An interview with Ron Goodwin by Christopher Ritchie
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol. 8/ No. 30, 1989
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven
During a brief visit to Scotland to conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a concert of film and popular music, Ron Goodwin very kindly gave me an hour and a half of his time to discuss his career writing music for 60 films since 1958. The conversation took place at the Royal George Hotel, Perth.
Did you grow up in a musical environment?
My mother thought I ought to have piano lessons at the age of five. I wasn’t really very interested in it. The only musical impression I’ve got of that age was going up on Plymouth Hove on a Sunday night. There would usually be a military band playing and I would love listening to that. I think I used to love watching it, because I’ve always thought that musical instruments are beautiful things not only to listen to, but to look at as well. And I’d love to have a room at home with every kind of ancient and modern instrument. They’re such wonderful pieces of craftsmanship.
I first got interested in music when I took up the trumpet at the age of eleven. When I went to my new school I was fascinated by the school orchestra, the idea of people all playing their own individual instruments and producing this wonderful sound really seemed terrific to me. The school orchestra was short of trumpet players and I think that was the point I became really interested in music and thought that was what I might like to do for the rest of my life.
For the school certificate elementary two and three part writing and the rudiments of music got me interested in actually writing music. I’ve always been fascinated with putting the notes on manuscript paper. I wish it was easier to think of the music for I enjoy writing it down. I personally would feel very sorry if they ever manage to computerise that. I think there’s a certain craftsmanship in actually writing the music.
If you look at different scores by different composers, some are well written and easy to read and others are practically undecipherable. I enjoy laying out the score nicely as well as writing the music.
When did you write your first piece of music?
I wrote a song when I was about 6 years old, which my mother insisted on me singing everywhere we went. The first piece of music I actually wrote down would have been an arrangement for small dance band; while at school we had formed a dance band as an offshoot of the school orchestra and I started doing little arrangements for them. Then I formed The Woodchoppers and I carried on doing that sort of thing.
After a short spell with an insurance broker, about three months, I was fired. I then went to work for a music publisher as a copyist. You copy the individual parts for the scores that the arrangers have done, which was good experience because it gave me a chance to study the scores of experienced arrangers such as Harry Stafford. It’s interesting that the very first sound film that Alfred Hitchcock made in England, the music was written by Hubert Bath (BLACKMAIL) and orchestrated by Harry Stafford; the last film Hitchcock made in England was FRENZY for which I wrote the music; so it came full circle really. He got me interested in writing and orchestrating the music and after I’d been with them a year or so, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper, ‘Young Arranger Wanted’ so I applied and got the job and that was with Harry Gold and Norrie Paramor who were running an orchestral service providing orchestras for different broadcasting organisations, mainly for the BBC Overseas Broadcasting Service; particularly a weekly show called ‘Composer Cavalcade’. Each I week a composer of light music – Ivor Novello, Noel Coward – would be featured, all a process of learning orchestration by trial and error.
Did you study composition?
Well, I never really studied composition. I took a few lessons in conducting with Siegfried de Chabot and to a lesser extent composition, but no further than it was necessary for the conducting side. I never studied orchestration in a conventional sense. In the end, even if you have an academic training, it still depends very much on experience. The training gives you a lot of short cuts. I did a lot of things the hard way. I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble learning things by the accepted and shorter way rather than finding them out myself.
Were you influenced by other styles of writing?
I used to study scores on my own. Ravel was probably my favorite composer at this stage in my life, the greatest orchestrator of them all, Stravinsky – all the striking effects he had in his music. I admired the ingenuity of Bartok but never found him particularly gripping to listen to.
After leaving Harry Gold and Norrie Paramor, I got a job with another music publisher as a full fledged staff arranger. During that time I was doing orchestrations for different singers for broadcasting and then one of the chaps who worked for this publisher set up his own record company and made some records with Petula Clark, and Jimmy Young and asked me to do the orchestrations and conduct. Then I went to work for another publisher and they had a professional manager there who was also a singer – Lee Sheridan. He had talked Parlophone into making some records. He asked for me to do the orchestrations and that was how I met George Martin, who was assistant recording manager at Parlophone Records in those days. George gave me a contract to do so many accompanying sessions a year with different singers and artists. This was probably around 1950-51. He also included in the contract that I would make six singles with what we called Ron Goodwin and his Concert Orchestra – session players, musicians booked for vocal backing sessions; I had an orchestral manager at the time called Harry Benson and he would book the musicians, some of whom I would particularly ask for. I always tried to use the same musicians. However, quite a lot of then have died and gone on to that great orchestra in the sky.
How did the move into films come about?
I’d always loved film music. I used to go to the cinema really to listen to the music. I always remember THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY when the picture suddenly went into color during the final degraded version of the picture in the attic, and the effect the music had on that. They were the sort of things I would hear and wish I could do; to use music in that way.
The father of George Martin’s secretary, Ken Lockhart-Smith was chairman of Film Producers Guild – they only made advertising in those days, pre-television jingles, and documentaries. I got a call from him to do the music for a documentary about oil refineries, around 1957. I did several documentaries for them, all marvellous experience; from the purely practical point of view of finding out how to make music to fit the picture. While I’d done a few of those, I was still doing the records and conducting shows for BBC radio and in those shows we had quite a large orchestra; we use to accompany singers and comedians; the show always ended with a sketch. In this sketch there used to be young stars and starlets from the Rank Organisation. The chap who used to bring then and look after them was a publicity man called Harold Shampan who worked for the Rank Organisation. He liked the arrangements I did for the show and bits of incidental music for the play at the end. He had talked to an American, Larry Bachmann, who had written a screenplay for his own bock for a film that Rank were going to do called WHIRLPOOL. I went to see him in London where he was minding the office for Columbia Pictures; he was their man in London. We talked and he said go ahead and do the score. I did and he liked it.
How did you feel getting your first film assignment?
The first session was hell but the afternoon one went a lot better. It probably took about 6 weeks to write and record the music. This was usually the average at this time.
You wrote quite a lot of scores for M-G-M films. Were you ever under contract to them?
Well, that was because of Larry Bachmann. A year after WHIRLPOOL he became head of production for M-G-M in Europe, and I was then called in by him to do five or six pictures a year. I was then established as a film music writer. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met Larry Bachmann.
One of the early films you worked on was THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE. Was this an interesting picture to work on?
Yes, it was a panic. Irving Allen produced it and he and Cubby Broccoli had a company called Warwick Films. Irving used to upset everyone and Cubby would come in and smooth the waters over for him. It was a good partnership in that kind of respect. The first film I did for them was a picture starring Anthony Newley called IN THE NICK; Lionel Bart had written the theme song and I did the background score. Having done this, Warwick Films got involved in a race with another company who were making OSCAR WILDE with Robert Morley.
This was the only time on a feature film I’ve written most of the music before I saw the film, because they hadn’t finished it and hadn’t edited it, and we did the music in a sort of compendium form. The editor would say, I think that sequence is going to be 3+ minutes but it might go on to 3 and on the other hand it might only be 3, so can you get me a couple of optional endings that I can cut to.
What about the work of music editors in the film scoring process?
A good music editor is a wonderful help in the process. The first thing a music editor does is to measure all the music cues for the composer, and that can make or break the music; I have had the unfortunate experience of having a bad music editor (an assistant editor they gave the job to), and if the measurements are just a few frames out it means if you’ve written the music to those measurements, when you come to record it, it doesn’t fit. On TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE there’s not a lot of closely synchronised music, it’s really just general atmosphere so that they
would use it in the scenes no matter how long they turned out to be.
About this time you worked on I’M ALL RIGHT JACK.
I didn’t compose music for that. A close friend of mine, Ken Hare, who used to be a librarian and copyist of mine, had written some music for the Peter Sellers album that we’d done with George Martin, and John Boulting particularly liked one of the songs. So the Boultings asked for Ken, who asked me to conduct and do the orchestration.
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED – was this a challenging assignment?
This was one of the quiet, low-budget films that M-G-M was making at that time. I’d liked to have done more of those things. I did another one for another company called DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, which was a complete disaster. I wrote and recorded the music and at this time Kieron Moore and Janette Scott were not even in the film! The music was recorded, dubbed, sent to the USA where they decided the picture needed a sub-plot. They felt the movie was not interesting enough, so they wrote a subplot about a lighthouse-keeper and his wife – shot after we’d completed all the recording. They then needed more music. I was doing something else at the time and couldn’t do it, so they got Johnny Douglas in to write the music for the sub-plot.
What do you remember about the Miss Marple films?
Well, they had the same main theme in all four. It was a sort of old-fashioned theme with an up-beat rhythm – harpsichord, strings, three flutes, couple of horns and rhythm section.
In 1962 you wrote the music for LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE for Cornel Wilde, one of the few actor-directors you worked with.
He was quite an interesting character. When I came on the scene, the producer of the film and Cornel Wilde, the director and star, were not speaking to each other. Cornel Wilde would have me in a room and he had a parrot that used to climb up and down the curtains, which made it very difficult to concentrate and keep your attention on him. Cornel would say that he wanted very romantic type music and the producer would then take me aside and say that he wanted an olde-English sound. The main title ended up having two themes. I seem to remember writing quite a lot of music for the film, particularly for the battle scenes, but in those days only films thought to be • blockbusters had an LP issued of the music.
Were you ever worried about being typecast as a comedy composer in the early 1960s, for you wrote the music for a lot of comedies at, that time?
No, I didn’t mind that really. I quite enjoyed them. Comedies are hard work of course, because they’re all fast and furious and there’s a lot of synchronisation in comedy films – more so probably than any other kind of film.
In 1964 you were given OF HUMAN BONDAGE to score. Were you aware of following in the footsteps of Steiner and Korngold?
No, I had never listened to their scores. I don’t think that’s a good idea anyway and that film was on its third director, when I was called in. Ken Hughes finished it and I had worked with him before on IN THE NICK and TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE. He was a nice guy to work with. He would tell you the effect he wanted from your music. He didn’t think he was a composer. A lot of directors seem to think they know a lot about music. On one particular film, I played the main theme on piano, sent off the tape to the producer, he liked the piece but felt it wasn’t quite right. Well, I felt it was right, orchestrated and recorded it, and he was delighted when he heard it, thought it was much better than the one I’d sent him! Unless you’ve the musical imagination to picture the theme orchestrally, it’s really a waste of time doing demo tapes. Nowadays with a synthesizer you can give a much better impression of the finished piece and how it will sound. However by the time you’ve done this, you’d have been as well to write the entire score, when you consider how much tine would have been taken up making the tape using a synthesizer.
Did you get any offers to go to Hollywood at this time?
I’ve never had an offer to go to Hollywood. I guess I’d have gone if I’d had the chance.
One of your best-known scores was the one for 633 SQUADRON, but I believe you had a problem or two with it…
Some films come easily and some don’t. The rough cut of any film is pretty rough, but it does give you an overall impression of the film. 633 SQUADRON wasn’t a very good picture. Eventually, in sheer desperation, I took the title as the basis for the music. I’d been writing things and throwing them away for a couple of weeks without getting the main theme and then I thought 633, what about a rhythm of six beats, three beats, so I did that and that really started the whole thing. Once I had decided that that gave the right sort of effect, the actual piece of the composition cane easily.
Some composers try to work with the sound effects when fitting their music onto the soundtrack.
I always work that way. I like to get together with the dubbing editor and find out where his big effects are coming, because there’s no point in us both doing the same thing. If he’s going to have a big explosion in a scene, it’s better for the music to build up to that and then leave room for his explosion and then come in on the reaction to the explosion.
One of the things that makes me cringe on WHERE EAGLES DARE is the “Race to the Airfield” sequence. Originally I decided it didn’t need music, so I didn’t write or record any; then one of the moguls in America said that we needed music over that whole scene. They couldn’t afford to hire the orchestra again, so they had to ‘score’ it from what I had recorded. If you listen to that chase sequence, it’s really the main theme played ad nauseam, going round and round in a sort of loop. It destroyed the structure of the score.
OPERATION CROSSBOW was a prestigious assignment to get and yet it’s been rather overshadowed by your other ‘war’ scores.
That was all done in a bit of a panic, as I remember. For some reason there wasn’t much time to do the score.
In 1965 you wrote a lot of music for what is probably your best-known score for THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, which included different themes for the many characters.
Yes, there were a lot of quick changes of scene and character. You might go from the plane with the German in it, lasting just a few seconds, and then a sudden cut to a Frenchman.
In MONTE CARLO OR BUST, you seem to have written even more themes.
It’s a pity about that movie. It was meant to be a ‘roadshow’ movie with an interval; Ken Annakin had shot it that way but whoever was in charge at Paramount said, “We’re going to cut this down to an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters,” and they put it out as part of a double feature. It was a shame because a lot of good stuff in that movie wound up on the cutting floor. It could have been as good as MAGNIFICENT MEN.
The BBC have taken up your theme from THE TRAP as their music for coverage of the London Marathon. Did they ask your permission to use it?
No, they didn’t have to. They have to ask the publisher who owns the copyright.
Should the composer not own the copyright?
Well, yes, that’s always been a bone of contention. The average film contract says that the music shall go to a publisher nominated by the film company, which means you assign the copyright to that music publishing company; provided it’s a company recognised by the Performing Right Society; there’s not much you can do about it.
I live in the TVS [Television South] area and a commercial came on the other night for a machine delivery service; somebody had taken the record of 633 SQUADRON and had chopped off the front and the end and had joined it together with no musical sense at all. I immediately rang the publisher and asked them if they’d given permission to do this; they’re supposed to be checking it out now.
You really have no choice but to give the publisher your music. Over the years conglomerates have taken over these music companies. Most of the music that I’ve written for films is now controlled by one company. The trouble is nobody publishes music anymore. All they do is they have the titles in their repertoire and they don’t provide music for people to play, they don’t do anything.
Who has to provide the music?
Well, I’m always getting youth orchestras or brass bands ringing me up saying they can’t get the score and parts from the publisher for, say, 633 SQUADRON. I usually put them onto my librarian and he photocopies a set for them. That is what the publisher is supposed to be doing.
Do the publishers have a copy?
I doubt it very much. We had the same problem trying to do Malcolm Arnold’s music for a concert. We couldn’t get the music from the publishers. They’re collecting 50% of the royalties every time the music is performed and not doing anything for it. I think it’s really quite scandalous.
Does your librarian hold most of your film scores?
Some of them we haven’t got, and I’m quite sorry about that. The film companies always had the right to the original score in the past. It wasn’t so easy to get photocopies in those days. It was quite a performance to find somebody who could photocopy anything, and even then it wasn’t very good.
Could the composers not have formed a guild for the protection of their music?
People kept trying to do things like that. In America I think the situation is even worse. When the Philharmonia did Rozsa’s 80th Birthday Tribute, they had terrible problems finding the music; finding somebody who had it, so that they could play the music. All ‘publishers’ are nowadays purely collecting societies for royalties. They’ve now got huge catalogues, because there’s probably no more than three publishers controlling all of these film scores now.
You really need a Film Music Archive to gather together film scores before most of them vanish for ever…
Even then, that would be difficult, because you’d find that the owners of the copyright might not agree to let the music go, or might not be able to find it. It’s a tragedy that they’re really working on the basis of, “Well, if it gets played, we’d collect the money, if it doesn’t we won’t do anything about it”.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN. At what point of the production did you come in?
Ben Fisz rang me up and said that he was in trouble regarding the music for BATTLE OF BRITAIN. William Walton had written a score for the film which the Americans were dissatisfied with, and it was too short as he had only written 20 minutes of music for the whole film. They couldn’t get an LP out of it and they didn’t like the music anyway.
Ben Fisz said that he needed the score in three weeks because they were premiering it on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. My lawyer made it clear to Ben Fisz that he didn’t want me to be engaged in a public competition with Sir William Walton, because it would be bound to reflect badly. Ben Fisz agreed that if I wrote the score, none of Walton’s music would be included in the film. So I went ahead and it was a bit of a panic to get the score completed in time.
I believe you did a bit of research into German military music of the period.
When I first went to see Ben Fisz, the producer, he said he wanted a clearly identifiable German theme, as there had been some confusion as to which planes you were watching in the air battles. I found a lot of German military music to help get a fairly authentic feel. I didn’t have a lot of time to do that, of course. A week before the recording sessions, Harry Saltzman rang me and wanted me to come and see him. Apparently he had had a call from Laurence Olivier, who was very upset at Walton’s music not being used in the film; if they didn’t use at least part of the score, he wanted his name taken off the film. After further discussions between Saltzman and my lawyer, they agreed to stick to the original verbal agreement. I went ahead and recorded the whole score, including the “Battle in the Air” sequence. At the press showing on the morning of the premiere, to our amazement, we found that the Walton music was in for that sequence. The film company’s explanation was, “Well, we listened to Ron’s music for “Battle in the Air” and we listened to Walton’s music for that same sequence, and we decided that the Walton music is much better for the scene.” What could we say?
When I got a chance to hear the Walton score that had been recorded, it was vintage Walton. It was precisely what I would have expected from him. It really made the film company look like idiots. The worst thing was that no-one contacted Sir William Walton to tell him what was happening, and the first he heard of it was when a newspaper reporter rang him up.
A couple of years later you got the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on FRENZY. Again it was an awkward situation because he had originally assigned Henry Mancini to write a score for the film…
Yes, but I think that was purely a personal decision. Hitchcock visualised a certain sort of score. Henry visualised it another way.
Did he give you instructions as to the type of score he wanted?
Yes. Very, very, specific. We discussed it. For instance he wanted the opening music to be like the opening of a documentary on the city of London rather than for a thriller and after the discussion I got sheaves of type-written notes with his putting into words his feelings about the music. I rather liked his approach. It was his picture anyway. I was in great awe of Alfred Hitchcock anyway, so I figured anything he said was all right by me.
For THE EXECUTIONER you did a 12-tone score. Can you explain what this involves?
It’s really a form of music where you use all the 12 semi-tones of the chromatic scale. You decide on a certain order that those 12 semi-tones are going in and that forms the basis of the composition. In other words, you are not really concerned with inspirational melody; it’s more a sort of mathematical way of composing music. San Wanamaker, the director, had heard a lot of 12-tone music and this was the kind of score he wanted. I found it quite easy to do. It’s much easier than thinking up themes.
You came back to the war genre with FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE.
Yes, it wasn’t a very good film. The assistant producer was André Previn’s bother, Steve, and he had quite a lot to say on how the music should go.
What about CLASH OF LOYALTIES in 1983? It seems to have disappeared.
Well, it was a big hit in Baghdad. It was made by an Iraq company and they came to ne to do the music and we recorded it at CTS Studios. I rather hoped they would have got it released in the West. Oliver Reed and James Bolam were
in the cast. It was all about Iraq getting their independence from the British Empire. There was I a lot of music in the film.
From your point of view, has there been a change of attitude regarding soundtrack LPs since the l960s, when several of your scores were issued?
I’ve always found they’re very reluctant to issue a soundtrack album. You have to work at it, worry them a bit. In the case of Disney’s ESCAPE FROM THE DARK, which we did with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, I instigated the album. I went to EMI and said that I thought it was worth doing. There was a lot of interesting brass band music involved. So they agreed to do it. If I hadn’t bothered, that album wouldn’t have appeared.
You’ve tried to fill the gap by putting some of your themes for Disney films of the l97Os on your albums, such as CANDLESHOE and THE SPACEMAN AND KING ARTHUR.
The record companies at the moment are going through something of an anti-album phase. All that EMI are doing at the moment are repackaging the old stuff. It would be nice to record something new. However, it’s very expensive to do that.
Do you have any albums in the pipeline?
Well, we’re always talking about it, but EMI think that orchestral albums are too expensive and they don’t think it’s got the market potential that pop music has. It’s only a phase; these things go round in circles. Suddenly there will be a big orchestral hit and everyone will be making orchestral albums.
You haven’t written many scores in the 1980s.
That’s right. My last one was for a full-length animated film called VALHALLA which was made by a Danish animation company. It’s doing very well in Scandinavia at the moment. I think there’s a strong possibility of an album once they’ve got world distribution.