Obituary: John Addison

JOHN ADDISON may well be best recalled by music historians as a master of the lightweight whimsical school of melody, typified by his themes for movies such as Tom Jones, Sleuth and the American television series Murder She Wrote, yet what is often overlooked is a substantial body of work that covers all genres of film music, plus ballet, theatre and concert works that display a versatility that has inevitably been overshadowed by his handful of popular "hits".

Born in 1920 into a military background, Addison was educated at Wellington College, on the assumption that he would follow in the family tradition. Happily, his evident musical talents led to a change of direction and he enrolled at the Royal College of Music in his teens; unhappily, the Second World War almost immediately intervened and he swiftly enlisted in the family regiment - the 22nd Hussars (formerly cavalry, by this time a tank unit). He saw active service across Europe and North Africa and by the time of his demob he had risen to the rank of Captain.

Resuming his musical education at the RCM he studied composition under Gordon Jacob, piano with Herbert Fryer and clarinet with Leon Goossens. Subsequently, at the absurdly young age of 30, he was himself appointed Professor of Composition, a post he held until 1957, when other commitments became too overwhelming.

Already by 1948 Addison had become a figure worth watching, winning the RCM's coveted Sullivan Award for Composition and shortly afterwards having his Sextet for Woodwind performed at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Frankfurt.

Commissions flooded in from the BBC, the Cheltenham Festival, and even the Proms. Addison was now the golden boy of the culture-hungry Festival of Britain years, and amazingly prolific, with works including chamber music, choral items and a concerto for trumpet and orchestra.

For their 1953 season the Sadler's Wells ballet company commissioned a new work from him, and in collaboration with the choreographer Walter Gore, Carte Blanche was ready to premiere in September of that year at the Edinburgh Festival. With its vivacious circus setting, it was described by one critic as "a light-hearted divertissement, where anything goes", and proved a substantial success, playing back in London until the beginning of the following year and remaining in the company repertoire thereafter. The music itself was adapted into a suite by the composer and became a favourite "lollipop" in concerts conducted by the likes of Sir Thomas Beecham, George Szell and even Leopold Stokowski.

Amidst this whirlwind of activity, Addison was also embarking on what was to become his primary profession - film music, which officially began in 1950 with the Boulting Brothers' Seven Days To Noon (co-written by the soon-to-be film composer James Bernard). Many years later, Addison claimed that in 1942 Roy Boulting had actually approached him to work on Thunder Rock, a wartime fantasy starring Michael Redgrave. Boulting, he said, encouraged him to follow the seafaring thread of the storyline and score for just a concertina and percussion. According to Addison, when the film was released it featured "an 80-piece orchestra" playing a symphonic-style score by Hans May.

True or not, the Boultings made amends by giving him a piano solo on the soundtrack of Fame is the Spur (1947) and the school song for The Guinea Pig (1948). After the award-winning Seven Days, Addison's film assignments began to build at an extraordinary pace: Pool of London (1951), a moody Ealing picture, High Treason (1952), a Ruritanian spy film with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, two big productions for MGM British, The Hour of 13 (1952) and Time Bomb (1953), and in the same year Carol Reed's The Man Between which more than anything consolidated Addison's position as one of the major players. Though it was frequently cited as a pale remake of The Third Man, the solitary saxophone motif played by Dave Shand echoing across the bomb-ravaged landscapes of West Berlin gave the movie a haunting quality (and sold a few records too, for Ron Goodwin and Cyril Stapleton).

In 1956 Addison again tried his hand at live work, this time in collaboration with the dancer John Cranko. They concocted the revue Cranks, with a company that included the young Anthony Newley and later Annie Ross. It ran at the St Martin's and later Duchess Theatres for over 200 performances, transferring successfully to Broadway. Their follow-up show, Keep Your Hair On (1958), sadly notched up just 20 performances.

Meanwhile Addison had been brought in by his friend Tony Richardson as resident composer for new productions at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and through 1957 and 1958 John Osborne's The Entertainer and Luther, plus works by Brecht, Ionesco and John Arden, were graced by Addison's incidental scoring.

When Richardson transferred his talents to the screen Addison was ready to work on the celluloid remakes. Sometimes unjustly referred to as "the composer for the Angry Young Men", he certainly scored several of the most socially significant movies of the late Fifties and early Sixties including Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey and Olivier's reprise of Archie Rice in The Entertainer. The songs "Thank God We're Normal" and "Why Should I Care?", with pseudo-music-hall lyrics by John Osborne, are now looked back upon as grim anthems for the post-Suez generation.

Richardson's change of course with the period romp Tom Jones was matched by Addison's exuberant score, mostly a duet of piano and harpsichord. The film was an unexpected world-wide hit and the score won Addison an even more unexpected Oscar at the 1963 Academy Awards.

He was now notching up three to four scores a year, and the variety of styles he successfully tackled was extraordinary. From the austere martial score for Guns at Batasi (1964) to George Melly's Brechtian Swinging Sixties musical comedy Smashing Time (1967), the lyrical nostalgia of Country Dance (1969) and the downright weirdness of Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1971), Addison took all in his stride.

With Sleuth (1971) he was back into the genre of music-hall/Victorian melodrama, and received an Academy Award Nomination. Finally, in 1977, his score for A Bridge Too Far earned him an overdue acknowledgement from his peers with a Bafta British Academy Award.

This event would appear to have consolidated something in his life, because almost immediately afterwards he moved permanently to the United States, where he embarked on the more lucrative but perhaps less artistically satisfying business of television movies and mini-series.

There was certainly no sign of his losing momentum: the massive 21-hour mini-series Centennial (1978) was entirely scored by him, as was the Pearl Harbor epic Pearl (1979), and he had little trouble adapting himself to quintessentially American subjects. One of his last feature-length films was the 1988 television movie Beryl Markham, which was also one of the last directorial efforts of Tony Richardson.

With the syndicated success of the internationally popular series Murder She Wrote (1984-96), and its irresistibly lively theme, John Addison could put his feet up and count the royalties after a long and honourable musical career.

John Mervyn Addison, composer: born Cobham, Surrey 16 March 1920; married (two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died 7 December 1998.