Writer of the theme music to 'Porridge'
Thursday 25 March 2004
The modest Max Harris was a pianist, composer and arranger, best known for his theme music for the television series
The Strange World of Gurney Slade and
Porridge, but with a long history in the music industry working with many illustrious names, including Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli. His friend the songwriter Tony Hiller said:
Max Harris, composer and arranger: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 15 September 1918; married (one son, one daughter); died 13 March 2004.
The modest Max Harris was a pianist, composer and arranger, best known for his theme music for the television series The Strange World of Gurney Slade and Porridge, but with a long history in the music industry working with many illustrious names, including Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli. His friend the songwriter Tony Hiller said:
He was a very accomplished composer and arranger, and a very good pianist. Of course he worked on the popular side for the money, but we all do that. I had the feeling that he would like to have remained a jazzer. When he was recording with Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli, he felt at the top of his profession. He knew then that he was playing with the champions.
Max Harris was born into a Jewish family in Bournemouth in 1918, his father being a tailor. His musical talent was soon appreciated and he received private tuition up to the advanced grade at the Royal Academy of Music. In order to meet the fees, he would give piano lessons himself.
His first professional jobs were in dance bands, the first being Lew Foster and the second Stan Atkins. He was a captain in the RASC during the Second World War and served in the Middle East. After the war, he played for Ronnie Monro's band and then worked several cruises on the Mauretania.
He made his first radio appearance on the BBC's Jazz Club in 1950 and played keyboards and wrote arrangements for Cyril Stapleton's Show Band. He wrote arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Dick Haymes when they were visiting the UK. A fellow arranger and conductor, Tony Osborne, recalls,
We worked on a lot of commercials together in the 1950s, and he was 100 per cent reliable. In 1961 he was asked by the bandleader Ted Heath to cover a record I had made for Parlophone, "Man from Madrid".
His version came out of Decca and, when I heard it by chance on the radio, I didn't know whether I was listening to him or me. He had been asked to copy the record and that's exactly what he did.
In 1960 he worked with one of the UK's rising stars, Anthony Newley, on his experimental ITV comedy series The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which was scheduled for peak time on Saturday evenings. But nobody laughed; the reaction to the first episode was so extreme that it was rescheduled for 11pm in subsequent weeks. The public loved Max Harris's theme music, however, which was a modern jazz recording in the style of Dave Brubeck. It made the Top Twenty, as well as winning him an Ivor Novello award. His subsequent singles "Pancho" and "Wheels" were not hits, but he did secure another Ivor Novello for "Bombay Duck", his theme for the television series Kipling, in 1964.
Harris worked on numerous radio comedy shows including Round the Horne (with Kenneth Horne) and Stop Messing About (with Kenneth Williams). In the early 1970s, there was a vogue for exploiting the success of TV comedy series by making feature-length films and Harris wrote, arranged and conducted the score for the very successful film On the Buses (1971) starring Reg Varney and Doris Hare. In a more dramatic vein, in 1969, he scored the controversial film Baby Love, starring Keith Barron as a doctor in love with a schoolgirl from the slums, played by Linda Hayden. The film had an X certificate and some opponents thought it should never have been made at all.
Harris wrote the music for one of the BBC's comedy greats, Porridge, with Ronnie Barker as the scheming prisoner Norman Fletcher, which began in 1973. His jaunty theme was deliberately at variance with the dour comedy. He worked with Barker again when he played the old-fashioned shopkeeper, Arkwright, in Open All Hours. He also wrote the music for the dramas Doomwatch, Horseman Riding By and Poldark.
In 1972 Harris had the chance to work with the violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli on what was to become a series of very successful albums, both commercially and artistically. The best-known are Jealousy (1972) and Tea for Two (1977).
In 1975 Harris recorded Mister Jelly with the New Red Hot Peppers, a tribute album to his favourite pianist, Jelly Roll Morton. In the same year, he composed and conducted the score for Carry On England. In 1985 he wrote and conducted the music for Dreamchild, a highly rated film written by Dennis Potter in which Coral Browne as an 80-year-old Alice looks back to her childhood with Lewis Carroll, played by Ian Holm.
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