Alexander Faris: Composer who penned the themes to Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street

Faris's two biggest musical loves were Gilbert and Sullivan and their great influence Offenbach, the German-born French composer whose music found favour at the court of Napoleon III

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The Independent Online

Alexander Faris, who has died aged 94, was the composer and conductor best known for creating the theme tunes to the 1970s television series Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street.

Faris, known as Sandy, was born in Caledon, Northern Ireland in 1921, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a school teacher. When his father died of pernicious anaemia, his resourceful mother moved the family to Belfast, where she became headmistress of Victoria College girls' school.

His mother noticed Faris, at the age of four, following the tunes of church hymns, and asked her school's music teacher, Miss Bell, to give him his first piano lesson. “My mother was amazing, a polymath,” he recalled. “She could teach anybody anything – and she couldn't have picked a better teacher for a child than Miss Bell.”

In October 1932, aged just 11, Faris watched Edward Elgar conduct a performance of his Enigma Variations at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. He was spellbound and resolved to make a career of music. His first performances were with family and friends in his homemade group the Nutcracker Orchestra.

He was called up for military service in 1943 and joined the Irish Guards as a lieutenant, taking part in the 1944 liberation of Brussels. On demob, he studied at the Royal College of Music and found work as a chorus master with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He made his London debut in 1949 as a conductor in a revival of the operetta Song of Norway by Robert Wright and George Forrest, at the Palace Theatre.

Faris's two biggest musical loves were Gilbert and Sullivan and their great influence Offenbach, the German-born French composer whose music found favour at the court of Napoleon III. His biography of Offenbach, published in 1980, remains one of the most important references on the composer's life and work, in which Faris suggests a number of links between the works of his favourite musicians. For example, Offenbach's Ba-ta-clan, a satirical operetta, shows considerable influence on Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, created some three decades later.

A CD featuring variants of Faris’s theme tune raised £70,000 for charity

 

Faris's first performances of Gilbert and Sullivan were in the early 1960s: he conducted The Gondoliers, The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance with the German Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Linden Singers. During the mid-60s he wrote film scores for The Quare Fellow (1962) – an adaptation of Brendan Behan's play – Georgy Girl (1966), and He Who Rides the Tiger (1965), starring Tom Bell and Judi Dench.

Faris's peak came with “The Edwardians”, his theme tune for the hit television series Upstairs, Downstairs, first broadcast in 1971. Originally intended for just six episodes, the programme was an unexpected success, running for five series until 1975. When a first attempt at the theme tune had been turned down by the producer, John Hawkesworth, Faris worked overnight to create the music which became his best-known composition.

“It became a hit and did 74 episodes,” he recalled in a later interview, “They [gave me] a full screen credit. They wanted music which echoed Edwardian times.” He went on to win an Ivor Novello award in 1976 for the Best Theme from TV or Radio.

The tune's appeal has endured well after the programme was first shown on television and was retained for the Upstairs, Downstairs remake in 2010. Upshares, Downshares, Radio 4's daily business and economics slot, which charted the economic crisis during 2008-2010 as part of the PM programme, also adopted the Upstairs, Downstairs theme.

Nils Blythe, who presented the slot with Eddie Mair, told The Independent: “Out of the blue, a listener sent in his own version of the theme. I believe it was a reggae version. We played it and suddenly lots of people started sending in their own versions. We had the theme played on the banjo and as an organ fugue. We had a bossa nova version and a steel band version, a capella, morris dance... Both the Upshares Downshares name and the idea of having many different versions of the theme tune came from listeners.

”In all, over 83 different versions were played. We discovered that Sandy Faris was still alive although he must have been close to 90. He had heard about this whole extraordinary flowering of listener creativity and Eddie went to interview him. He was pleasantly bemused by the whole thing and gave us some wry comments on some of the versions.“

In October 2010, with Faris's blessing, a CD containing these many variants of the theme tune was released to raise money for BBC Children in Need. More than 7000 copies were sold, making some £70,000 for the charity.

When Hawkesworth went on to make The Duchess of Duke Street for the BBC in 1976, starring Gemma Jones as the eponymous Duchess, Faris was the logical choice to provide the theme music. His autobiography, Da Capo Al Fine: A Life in Music, was published in 2009.

Marcus Williamson

Samuel Alexander Faris (Sandy Faris), composer and conductor: born Caledon, Northern Ireland 11 June 1921; died 28 September 2015.

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