A brief appreciation of the continuing Genius that is Howard Blake
by John Williams
Film Music has changed drastically over the years, Chameleon like, sometimes good, sometimes inspired, and sadly, more than not, a failure on all counts. If also you have been listening to Music as long as I have, it takes a lot to rekindle that spark you first had many years ago, and got you into this drug that we simply call Film Music which as much as we try, we can’t kick!. Most people I have mentioned my hobby to over the years, think of the current Blockbuster or hit that contains a song or two that gets into the charts. When you say, well actually no, I don’t mean that, I mean the music that is played in the background, they look at you as if you have flipped and said a four letter word.. So, you learn to grin and bear it, and after a while to tend not to even mention it at all, so it is like one of those guilty pleasures that you don’t talk about.
We have had full blown Orchestral scores, Pop music masquerading as Film Music. The Eighties we had so much Synthesized film music it was wearing,, and now, well, I know there must be Film Music out there, but it is, as was said in “Star Trek” – not as we know it!!! If by some miracle Georges Delerue was to return to us, I doubt if he would get a assignment. ” Well, Sorry Georges. I know you write lovely gorgeous themes and scores, but, well, we don’t want that, we want a sort of non- music, that no one notices”
Which brings me to Howard Blake. A Composer of immense talent who can do practically anything, and has often has. I tend to find parallels with the sorely missed Andre Previn. Great Pianist, Arranger, Composer and now writer of Music for the Concert Hall. See what I mean ? Howard toiled in the Media for many years working on the Diana Rigg season of THE AVENGERS, playing piano on the sessions, before the big break came on the final season, now well known as the Tara King episodes of THE AVENGERS , when Laurie Johnson was called away to that comedy gem HOT MILLIONS , with Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov. Good workmanlike scores – funny phrase that – workmanlike, lets just say they are extremely good and evocative, and sound different enough to Laurie Johnson’s fine efforts. He also played on numerous Film Scores, THE ITALIAN JOB , arrangements for Francis Lai in that quintessentially Sixties Movie, I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S NAME . as well as conducting without credit for Quincy Jones on that mammoth and somewhat under-rated western MCKENNA’S GOLD. LP only I hasten to add.
Scores for EMI Movies, ALL THE WAY UP, and SOME WILL SOME WON’T followed, neither rate very highly in my book, but they were of the era. S.O.S TITANIC is notably different. A powerful almost heart wrenching score, punctuated by the three notes that spell out S.O.S. Sadly most versions available ,either on DVD ,Video, or Television showing are of the edited version, and the full longer film seems to be not available anywhere. Howard also scored movies for the BBC, when the Corporation had it’s own Film Making arm, and periodically showed films under the SCREEN ON TWO banner . STRONGER THAN THE SUN and MRS REINHARDT with Helen Mirren.
He is of course best know now for the perennial Christmas favourite THE SNOWMAN. Shown every Christmas since 1982, it has blossomed to a stage show, and is seen all over the World. In the late 70’s The Rank Organisation had a somewhat misguided idea to re-start production of feature films at Pinewood. There was THE LADY VANISHES, a very worthy attempt to up-date the old Hitchcock Movie with colour, slightly spicier dialogue and two principals from the USA. Actually it worked really well, even if Cybill Shepherd went well over the top. Good score by the then newcomer Richard Hartley utilising a main theme by Les Reed.
THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS was adapted from Erskine Childer’s novel , warning Great Britain of the threat from Germany by a water born invasion from the north German Coast and set in 1901. Exceptional cast. Two leads played by Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale with feminine interest supplied by Jenny Agutter, who had also teamed up with Michael York in LOGAN’S RUN Superbly lensed by Christopher Challis, If it had any down side, it was the ending which was somewhat rushed, and indeed anti climatic. A film like this needed a composer who would not just underline the visual aspects, but delve deeper in the story and add aspects that weren’t visible. In fact a score that enhances the film and enriches the Cinematic experience. Luckily, they called on the talents of Howard Blake. Working with the famed National Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard wrote a score that was just inspired. The lengthy Main Titles portrays the Sand Dunes of the Northern Germany, and the music has a suitable nautical, yet mysterious ambience that is just superb;
Simon MacCorkindale portrays Arthur Davis, who at the start of the tale, had arrived in the Frisian Islands on the Baltic Coast of Germany, initially as he later infers, to do some Duck Shooting. There he meets the enigmatic Dollmann played by Alan Badel, who we later find out, has a incredible likeness to a British Sailor in one of Davis’ books. Double agents perhaps? Davis feels there has been an attempt on his life, so he asks Carruthers (Michael York – who was also involved on the production side -) , who works at the Foreign Office in London to come over, for help and to bring some welcome supplies. Davis is drawn to Dollmann’s daughter, Clara, which complicates matters. Early in the film both Davis and Clara walk along the beach, aided by a superb treatment of the Principal theme, in a much more romantic setting.
At around 23/4 minutes in, Carruthers arrives at the Railway Station, late at night to be met by Davis, somewhat nonplussed by the amount of luggage Carruthers has brought with him, Though as Carruthers somewhat dryly points out. “Most of it is for you”. They both walk along the dock, the music here almost walks with them, slow and non- committal, till Davis shows Carruther’s his prized boat, ” The Dulcibella”, . “There she is ” he says with pride. Now here they could talk all the way to the boat, Davis showing how proud and happy he is with the craft. . But no, here the script is silent. Howard Blake provides, the pride, and fulfilment that Davis has, with a short warm, proud cue, no more than 20 seconds long. That is what GREAT film music can do, It can say unsaid feelings and emotions. It should not and never be just musical wallpaper, and that is what a master craftsman like Howard Blake can do.
So, in the rather unlikely event of someone asking me, “Why do you LIKE film music?” I would refer them to this film and this precise 20 seconds, and say. “That is why I LOVE Film Music!”
(This is a sort of precursor of a much lengthy feature on the media scores of Howard Blake).