Friday Film (51)

It’s probably worth saying that, as far as my conscious experience of film and TV music is concerned, I’ve known about Carl Davis for about as long as I’ve known about anyone: while still a schoolboy I was recognising his name and his style in such prominent TV series as Shades of Greene (1975-76), Oppenheimer (1980) and Private Schulz (1981).

Resident in the UK since 1961, New York-born Davis is now 80 years old, and — while not lacking a BAFTA or three, nor even a CBE — he has now had his creative and professional contribution saluted by means of an Honorary Fellowship bestowed by The Musicians’ Company of the City of London…

Carl Davis CBE in conversation with John Suchet on the evening of the award. Photo courtesy of A-Star PR, Artist and Event Management

All of which, of course, gives me a welcome opportunity to upload my own little celebration of Carl Davis’s work in this latest of my ‘Friday Film’ postings…

And, as it happens, I had not a moment’s hesitation in deciding how best to honour him: I will name and present the Davis work that has had a bigger impact on my emotional life than any other of his scores. (A very full listing of his output can be seen here.)

I refer to his music for the 1973 TV series The World at War.

The series itself, which went out in 26 episodes (and as far as I can remember I watched every one of them), was, and indeed still is, an overpowering piece of film making — and Davis’s music makes it hit even harder. I think it’s fair to say that someone who has had a properly intense experience of these programmes — made by independent, ‘commercial’ Thames TV, rather than the BBC — could no more imagine them with different music than they could imagine them with a different narrator or an altered format: the mutually reinforcing power of the assembled elements is simply too great.

To help newcomers and ‘old hands’ alike find the most rewarding approach to this music and what is done with it, I’m starting with a commercially recorded arrangement of material abstracted from the series. Not only does this present the opening and closing music, but it also includes material drawn from passages that circulated within the body of the programme, week after week…

Having allowed everyone to hear that material without filmic or verbal accompaniment, as it were, I want to follow it with an actual broadcast episode presented in its entirety. The opening and closing music will now be experienced in its wider structural and communicative context — and the ‘incidental’ music will be seen to display a degree of ‘leitmotivic’ commitment … the details of which I leave readers to discern for themselves: it’s not my job to get in between your perception and that which the work itself offers to it.

Two little thoughts before we reach the video. First, if you ask me (and no-one else ever has, so why should you?) — I would say that the opening and closing music was not actually orchestrated by Davis himself. No, I’ve no idea who might have done it; and I might actually be wrong — but the nice thing about me is that the only thing I listen to is my ear, and on this occasion my ear doesn’t quite hear Davis in the specific details of that texture. Nor is that a criticism — for one thing because this searing little composition, tonally restless and unstable almost throughout, seems to me to be mostly (not quite entirely!) beyond criticism; and for another, because, well, that’s how the professional music-world food-chain actually works: just as I know there have been times when Davis himself has worked as an assistant to others, so do I know that there are people who have worked as assistants to Davis.

Secondly, to me The World at War succeeds in being that thing that many programmes pretend to be and jolly few really are: something that offers a life-changing experience to its viewers. In celebrating the fact that the music provided by Carl Davis makes a substantial contribution to this result, I cannot avoid the thought that it would have been bordering on the obscene for the series to have music that doesn’t

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Carl Davis…


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