Music for a Documentary Film Unit - 1950-1980
John Legard - Chief Editor, British Transport Films
This article appeared in 'British Music' Volume 15 (1993) (Journal of the British Music Society)

Sir Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Racine Fricker, Elisabeth Lutyens, Humphrey Searle, Richard Arnell; just a few of the composers who made music for us at British Transport Films. With Edgar Anstey as our producer we were set up by the British Transport Commission to publicise, train and inform for the many areas of public transport that had been nationalised in 1948. For the next three decades hundreds of films were produced for showing in the cinemas, on television and to specialised audiences.

Ever since the arrival of sound on film, documentaries had drawn on the creative skills of composers to enhance and give character. Think back to the early John Grierson pictures Coalface and Night Mail, with music by Benjamin Britten, to the wartime films Target for Tonight (Leighton Lucas), Western Approaches (Clifton Parker), Coastal Command (Ralph Vaughan Williams), Fires were Started (William Alwyn), all made by Crown Film Unit The conductor for most of the recording sessions was Muir Mathieson. When we started production he was invited to be our music adviser. Having been involved in film music since Alexander Korda made him his music director at Denham, Muir had become a talented film maker himself He directed Instruments of the Orchestra (Benjamin Britten again) and Steps of the Ballet (Arthur Benjamin). When he came to help us he was well equipped to decide on musical content and choice of composer.

Berth 24 was a look at the life of Hull docks in 1950. Muir brought in John Greenwood who provided an excellent and lively score for the first of our productions to be shown widely in the cinemas. Later, Greenwood returned to enrich a travel film, The Lake District, and support the narrative spoken by Michael Redgrave. Journey into History, recently shown on Channel Four but produced in 1950, had music by Sir Arnold Bax, Master of the King’s Musick. This was recorded at the old Riverside Studios, Hammersmith and was a charming suite for small orchestra, which graced the sequences of interiors of London museums. I am sure it would make an excellent concert piece in its own right. When I joined the unit as film editor my first assignment was Ocean Terminal, all about Southampton docks in their heyday. It seemed right for Muir to bring in Clifton Parker, who seven years earlier had composed the music for Western Approaches with its wonderful opening modal tune - reiterated with variations as the story unfolded. In our film he paid homage in music to the Queens - Mary and Elizabeth as they arrived and departed. Parker worked on three more films for us in the fifties: Elizabethan Express, The long Night Haul and Blue Pullman.

Most of our music sessions were recorded at Anvil Films, Beaconsfield Studios (and later Denham Studios) by Ken Cameron, who earlier had been head of sound with Crown Film Unit.

That well known name Humphrey Searle crops up several times in our annals. Indeed one of our very last theatrical pictures, Woodland Harvest (1977) was his most characteristic score, uncomprising but very effective. He conducted the session himself. Twenty years earlier he had done three scores for us, for travel films: The Coasts of Clyde (shown again on Channel 4 recently), Holiday in Norway and Mountains and Fjords. In 1956 we made a film called The England of Elizabeth. It was about the visible heritage of Tudor England for all to go and see. Mathieson informed us that Vaughan Williams had a slight pause in his music making, so we quickly asked bim to help us with this project! The result was a splendid score which several years later was rearranged by Mathieson as a concert suite entitled Three Portraits from the The England of Elizabeth. It was, later still, recorded by André Previn and the LSO (RCA SB6842). Our own recording took place at Beaconsfield in early 1956. Muir went down with flu at the last moment so John Hollingsworth took over the baton. The session was unusual in that we didn’t record to picture. The film was in an unedited state when VW was free, so we worked out approximate timings for him. This caused a certain amount of confusion when he tried out at an early stage some sections on the piano, and we had to reassure him that we would fit our picture to his music. This indeed is exactly what we did and it worked out well. Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps, we were also provided with a first class narrative by the distinguished Gloucestershire novelist John Moore (Brensham Village, Portrait of Elmbury, The Blue Field), which was spoken by Alec Clunes. The rich full prose had to be there in its entirety, no editing possible, with the result that some of the best moments of Vaughan Williams were diminished. This has always worried me. However the film proved to be immensely popular and won many awards. It was especially well received on the American University circuit.

Elisabeth Lutyens, an old friend from Crown Film Unit days, came to us in 1954 for Heart of England. Again John Moore - rather naturally, for it was his territory - the Cotswolds and the Vale of Evesham. This time the narrative was spoken by Stephen Murray. The music shone out, with Elisabeth at her most lyrical - a fairly rare occurrence.

She collaborated on five more films for us over the next nine years, including Any Man’s Kingdom (Northumberland). She had an interest in that part of the country as her father Sir Edwin Lutyens had restored Holy Island Castle and her sister Ursula was the wife of Lord Ridley, Lord Lieutenant of the County. Marcus Dods conducted for many of her music sessions. He was a protégé of Mathieson and often worked with us, both on her films and those of Edward Williams. Edward deserves a chapter to himself, for he made more music for us than any other composer - twenty seven films! His style was wide-ranging. Sometimes he gave us the big sound. In Ferry Load he used a 33-piece orchestra. The film was to do with lorries travelling from Britain to Europe via a now defunct firm, the Atlantic Steam Navigation company, later known as the Transport Ferry Service. So, big music for big lorryloads and a fine marching tune for the arrival at their destinations far away into Europe. Measured for Transport on the other hand was about a single electrical generator being carried by train, so how about solo harp? Yes, and played by Osian Ellis. An inspired idea and the film was really helped by this lovely sound which seemed at times to come from within the generator itself! The Elephant Will Never Forget, a British Transport classic was a tribute to the London trams on their demise. Edward made use of a well known music hall song, ‘Riding on top of a car’, and it was sung by Archie Harradine, of Players Theatre fame, with full chorus. He also used voices on two other pictures, Bridge of Song and North to the Dales. Edward provided the music for our four natural history films starting with Journey lnto Spring (1957), which was based on Gilbert White’s book Natural History of Selborne. On Between The Tides he employed solo piano, but treated electronically and used like plasticine. This was ahead of its time, for we are talking about 1958. It was very effective. We won a Hollywood Oscar for the 1966 film Wild Wings. Edward wrote the music consisting of a small group of strings, flute and piano. The film dealt with the work of the late Sir Peter Scott, and the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust Later Edward was involved in a series of films about the building of London’s new Victoria line tube, six in all and culminating in the final London’s Victoria Line which was shown on peak hour television. Since those days Edward continues to flourish and has done a lot of work for the BBC in Bristol, where he now lives.

Another prolific film music composer is Kenneth V Jones. Founder and conductor of the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra, and the Wimbledon Hill Singers, Kenneth was also professor at the Royal College of Music. He was with us on fourteen pictures between 1955 and 1980. He liked using individual instruments; in Midland Country, a solo flute and harp; in Age of lnvention, flute and harpsichord. The latter was a film about the relics of the Industrial Revolution still visible. The music was at once both lyrical and industrial in flavour, and a worthwhile experiment One of the problems with using certain solo instruments, (harpsichord and pianoforte for example) is that they clash with dialogue and commentary. They tend to have similar characteristics to the human voice when it comes to recording and dubbing. We found this happened on two or three films over the years, so we had to drop the music level rather more than, say, with a reasonable sized orchestra making a big but broad sound. Of course at that time films carried an optical sound system that was developed in the nineteen thirties and which did, in all fairness, have certain limitations, especially when the prints were on 16mm. Today, with the use of digital sound recording, there is a far greater frequency range and therefore much better quality. Kenneth Jones also made use of the large sound in many of his films. In They take the High Road, for example, he was especially effective. This was a film completed in haste to coincide with a special event. The subject was the construction of the Giorra Dam in the Central Highlands, and the problem of carrying the raw material from the railhead at Killin to the site, way over the hills. He took a Highland type theme and worked it through as the story proceeded. We had no dine to prepare a detailed sound track apart from narrative therefore the music was all important. Ironically, composer Kenneth was not able to attend the recording session at Beaconsfield Studios that day in late 1959. “Now, let’s see what he’s given us”, said Muir Mathieson as he turned to the first page of the score. It was a busy day; twenty five minutes of intricate composition to rehearse and record.

Muir was a brilliant handler of sessions - first he would go through the whole picture, i.e. all the music sections (on average two to three minutes each), just reading at sight. Then, rehearse each section; first for the music; again for timing, with the picture running through on the screen. Muir would be wearing headphones so that he could balance the score with the dialogue and commentary. He would come back into the recording room to hear the tape playback with Ken Cameron, who was recording, to consider the overall balance of the orchestra. Sometimes he would invite the leader, and of course composer, to listen with him. After discussion they would go for a take, with picture running, and the music “ticker” projecting the passing seconds and minutes. At the end of the section, the call of “cut” was followed by “OK for me” if Muir was satisfied with the performance and timings. There might be concern from the recordist about some technicality or the editor might be worried about some detail of fitting sound and scene. So there would be another take, and perhaps yet another. We often became anxious towards the end of the session. Would we finish in time, three more sections and only forty minutes left! But Muir was such an expert that he would invariably make up time without any apparent anxiety on his part. The Sinfonia of London was his session orchestra, which did many recordings for the cinema over the years, a majority of them at Denham Studios.

Kenneth Jones also composed music for the much televised travel film of ours, Down to Sussex (1964). Shortly afterwards he decided to go and live there as he had become so deeply involved with the subject! Hubert Clifford behaved in a similar manner. Having completed the score on our film Round the Island he moved to the Isle of Wight. A Tasmanian by birth, Clifford was music director of London Films for many years. He joined us in 1953 to provide music for a travel film West Country Journey. The result was a triumph. The music played a large part in the success of the film, which received a full Odeon Circuit release supporting the famous French thriller by H G Clouzot Wages of Fear. Our film dealt with Devon and Cornwall and the music made some use of well-known tunes from the region. He also introduced a male choir for renderings of ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Spanish Ladies’. His orchestra was fairly large and we recorded at Beaconsfield Studios in the summer of that year. Clifford next scored London’s Country, another travel picture, concentrating on days out in the Home Counties (1954).

Many of our early travel films were shot on 16 mm Kodachrome and then enlarged to 35mm by the Technicolor process. The picture quality is somewhat lacking by present day standards. But we devoted a lot of loving care to the sound tracks - music, narrative, and natural sound - and so we were able to create mood and style in each subject. These travel films have rightly become collectors’ items. They have been shown all over the world, indeed I heard of a screening in Fiji to an audience of expatriate Scots of our film The Heart is Highland. The whisky flowed that evening as they recalled their homeland.

Cedric Thorpe Davie was a Northern professor of music who also did some good work for the cinema as composer. A friend of Mathieson’s too making an ideal team to handle the score for The Heart is Highland in 1952. The bagpipe naturally played its pan, but the music was mainly orchestral. The subject gave the film a natural advantage and it was more widely shown in the cinemas than any of our work. It achieved screenings in over a thousand cinemas throughout the country. This was public service film making at its best, and justifying its existence too. For although the films were made with public money, when they were shown in the cinemas they were there as straight entertainment and therefore covered their costs to a greater or lesser degree. The music played its part, by giving them heart and “production value”. Thorpe Davie also arranged the music for The Land of Robert Burns (1956), with choral settings of some of Burns’ best work. This has been seen on Channel 4 in recent times. It has poignant moments of great beauty with an appropriately melancholy commentary spoken by the film’s producer Stewart McAllister.

In An Artist looks at Churches John Piper looked at one church for each century from Norman times to the present day; Peter Racine Fricker provided a suite for string orchestra to match each one. William Matthias used Philip Jones’s brass ensemble for Britannia - A Bridge, about the rebuilding of the famous railway bridge across the Menai Straits after it had been gutted by fire. David Fanshawe scored Cybernetica, which was a film about European railways; Owain Arwel Hughes conducted the session. Richard Arnell used a student group called Sticky George for Wires over the Border, about the electrification of the West Coast main line in 1974. Edwin Astley provided music for several of our films including Scotland for Sport, in which he used Hebridean mouth music to great effect Remember the film Terminus? This was the cinema debut of John Schlesinger in 1961 - a day in the life of Waterloo Station. Ron Grainer’s score in the modern jazz idiom was appropriate, and brilliant. Or, Holiday, about Blackpool, with Chris Barber and his traditional jazz, and Ralph Sheldon’s rhythmic editing, resulting in eighteen minutes of delight!

But space will not allow me to include everyone and there were many others who helped us, over the years. For me it was a privilege to have worked with so many interesting and distinguished musicians - this surely was a rich period of music-making in cinema.

This article first appeared in British Music - Volume 15 (1993), the Journal of the British Music Society

A CD, advertised in the February 2003 issue of Journal into Melody (Robert Farnon Society - British Light Overtures Vol. 2 (ASV CDWHL2137) includes "Overture 125" by David Gow.

British Transport Film Music 1950-1980
Original Score for film except for those asterisked or otherwise stated
Abady, Temple 1951 This Year - London
1951 Work in Progress
1952 Away for the Day
Arnell, Richard 1974 Wires Over the Border (Sticky George Group)
Arnold, Malcolm 1953 Channel Islands
Astley, Edwin 1958 Scotland for Sport
1959 Diesel Train Ride
1959 Broad Waterways
1960 What a Day
1960 Speaking of Freight
1962 The Signal Engineers
*Bach, J S 1959 Report on Modernisation (Toccata and Fugue excerpts - Geraint Jones - organ)
Barber, Chris 1957 Holiday
Bax, Arnold 1952 Journey into History
Bourgeois, Derek 1963 Thirty Million Leners
1966 The Driving Force
Breamn Julian (lute) 1960 Red and White Coaches
Carwithen, Doreen 1954 East Anglian Holiday
Chappell, Herbert 1978 England’s North Country
1979 The Beacons and Beyond
Clifford, Hubert 1953 West Country Journey
1954 London’s County
1956 Round the Island
Coleman Fitroy (guitar) 1959 Care of St Christopher
Davie, Cedric Thorpe 1952 The Heart is Highland
1956 The Land of Robert Burns
*Debussy, Claude 1968 Water Birds (Preludes Bk 1 excerpts)
Dods, Marcus 1976 Landscape with Castles (Sheba Sound Group)
*Elgar, Edward 1969 A City for All Seasons (Cockaigne excerpts)
Elms, Bert 1960 Carriage Cleaning
Fanshawe, David 1972 Cybernetica
1972 London Ride
Frankel, Benjamin 1950 Moving House
Fraser, Don 1975 Locomotion
Fricker, Peter Racine 1959 An Artist looks at Churches
Gale, John 1965 Fifth Report on Modernisation (music edit)
1965 Ships to the Islands (music edit)
Gow, David 1978 Overture 125
Graham, Kenny 1965 Timber Move
Grainer,Ron 1961 Terninus
1963 Giants of Steam
*Grieg, Edward 1960 A Dream of Norway (Old Norwegian Romance)
Greenwood, John 1950 Berth 24
1957 The Lake District
Gunning, Christopher 1979 A New Age for Railways
*Handel, G F 1957 Every Valley (Messiah excerpt)
Henderson, Tom 1950 Wealth of the World - Transport
1952 Farmer Moving South
Heneker, David (piano) 1956 Looking at Transport (Cine Gazette 15)
*Holst, Gustav 1956 Making Tracks (Suite in E for brass excerpts)
Hughes, Spike 1955 Capital Visit
1957 Lancashire Coast
Jones, Kenneth V 1955 A Day of One’s Own
1957 Overhaul
1960 They Take the High Road
1961 Third Report on Modernisation (Handel Concerti Grossi, arrangements)
1963 Fourth Report on Modernisation (Early brass, arrangements)
1963 Omnibus for all
1964 A Hundred Years Underground
1964 Underground Centenary
1965 Down to Sussex
1974 Midland Country
1974 Sea Road to Britain
1975 The Age of Invention
1979 The Stage is Yours
1980 On Track for the Eighties (Rail Report 13)
Josephs, Wilfred 1967 Rail
Katz, Dick (piano) 1951 Overhaul at Acton (Cine Gazette 10)
Leigh, Julian 1957 Four Back Rooms
Lucas, Leighton 1953 This is York
Lutyens, Elisabeth 1954 Heart of England
1956 Any Man’s Kingdom
1958 The Travel Game
1959 Three is Company
1960 Off the Beaten Track
1965 Europe by Train
Matthias, William 1966 Forward to First Principles
1973 Britannia is a Bridge
Mathieson, Muir 1964 Sing of the Border (arr Songs, with Ian Wallace)
1972 Journey - InterCity
1974 Going Places fast
1975 Operation London Bridge
Montgomery, Bruce 1953 Scottish Highlands
O’Brioin, Fiach 1970 Prospects of Ireland
Oram, Daphne 1963 Snow (Radiophonic Workshop)
Parker, Clifton 1951 Ocean Terminal
1952 Elizabethan Express
1956 The Long Night Haul
1960 BluePullman
1964 Southampton Docks (excerpts from Ocean Terminal)
1965 The Great Highway (excerpts from Elizabethan Express)
*Purcell, Henry 1969 A Tale out of School
Rubach, Edward (piano) 1962 The Third Sam
Sage, Bill le 1962 London for a Day
1965 Hostellers
Scott, John 1967 Give Your Car a Holiday
Spedding, Frank 1966 Glasgow Belongs to Me
*Strauss, Johann 1962 Let’s go to Birmingham (Perpetuum Mobile)
Searle, Humphrey 1955 Mountains and Fjords
1955 Holiday in Norway
1959 Coasts of Clyde
1977 Woodland Harvest
Tomlinson, Ernest 1979 Omnibus 150 (from recorded library)
Wetherell, Eric 1969 Right Time Means Right Time
Williams, Edward 1951 There Go the boats
1951 Open House (CineGazette 9)
1952 Journey to the Sea
1952 Train Time
1953 The Elephant will Never Forget (Cine Gazette 12)
1955 Bridge of Song
1956 LinkSpan
1956 North to Wales
1957 Journey into Spring
1958 Between the Tides
1960 Ferryload
1961 Wild Highlands
1962 Measured for Transport (with Osian Ellis - harp)
1962 North to the Dales
1964 One for One
1964 Over and Under
1965 Down and Along
1967 Problems and Progress
1968 Next Stop Scotland
1968 Equip and Complete
1969 The Future Works
1969 London’s Victoria Line
1970 The Site in the Sea
Williams, Ralph Vaughan 1957 The England of Elizabeth
1957 Fully Fitted Freight (Wasps Overture excerpts)
1972 The Scene from Melbury House (London Symphony excerpts)
Williams, Grace 1960 A Letter for Wales
Wooldridge, David 1959 Groundwork for Progess

Conductors involved in many of the Recording Session: Muir Mathieson, Marcus Dods, John Hollingsworth, Owain Arwel Hughes.