitaker I think.
That’s right. It was his first Hammer film I think; so I suppose he has you to thank for becoming involved with Hammer.
Don’t know whether he would say thank you for that or not.
Have you got any particularly fond memories of a movie at all?
Well, there was the time when I nearly caused a strike at Hammer. I was on the set of TWINS OF EVIL where I had to play piano off set for a scene and during a break in the filming I was talking to one of the movie producers. I picked up a chair and sat in it discussing some things with him and when filming resumed I forgot to put the chair back where I had got it from. You would not believe how much trouble this caused. The crew were up in arms, the set director went mad – in fact the whole thing came to a standstill. I said sorry very quietly and departed.
So did that put you off going on location at all? I ask this because some time ago there was a programme on TV called CINEMA and they ran a feature on HAWK THE SLAYER, which you produced I think – it showed footage of you in a very wet forest.
My God. You have got a good memory John, that was an age ago, That’s right I did co-produce HAWK and of course wrote the score. It was unfortunately not a great success. It was at the same time as things like KRULL and DRAGONSLAYER were around – both of those flopped as well. HAWK did reasonably well at the cinema because it was a quite low budget film, so we did not have a lot riding on it. I wrote some of the score whilst on location. I would see how the scenes were coming out and then do a bit of writing or just jot down some ideas as and when I got them. It was an interesting experience because I had most of the score ready before the cameras had stopped rolling.
Something like Morricone does with Leone you mean?
Well, I would not say I am in the same league as Morricone but yes I suppose so. We did try and emulate Kurosawa on HAWK THE SLAYER with camera angles and the style of direction etc. but I think we sort of leaned more towards Leone in that respect – HAWK was a fantasy western if you like. That’s why the score has little trills and motifs on it when we see the hero or the villain of the piece; it was my homage to Morricone and also the spaghetti western score.
Harry Robertson in his living room (Courtesy of John Mansell)
There was a rumour that HAWK THE SLAYER would have a sequel – was this true?
Yes. I did want to do a sequel, but the film studios were very cautious after the bad ratings of the first picture. After all if a big movie like KRULL had bombed what chance did we stand with a film with a fraction of the budget. I did not give up though, I tried to get television companies interested in doing a series based on HAWK; we even went to New Zealand to do some location scouting but it never came to fruition.
Have you ever turned down an assignment or had a score rejected?
I have been very fortunate not to have anything thrown out. I of course refused to work on DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE but other than that, everything has gone according to plan.
You worked with Freddie Francis on THE LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF – what was he like to work with?
Freddie was great, quite a character in fact He knew very little about music, so just let me go my own way on the picture. I can tell you something about directors; not many of them know anything about music but very few of them will admit this, so when you come across someone like Freddie it’s a breath of fresh air.
Did you ever meet up with any of the other composers that worked on Hammer pictures?
Can’t say I did. There was the occasional Christmas party but, as I said, I felt like the odd man out in the company of many of them; after all they were real composers and I was a pop arranger that just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
How long did you normally get to score a movie; maybe you could use VAMPIRE LOVERS as an example?
I think I got about four weeks to score that movie; obviously it does vary from assignment to assignment. COUNTESS DRACULA I had six weeks on, and TWINS OF EVIL was about the same. It also depends on the editing on the film; you know, you write a cue and it sounds good and fits perfectly, and then the editor rings up and says I have had to cut out 50 seconds from that scene and all the timings go out of the window and you have to start again. It’s a nightmare sometimes.
So at what stage of a project do you like to become involved?
As early as I can get involved really. I do like to see a script if possible but the next best thing is to go and see what is happening on set and get a feel for the movie or TV programme. Invariably though, the composer is the last thing that the director will even think of, so we have to come in when the film is in it’s rough cut stage; spot the movie with the director or producer and then go away and have the score ready by the day before we got the job (laughs); well it’s not that bad but nearly.
As a writer and also a producer have you ever hired other composers to score your projects?
No, but obviously I have worked on certain projects and other composers have scored them, as a producer/composer. I am very conscious of both the production side of things and also the music. I think that is why I have scored most of my own productions. I don’t think I would leave the composer alone and probably would end up doing it myself or changing things around.
What is VIRTUAL MURDER?
That’s a TV series which I co produced and also wrote the theme for. It was shown on the BBC and we are talking about another series of six episodes. It’s a bit like DR WHO meets THE AVENGERS.
What size orchestra did you use to score the Hammer movies?
Sadly, by the time I got to Hammer the music budgets had been reduced so we had to be a little bit clever. I think we utilised around 60 musicians/players but this was not all at once; many sessions would just have 15 to 20 players, so we are not talking about a huge symphony orchestra. I would try and make the music sound fat, or bigger than it was by using strings and brass – I hate what I call spidery sounding music. So I adapted things to suit each individual film or scene. It was quite easy to make a score sound grand even if we were only using a maximum of 30 musicians. On LUST FOR A VAMPIRE I think I started out with 50 players and then reduced them down as we progressed in the scoring schedule. Horror movies in particular need a powerful and atmospheric score; it’s often the music in a horror movie that scares the pants off the audience rather than the gruesome scene on screen.
How do you work your musical ideas out – do you write them straight to manuscript, use a piano or maybe a synth?
Recently, because of my arthritis, I have taken to using a computer. It works rather like a word processor but with music. That way I can store what I have done – but I did use piano at one time. Also I was a very quick writer, so as you can imagine because of my illness, it is very frustrating when I can’t get the notes down as quickly as I want to. That is why I have not been doing anything musical I am just not able to write quick enough.
So what is next for Harry Robinson?
Good question – I am still writing scripts and stories; this is easy with the word processor but I think my days of writing film scores are over. This illness is horrible; I have good days, bad days and just bloody awful days. Today has been a good day, and I have enjoyed our chat.
So have I. Thank you very much for your time.
Harry Robinson/Robertson passed away on January 17th 1996 in Wandsworth, London