Arts: Composer, producer, Avenger: just don't call him a polymath

Laurie Johnson's TV theme tunes are classics. So why has it taken 27 years for a serious piece to get its premiere?
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The Independent Culture
IT'S TAKEN Laurie Johnson some 27 years to get round to staging the first public performance of his 1971 composition, Synthesis. Better late than never, the symphony will finally be performed by the London Big Band and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall tomorrow night.

The delay, however, is hardly surprising: Johnson has had rather a lot on his plate. The veteran composer and producer, who learnt his trade with Jack Parnell among others, has since composed in almost every conceivable musical form. His film work includes the score for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Among his TV compositions are memorable themes for This Is Your Life, The Professionals and The Avengers - the music for which is the only original element to feature in Warner Brothers' remake. His numerous theatre credits include the music for Lock up Your Daughters.

In recent years, Johnson's activities have been influenced by his own TV and film production interests. In partnership with Brian Clemens, he owns the rights to The Professionals and is executive producer of this year's TV re-make. In partnership with John Hough, he co-owns Gainsborough Pictures which owns the TV rights to Dame Barbara Cartland's novels. And that's not to mention his latest musical project - The Glory Road, a musical based on the story of Moses. His latest project, currently in development, is Boz - a musical on the life of Charles Dickens.

"I've been called a polymath - I wasn't sure whether to laugh or sue," he smiles. "But I suppose you could say my interests and various projects seem disparate. In fact, while the springboard may differ, my music is the common theme."

He now writes only for his own productions which gives him the freedom to indulge his passions, especially for big band music. "It's a sound many younger people had never been exposed to," he says. "It has become particularly popular in the US following the success of Harry Connick Jnr and Natalie Cole. So we brought together the best jazz and orchestral musicians from across Europe, including Don Lusher and Tommy Whittle, to perform the music not catered for by the orchestra, whether pop or more established."

So far, the London Big Band has played at the Palladium and the Barbican, where it was filmed for a video which became a number one seller at Tower Records in London. Johnson's aim is to broaden the appeal of big band music. And he is doing so by composing music which challenges conventional musical genres.

The Glory Road, for example, was first performed last year by the London Big Band and a full gospel choir. With lyrics by Herbert (Les Miserables) Kretzmer, the narration was provided by Hollywood veteran James Coburn. "His voice had the quality and timbre perfectly suited to American gospel", Johnson says. Sunday night's concert involves jazz and symphony musicians with a contemporary twist - pop musicians, and a 23-year-old soul singer, Alexia, will also join them on stage.

The evening is in two parts: the first half a tribute to Gershwin, the second the first live performance of Synthesis. All his work is written with international appeal in mind, Johnson explains. "You can't afford to be parochial. I never write for a particular audience - you have to ask: 'Will people want to listen to this, anywhere in the world'. Take The Avengers: worldwide it had TV audiences of 500 million, it regularly attracted around 18 million in the UK."

He is also driven by the desire to blend music and performance. He points to classic film music scores: "The best were totally integrated with all parts of the film. Music is cinema. It plays on the subconscious and manipulates an audience. Themes play very little part in it - you couldn't hum the score to Citizen Kane, yet music made a significant contribution to it. This is a different approach to grafting on music only to make money through sales of the soundtrack."

The best scores tell stories that pictures can't, he adds. Boz, inspired by a life-long enthusiasm for Dickens, focuses on the author's life - the inspiration for all of his stories. "It's a story never told. The story of a man who was many people. And the music takes it to a new dimension." Johnson has completed and recorded the score, and Kretzmer the lyrics. He is unsure how it will first be performed, live or on film, but funding has already been secured with the support of Lord Grade.

'The Professional: The Best of Laurie Johnson' and 'The Musical Worlds of Laurie Johnson' are out this week on PolyGram's Redial label. The first performance of 'Synthesis' tales place tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall (0171-960 4242). Warner Brothers' 'The Avengers' opens on 14 August