Geoffrey Macnab: John Barry was every bit as vital as a star director

Tuesday 01 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Soundtrack composers take great pleasure in startling their audiences by working against the grain. They'll choose unusual instruments and turn genre conventions on their head. John Barry – one of the greatest movie composers – did this regularly. It's a measure of his genius that the effect was never jarring and that his scores defined the movies every bit as much as the direction or performances.

Take The Ipcress File (1965), in which Michael Caine played the crumpled spy Harry Palmer. For this score, Barry opted to use a cimbalon. The effect was every bit as mesmerising as the Anton Karas zither on the Harry Lime theme in The Third Man.

The Ipcress File score, with its echoing brass, was lilting but deceptive. There was a hint of mystery and menace about it. The setting may have been Sixties London but that wasn't where the music seemed to come from. Barry may have played rock'n'roll and his band might have backed Adam Faith but that didn't lead him to make glib swinging Sixties references.

For another thriller, The Quiller Memorandum, he chose a barrel organ. He was a pioneer of the Moog synthesizer too, using it both on On Her Majesty's Secret Secret Service and for his score for TV's The Persuaders.

His lovely harmonica theme for Midnight Cowboy added pathos and a sense of yearning to a film set in a very sleazy and downbeat milieu. At the same time, he was capable of writing martial scores, full of pomp and ceremony, as he did for Zulu, or rousing arrangements, reminiscent of the old Hollywood scores he so admired (for example, for Born Free or Out Of Africa.)

Without John Barry, would the James Bond series ever have become the worldwide phenomenon that it did? Barry's music played as important a part in defining the Bond brand as the gadgets or stunts. It was also a point of continuity. Whatever digressions the series made, whatever its occasional false steps, the Barry music gave the Bond films both dynamism and gravitas.

Barry arranged, conducted and performed as well as composed. He was hugely admired by his peers, young and old. The five Oscars he won and the multiple other awards showed the esteem in which he was held.

Last year, when he won World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ghent Festival in Flanders, he was too ill to attend. A concert was held in his honour. The programme, which included excerpts of his music for everything from Goldfinger to Dances With Wolves, from Body Heat to The Lion In Winter, underlined just how rich his legacy is.

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