Ron Goodwin

Film composer and arranger who wrote some of the screen's most popular title themes

Saturday 11 January 2003 01:00
Ronald Goodwin, composer, arranger and conductor: born Plymouth, Devon 17 February 1925; twice married (one son); died Brimpton Common, Berkshire 8 January 2003.

One of Britain's foremost film composers, as well as a top arranger and conductor, Ron Goodwin wrote the scores for over 60 movies, including The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. He was particularly known for his work on war stories such as Operation Crossbow, Where Eagles Dare and The Battle of Britain.

Besides fulfilling the prime duties of a film composer, creating atmosphere, building a sense of continuity and heightening mood, Goodwin pleased his producers by fashioning some of the screen's most popular title themes. Among his most familiar pieces are the stirring theme he wrote for 633 Squadron (recently used for an insurance commercial in which pigs are seen flying in fighter formation) and the playfully jaunty music he wrote to accompany the sleuthing of Miss Marple in the series that starred Margaret Rutherford.

He was also a major recording artist, and as Ron Goodwin and his Concert Orchestra he was signed by the Beatles' producer George Martin and received a gold disc in 1975 for selling over a million albums. One of his best known scores is that for The Trap (1966), in which Oliver Reed starred as a trapper in 19th-century British Columbia, since it is used by the BBC each year to introduce its coverage of the London Marathon.

Ronald Goodwin was born in Plymouth, where his father was a policeman, in 1925. When the family moved to London he was educated at Pinner County Grammar School, where he learned to play the trumpet. After a brief spell as an insurance clerk, he formed his own band, Ron Goodwin and the Woodchoppers. He also occasionally filled in as trumpeter with the popular group Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight.

In 1943 he became an arranger for the giant publishing house Campbell and Connelly, and two years later he became the chief arranger for Bron Associated Publishers. Many of the top British dance bands, including Ted Heath, Geraldo and the BBC Dance Orchestra, benefitted from his arrangements. Jimmy Young's No 1 hit, "Too Young", was arranged by Goodwin for the Nixa label in 1951, and 10 years later Goodwin and Jack Fishman composed "My Friend the Sea", a hit for Petula Clark on the Pye label. As music director for George Martin at Parlophone Records he began recording as Ron Goodwin and his Concert Orchestra. He also worked on the legendary comic albums made for the label by Peter Sellers.

Keen to break into films, Goodwin scored several documentaries at Merton Park Studios prior to composing his first score for a feature film in 1958, Lewis Allen's Whirlpool starring the French chanteuse Juliette Greco. Though the film was a dreary melodrama, Goodwin's music was effective enough to establish him as a film composer.

Goodwin had dreamed of composing for films ever since he saw Albert Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) as a young man. The mainly black-and-white movie went into colour when the portrait was shown, and Goodwin was particularly impressed by the contribution made to those sequences by the music. "The colour would have made an impact," he said,

but the music tied the whole thing together. I used to love to see things like that. I thought how I would get that sort

of forceful effect when I write for films: what sort of sounds and what sort of harmonies, musical intruments, I would use.

Goodwin soon displayed his ability for adding appropriate musical colour to any genre. His early work included slyly humorous scores for the comedies I'm All Right Jack (1960) and Invasion Quartet (1961), eerie harmonies for the chillers Village of the Damned (1960) and its sequel Children of the Damned (1964), and his attractively spirited "Miss Marple" music, inspired by the casting of Margaret Rutherford as the amateur sleuth and first written for Murder She Said (1962).

His first war film was 633 Squadron (1964), the account of a bombing mission to destroy a German-run factory in Norway. It was a routine film given added stature by Goodwin's rousing and tuneful main theme. The following year he wrote the music for Ken Annakin's lavish account of the London-to-Paris air race in the early days of aviation, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), for which Goodwin wrote a perky title tune.

The Battle of Britain (1969) was to prove something of an embarrassment for the composer, who was brought in to provide a new score after its distributors United Artists decided to jettison the one written for the film by William Walton. Walton was furious at what he described as "a bloody snub" and many in the industry were shocked that so distinguished a figure should be treated so shabbily. The film's star, Sir Laurence Olivier, told the producers he would insist on his name being removed from the credits unless they used at least part of Walton's score. UA agreed to keep five minutes of Walton's music near the end of the film.

Unfortunately for Goodwin, the Walton sequence – a superbly photographed montage of aerial dogfights given an eerie beauty by Walton's breathtaking underscoring – was the highlight of an otherwise undistinguished film. It is understandable that Goodwin could not refuse the chance to score a multi-million dollar film, but inevitably his score did not get him his best notices.

One of Goodwin's most prestigious assignments was Frenzy (1972), directed by Alfred Hitchock, whose earlier work had memorable scores by composers such as Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann.

First of all I was asked to go to Pinewood Studios to meet him and I was a bit nervous, but he was very relaxed and humorous and told me some funny stories. He made me feel welcome, but he was very, very meticulous about what kind of music he wanted . . . Bernard Herrmann's name didn't come up.

In 1970 Goodwin was asked to conduct a charity concert with the Royal Philharmonic at the Albert Hall and it was the start of another career. For the following 30 years he toured the world as a conductor performing classics and pops along with film scores, and he delighted in the fact that these reached beyond normal concert audiences.

Goodwin's last film score was for Valhalla (1985), an animated film made in Denmark, but barely shown outside Scandinavia because the production company went bankrupt. He then gave up film composition because, he said, producers were unwilling to invest the appropriate time or money.

There's no way you can write a good film score in two weeks. I prefer when somebody brings me in and says, "You get five or six weeks to write, two or three days to record it and the money you need." But the whole business has changed. Also, I'm enjoying what I do.

An active champion of young musicians, he worked with the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra and was president of the City of Birmingham Schools Concert Orchestra. In 1994 his talents were recognised when George Martin presented him with the Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement in Music.

Tom Vallance

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