Obituary: Philip Martell

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The Independent Online
Philip Martell, conductor and film-music director: born London 1906; music director, Hammer Films 1963-93; married (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 11 August 1993.

OUR CENTURY's British musical culture has been wonderfully enriched by the impoverished Jewish migrant families from Eastern Europe who came here long before the First World War with nothing but treasures of the mind. You will find them and their descendants in all our orchestras. Yiddish was often the only language, food and clothing were scarce; yet, in the hierarchy of needs, parents struggled to obtain small violins, thrust them under the chins of their children before they could read Hebrew, and said: 'Now play]' Poorly paid but excellent tutors were found, and thus the voice of the turtle was more beautifully heard in the land.

The brothers Harry and Philip Martell were two such lads, and Philip was one of the last of that wonderful generation whose legacy merits our gratitude. Never by desire or ability was he made for stardom, but as a fine chamber music player, a jobbing orchestral player and a distinguished theatre conductor, he moved on to the appointment which he held for most of his mature life, as music director for Hammer Films.

Born in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, in 1906, Philip Martell trained at the Guildhall School of Music and became involved professionally with films in the late Twenties, as an arranger. With the end of the silent era, he took up a more conventional career, putting together his own orchestra and doing work for the BBC. He returned to the film industry after the Second World War, and started work for Hammer in 1955. It was with the death of John Hollingsworth, Hammer's first regular music director, in 1963 that Martell was appointed, and he remained in the position for 30 years.

Philip Martell raised and maintained an impressive standard in film music, and whether they knew it or not the cream of the theatrical profession (one thinks immediately of Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Diana Dors, Jane Lapotaire, Joss Ackland, Sir John Mills, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) were turning in commendable performances to music from top orchestras under Martell's direction. He chose composers, often young and untried, of whom I was one (Richard Rodney Bennett, Paul Patterson, Wilfred Josephs are other examples), as well as the more experienced, such as Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard. A book is in preparation with a seemingly endless list of film scores that Martell commissioned and directed (in the 1970s he also became music director of the smaller Tyburn Studios) - with titles like Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, music by Elisabeth Lutyens (1960), The Nanny, music by Richard Rodney Bennett (1965), and - with music by myself - The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).

If Martell was a stern taskmaster, he also drew the best from us, and while demanding rewrites in the face of impossible deadlines he was the kindest and most considerate of men, temperamentally untouched by the notorious jungle of celluloid commercialism.

Vaughan Williams is said to have recommended the writing of film music as a discipline for all composers; and it was, perhaps oddly, in that tradition that Martell on occasion would fling an unsatisfactory manuscript on the carpet, stamp on it and scream: 'No good] Do it again]' In seconds his irresistible charm would return and the mollified composer would set to, elated, and do his bidding.

In view of the tragic illnesses of his last lonely years, it is salutary to remember now his huge contribution to British film music and to the composers who earned and learned through his good offices. My own youthful terror gave way to delight when Martell obliged me to compose a feature film score (Crescendo, 1970) for the mortally ill saxophonist Tubby Hayes with the London Symphony Orchestra. Hayes was a lad of genius, not least in this, his last major recording, and the LSO were ecstatic about it. But it was Martell who steered us all.

One anecdote tells much about Phil Martell's intrinsic nobility. At a recording session the entire orchestra except for the harpist was male. The excitable producer was bellowing liberally blue language through the studio microphone. Martell, with a feeling of old-world shame, secretly sent a lavish basket of flowers to the embarrassed lady harpist after the session, as a token of apology and esteem to the fair sex - a characteristic kindness.