Biographical Essay by John Mansell © 1995/2008
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.14/No.56, 1995
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and John Mansell
Born in London in 1927, Laurie Johnson received his musical education and training at the Royal College of Music. At the age of 18 he had a number of orchestral works published, which also had been broadcast on the radio. At the same time he was composing and arranging for the Ted Heath Band. Later he went on to work on compositions and arrangements for most of the major bands of the fifties. These included Jack Parnell, Ambrose, Geraldo and Mantovani. At the age of 21 Johnson was recording for EMI with his own orchestra. In the mid-fifties he began to compose music for films, and in 1955 he did his first film score, THE GOOD COMPANIONS.
During the past 40 years Laurie Johnson has written for over 400 films and television productions. They include films such as FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, DR. STRANGELOVE, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER, THE BELSTONE FOX and TIGER BAY. For the small screen the composer has written the scores and themes for such popular series as THE AVENGERS and THE PROFESSIONALS, as well as familiar themes to programmes such as THIS IS OUR LIFE and WHICKER’S WORLD. More recently, Laurie Johnson has composed the scores for films based on the romantic novels of Barbara Cartland. These were produced by Gainsborough Pictures, a production company that the composer is a partner in.
Mr. Johnson has also worked in the theatre, and composed for the concert hall. Among his concert pieces: The Wind in the Willows, a symphony called ‘Synthesis’ which is a masterful blend of jazz and symphonic styles, and a suite to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain entitled ‘To the Few’. He has also composed music for Royal occasions. In the theatre, Laurie Johnson has composed THE FOUR MUSKETEERS with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and the award-winning musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS which contained lyrics by Lionel Bart. Since 1974, he has controlled and jointly owned film companies, thus becoming more than a composer. He is a producer and is actively involved with all aspects of the film making process. One of the recent projects to be realized by his company is a musical based on the life of Charles Dickens. “BOZ, as it is called, is a musical version of the life of Charles Dickens. It has eighteen songs, the final music tracks of which have already been recorded. I composed the score; the lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer and Benny Green. Benny co-wrote the screenplay with me. Although BOZ was principally conceived for the cinema, we are at the moment writing the book for the theatrical version”.
The name of Laurie Johnson is linked with the television series THE AVENGERS, a popular television show during the 1960’s. Its success continued on into the 1970’s, when THE NEW AVENGERS took over. “My involvement with the series began when the production of the programmes was taken over by Julian Wintle. He was a producer whom I had worked with on some features. He persuaded me to join him in 1965. This was when THE AVENGERS were filmed for the first time; prior to this, the programmes were live shows that had been video-taped. Albert Fennell – who was later to become one of my partners in production companies – produced the films. It was greatly due to his influence and expertise that THE AVENGERS became the high quality production it was, and one that has enjoyed a long and lasting success.”
Had he always wanted to write music for the movies and television, or was this something that happened as his career unfolded? “Although I have composed a great deal for the cinema and also for television, it was always my aim to balance this work with recording concert music and stage musicals. I have for the past twenty years or so dealt with the administration of the film production companies that I am a partner in.”
During the sixties and seventies, long-running series on TV would sometimes have a library of sorts of music that could be used for certain scenes. Were cues ‘stockpiled’ for THE AVENGERS? “Each of the AVENGERS films were treated as individual projects, they were scored in a similar way to feature films. In time, obviously, we accumulated a certain amount of re-usable music, but in the main the vast majority of the 85 episodes were scored specifically.”
So the time schedules on THE AVENGERS must have been pretty tight? “The amount of time that I had to score each episode varied greatly. We started with a very civilised schedule, but when the series took off on the ABC network in America, the demand to meet their transmission schedules, which were ahead of the UK and other countries, necessitated shooting two episodes back to back. The work load for the principal actors, Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee, could be accommodated by the use of featured performers but it accelerated the fine cutting of each episode. At one time I would view a fine cut on Monday morning and record it the following Monday. Sometimes the scores contained up to 35 minutes of music.”
On certain episodes of THE AVENGERS I noticed that Howard Blake received a credit as composer of the score… “Howard Blake had been one of my keyboard players, and when I was simultaneously completing a feature film, Howard contributed some cues to eight of THE AVENGERS films.”
The music on THE AVENGERS seemed big in sound, what was the size of the orchestra used? “The instrumentation of the orchestras varied greatly, depending upon the requirements of each individual episode, and as far as I can recollect ranged from 12 musicians up to 27.”
Composer and producer Laurie Johnson on location filming A GHOST IN MONTE CARLO made by Gainsborough Pictures, one of his jointly owned companies. Seen here with Oliver Reed, one of the film’s stars. CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER was a film that was scored by Johnson, the only Hammer production that he worked on, and his music was very distinctive. The score contained some outstanding themes, but the film did not do that well, it was a little different from what audiences had come to expect from the house of horror. Nowadays the film is looked upon as a refreshing and original approach to the legend of the undead. How did Laurie Johnson get the assignment, how much time did he have to score it and what was the working relationship like with Hammer’s musical director, Philip Martell? “I became involved on this picture because it had been written and directed by Brian Clemens, who had also been the main script writer on THE AVENGERS, and at around the time of KRONOS he had become a partner with myself and cannot recollect the amount of time that I had to score the picture, but I always specified a minimum of one month. The orchestra on this score consisted of a large string section, horns, and solo trumpet. Philip Martell was musical director for Hammer so it was he who conducted KRONOS. I found him to be a very able and affable person, and I had in fact employed him myself on a number of occasions as associate conductor. This is an arrangement that I find very helpful, as it enables me to either conduct or supervise from the control room, as I feel necessary. Over the years this arrangement suited my long-term friend and business partner Bernard Herrmann and myself on both our film and recording sessions.”
Over the past 40 years Laurie Johnson has been involved with many projects, had he ever turned down a film or a television movie? “I have turned down projects for both cinema and TV over the years. This was normally because the subject matter did not appeal to me, or that I had no respect for the filmmakers, but since the early seventies I have restricted myself to composing scores for television and cinema that are produced by my own companies, and have no plans to revise this decision.” THE BELSTONE FOX is a score that contains some typically English-sounding music. Johnson’s music played a very important part in the film, especially during the hunt scene. “I got the job on THE BELSTONE FOX because of Julian Wintle. As I have said, I worked with Julian on a number of features as well as THE AVENGERS; he was the producer of TIGER BAY which was one of my earlier works.”
The movies as produced by Gainsborough Pictures, which are based on the novels of Barbara Cartland, contain some really lavish sounding-scores by Johnson. THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN has particularly grand-sounding music, and seemed to contain a lot of extra brass. “I used a conventional symphony orchestra for THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN, but on certain sequences the brass section contained nine trumpets.”
There are many ways in which a composer can approach a film. I asked Mr. Johnson if he had a set pattern that he followed when scoring a project. Had he ever spotted a film that had a temp track installed by the director or producer? Did he find this helpful or distracting? “I can’t recollect ever having seen a rough cut of a film that had a temp track on it. I think that this is a silly practice which only reflects the inexperience and lack of confidence of the film’s director or producer. When I compose the score for a film I like to start at the beginning and work my way through to the end titles. Bernard Herrmann also approached scores in the same way, for the practical reason that each scene or sequence is a musical development of the character of the film’s story, each building upon the other.”
I asked Laurie Johnson if he felt that he was well represented on compact disc and on LP? “I record as much of my film music as I feel I would like to, or think that there is interest in away from the films, my other commitments permitting of course. I am however always surprised by hearing of legitimate or bootleg releases of my music, and it would seem that companies all over the world take a chance on releasing a composer’s work in the hope that the copyright owner does not become aware of it.”
As Laurie Johnson is now so involved with everything to do with the making of movies, via his production companies, I asked him if he found it easier to compose a score for one of his films as opposed to one made by somebody else? “Any composer worth his salt will give of his best, irrespective of whose production it is. I think this applies not just to composers but to writers, directors, in fact to everybody that is involved in the production of films.”
In 1994 Laurie Johnson formed the London Big Band to give Capitol a world class orchestra consisting of 25 of the very best British jazz musicians. He has the intention of establishing a programme of concerts and recordings with international star guests.
Laurie Johnson is married and has one daughter.