Witling down the best of British Film music into an hour and a half long show must have been a monumental task for conductor and film score enthusiast John Wilson. As stated by the conductor himself in one of his many introductions to the pieces being showcased at The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, British film score differed greatly to American score between the 1940s and the 1960s. Whereas in America the fear of being branded as commercial was a genuine career breaker, here in Britain, even the best and most loved of composers such as Vaughan Williams needed cold hard cash occasionally.
Composing for films not only provided these financial gains but also added a patriotic flavour to many of our film scores from this period meaning they are defined and full of character that drips with atypical Britishness. Opening the night with Walton’s beautiful suite for the air battle scene in Battle of Britain was a masterstroke in the setting of tone. The auditorium was flooded with constant legato strings flowing over harp glissando and military brass motifs. What made the evening feel so personal was conductor John Wilson’s introduction to each piece. With this piece in particular, background was given about Laurence Olivier’s insistence on using the scene and music with the threat of withdrawing his name from the picture all together. It was nuggets of information like this that made the viewer aware they were in the presence of a true enthusiast, which is a real bonus in any musical scenario these days. Continuing with the Olivier theme present in the first half, two string movements were played from his adaptation of Henry V; both of which were beautifully melancholic.
Finishing off the first half with Addinsel’s Warsaw Concerto from Dangerous Moonlight, this opened up further discourse on why British film music is so great. Even by the conductor’s own admission Dangerous Moonlight is an awful film, yet the music played was utterly divine, proving that even in the worst of British films, there’s always something brilliant hidden away.
The second half was highlighted by music from more mainstream and big name films such as a suite from David Lean’s masterful Hobson’s Choice and even music from a comedy choice, Eric Roger’s superbly Wagnerian leitmotif essay from Carry on Up the Khyber. The most mainstream choice came as a surprise with John William’s magical if slightly twee theme for Harry Potter. However the orchestra played it with flair and vigour that belied its simple and slightly cliché-ridden flavours.
The night ended with Coates’ theme from Dam Busters, which remains one of the iconic British film scores. It was a powerful and endearing bow out to a night that felt warm and lovingly nostalgic to a time when mainstream British cinema commanded the world’s attention through sheer talent. The event was proof that film scores deserve far more attention, both mainstream and scholarly and the Liverpool Philharmonic should most definitely be looking into the next foray of score themed events for the future.
Image from The Liverpool Philharmonic.