Cyril Ornadel: Conductor and composer best known for 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium'

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The Independent Online

In the 1950s, as conductor of ITV's immensely popular Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Cyril Ornadel possessed the most famous back of the head on British television. He was also musical director on the West End productions of some of the greatest of all musicals, twice won a Novello Award for his own compositions and was awarded the prestigious Gold Badge of Merit by the British Academy of Songwriters and Authors for services to British music. His song "Portrait of My Love" is a standard as is "If I Ruled the World" from his musical Pickwick, which had the distinction of being, for a time, the longest-running British musical on Broadway.

Cyril Ornadel was born in London in 1924, the son of a dress manufacturer who expected him to join the family business. Ornadel was determined, however, to become a musician, a decision that caused a deep rift between him and his father. It was in fact his father, in an attempt to stop his musical ambitions, who informed the Royal College of Music that not only was Ornadel playing piano in a nightclub but that his girlfriend was a fellow student, both strictly against college rules.

Expulsion from the Royal College failed to dampen Ornadel's desire to play music and he joined Ensa as accompanist to the singers Dorothy Carless and Sylvia Handel. The trio eventually wound up on Lüneburg Heath, where they performed for the official peace-signing celebrations. The performance took place in a field in front of the top brass with jeep headlights illuminating the stage. During the show the wind sent Ornadel's music flying but luckily he knew it well enough to keep going.

After the war, Ornadel began conducting variety shows and in 1950, aged 25, became the youngest musical director in the West End when he took charge of Take It From Here with Jimmy Edwards and Joy Nichols at the Victoria Palace. Over the next four decades he went on to conduct such musicals as Kismet with Alfred Drake and Doretta Morrow, Call Me Madam with Anton Walbrook, Pal Joey, Wonderful Town, The King And I and My Fair Lady. He worked closely with such giants of musical theatre as Leonard Bernstein, Forrest and Wright, and Lerner and Loewe, and with most of the major stars of the time. "The stand-out stars for me," he once said, "were Anton Walbrook, Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner. Walbrook was the first star I had to conduct who used to speak his numbers. He always tried to catch me out because he'd do it differently every night. I liked Yul Brynner. He wasn't popular in the show because he stood aloof from it all, but he wanted things right, as I did. In the theatre, when people say artists are difficult, it all boils down to the fact that they want it right."

Ornadel was expecting trouble when he conducted the London run of My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison was known for being difficult and the American conductor Franz Allers, who had conducted the show on Broadway, was on standby until the first night in case Harrison took a dislike to Ornadel. "He was as good as gold," recalled Ornadel, who also conducted the stereo recording of the show with the original stars.

Among the many names he worked with at the London Palladium were Nat King Cole, the Crazy Gang, Mario Lanza, Judy Garland and Noel Coward. And as well as conducting other people's musicals, Ornadel was busy writing his own. The first was Starmaker (1956), written for Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, and then in 1963, he wrote Pickwick for Harry Secombe.

Pickwick, with book by Wolf Mankowitz and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, ran for 20 months in the West End, but the rehearsal period was not a happy one. Director Peter Coe was so determined to keep the authors out of his hair that the three ended up being banned from rehearsals and had to buy their own tickets in the gods for opening night. "If I Ruled the World", the show's hit song, apart from becoming Harry Secombe's signature tune, was recorded by Tony Bennett. Another Ornadel song which became a classic was "Portrait of My Love". Matt Monro, who took it to No 1, disliked the song intensely when he first heard it and had to be forced to record it.

Other musicals included Ann Veronica (1969) written with David Croft and starring Dorothy Tutin, and Treasure Island (1973) with Bernard Miles, Great Expectations (1975) with John Mills, and Once More Darling (1978). Treasure Island and Great Expectations won Novello Best Musical of the Year Awards.

Ornadel wrote the incidental music for many television series and several films including the remake with Richard Burton and Sophia Lauren of Brief Encounter. He helped the London Symphony Orchestra win its first gold disc with his score for television's The Strauss Family and conducted the orchestra again for the award-winning series Edward the Seventh. He was a founder director of the World Record Club, Britain's first mail order record company, and in charge of recording "The Living Bible" with Laurence Olivier and "The Living Shakespeare" series featuring the cream of British actors and actresses.

Ornadel was not only a superb musician, he was one of the nicest of people. He retired from conducting in 1989 and moved to Israel with his wife Soo. "I never knew what I wanted to do other than make music," he said shortly before he died. "I've been lucky. I've no regrets about my career whatsoever. I only regret that which I haven't done."

Richard Fawkes

Cyril Ornadel, conductor and composer: born London 2 December 1924; married 1961 Shoshana Shapira (two sons, one daughter); died Israel 22 June 2011.