Brian Kay interviews Robert Farnon
On Sunday 21 July 2002, BRIAN KAY devoted his Radio-3 "Light Programme" to a Tribute to ROBERT FARNON who would be celebrating his 85th birthday later that week – on 24 July. At the last minute Brian had to abandon plans to travel to Guernsey to interview Bob at his home, but the radio link worked perfectly, and listeners could not have been aware that they were actually hundreds of miles apart. In response to requests from many RFS members, we are pleased to print the following abridged transcript of the broadcast.
MUSIC: JUMPING BEAN
Brian Kay: That’s the familiar, and suitably bouncy sound of Robert Farnon’s Jumping Bean, a novelty number which introduces an entire programme devoted to the music of the most distinguished light music composer living and working today. He’s known universally as "The Guv’nor", and he’s been famously described by Andre Previn as ‘the greatest living writer for strings’, and few would argue with that. Next Wednesday he celebrates, amazingly enough, his 85th birthday, and this afternoon’s selection is put together as part of our celebration of that major milestone. Not only the music, but also words of wisdom from the great man himself, as he joins us for the programme and, indeed is, most welcome. Bob, first of all many congratulations on having had your bus pass now for 20 years. Not much use, I suppose, on the beautiful island of Guernsey?
Robert Farnon: No, we have to walk everywhere, Brian. By the way, hello and thank you for the invitation.
BK: It’s great to have you on the programme. "The Guv’nor", I mentioned in my introduction. Who first called you that, do you remember?
RF: Yes, it was accidental because in Britain the guv’nor is just the boss of anything and Don Lusher, you know the trombone player … at rehearsal someone asked him who I was and he said, " Oh, that’s the guv’nor", meaning the boss of the orchestra.
BK: Fair enough.
RF: It didn’t mean what they think it does in the States; they think it is the Governor of the State.
BK: I would stick with it if I was you; it suits you extremely well.
RF: Sounds good, doesn’t it?
BK: It certainly does. Let’s get to the heart of the matter straight away. Light music has been at the centre of your life for so many years and your contribution to it has greatly enriched our lives. Are you happy with that description? What does light music actually mean to you?
RF: Well, in Canada we called it concert music but it’s the same thing. When we played Eric Coates over there they just called it concert music not light music. It wasn’t known as that. But, no, I am quite happy with either light or concert.
BK: Did you play Eric Coates in Canada in the early days?
RF: Yes, we did, my goodness. We over there had a proms season every year and he was always represented in at least one number on each programme.
BK: Glad to hear it.
RF: Very popular.
BK: We are going back to those early days. The first burst of fame you had, I guess, was presenting a programme called ‘Happy Gang’ for Canadian radio as a young man. What was that all about?
RF: Well, Brian, I was just a member of this crowd; it was six different musicians who got together to do a two weeks "fill" for the summer for our very popular radio show over there, the name of which I’ve forgotten. But our programme turned out to be so popular they kept it on. Would you believe it, it went on for 22 years.
BK: That’s some "fill".
RF: Amazing, five days a week.
MUSIC: GOOD LUCK AND THE SAME TO YOU (The Happy Gang)
BK: Happy memories, I’ve no doubt.
RF: Oh, we had a wonderful time. Every non-scripted programme we just said more or less what came into our minds, as long as it was clean!
BK: Fair enough, we should have you on this programme more often. You were only in your mid-20s when you joined the Percy Faith Orchestra as a trumpet player. Did you think at that stage you might turn out to be a trumpeter for the rest of your life?
RF: Yes, I did. You know, I didn’t think of conducting, well … writing … I was writing all the time but I certainly didn’t think I would ever make a living at writing – but, playing the trumpet, yes I did.
BK: So you were doing arrangements for the Percy Faith Orchestra?
RF: Well, I was doing his choir arrangements ‘cause he didn’t like writing for voices and therefore didn’t do it very well. So he asked me each week for his shows to do one or two numbers for his choir.
BK: I guess more broadcasting came your way when you became conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces?
RF: Yes, that was when I came to England, Brian, and took over the band and they brought me in to do the orchestrations.
BK: So that was the same position, really then, that Glenn Miller had in the States and George Melachrino had over here?
RF: Exactly the same, Brian.
BK: Did you get to work with both of them?
RF: Yes, we worked in London. We did these broadcasts four or five times a week, and we did a programme on the Christmas that Miller disappeared. It was at the Queensberry Club. We were waiting to do the show and he, of course, didn’t turn up and eventually we just went ahead without him. But it was a very sad occasion.
BK: Was it really a broadcasting orchestra, then? I mean was it principally put together to keep the troops happy?
RF: Yes, broadcasting, Brian, and we also did a lot of personal appearances for the services.
MUSIC: TEA FOR TWO (Canadian Band of the AEF)
BK: When we got to the end of the war, Bob, I guess that must have been when you decided to stay in Britain – why was that?
RF: Well, my ambition even as a young lad was writing for movies and, of course, in Canada we didn’t have any industry to speak of, and then when I got to England I found that there was such a wealth of work to be had writing for pictures, if you could get your foot in the door.
BK: How did you get your foot in the door?
RF: Through my wife. Yes, she was the casting director for the Herbert Wilcox productions of Anna Neagle … so I told her I loved her more times than I should. So she got me my first film.
BK: Was that ‘Spring In Park Lane’?
RF: That’s right, yes.
BK: Well that was a pretty good start. But you didn’t think you’d be a movie composer for the rest of your life?
RF: No, not really, it was just one of the things I wanted to do. I wanted more than anything, of course, to write serious music which had to be postponed when I joined the Army.
BK: And is still on hold, presumably?
RF: Well, I get a few pieces in from time to time but not very much.
BK: What was there about English or British light music that particularly appealed to you?
RF: Well, it was very refreshing to me and very similar to our concert music, as we were calling it in Canada. But much more sophisticated, and great composers such as Haydn Wood, Eric Coates and several others. And they were inspirational to me.
MUSIC: LONDON BRIDGE MARCH (Eric Coates)
BK: Inspirational, Bob, but not necessarily an influence, I guess?
RF: Not really an influence, no, because my influence was more American than it was English.
BK: Well, the general feeling seems to be that English music at that stage needed something of a shot in the arm and you were the man to supply it.
RF: Well I was told that, too …
BK: Did you actually meet people like Eric Coates?
RF: Yes, I did. I matter of fact met him many, many times and on one occasion he had written a suite called ‘The Three Bears Suite’ in which he had a little jazz section. But he said, "I can’t write jazz, would you mind rewriting this for me?" So I sat down one day and rewrote this little section.
BK: I don’t think you have been credited on the record sleeves?
RF: No, that was a secret.
Editor: this would have been for Eric Coates’ adaptation of the Waltz Theme, for the Chappell (and Decca) recordings.
BK: What sort of a man was he to meet and work with?
RF: He was a sweet little man, Brian, he really was a lovely person. He and I had the same music publisher, therefore we met quite frequently.
BK: Did he actively encourage you?
RF: Well, no - funny with composers, it’s seldom we ever meet let alone discuss our work. No, there was no influence just a mutual admiration, I suppose.
BK: Like yourself he was a great tunesmith, if I may put it that way. Where do those marvellous melodies come from, both yours and his?
RF: You know, I wish I could answer that. I don’t know. I just sit down and decide to write something. If it comes then I continue until I finish it. If it doesn’t I walk the dog and try later.
BK: Divine inspiration?
RF: Yes, I think so.
BK: You settled in this country in the 40s; I mean you came to live here completely. Were there not the opportunities in Canada for you to do the sort of work you wanted?
RF: Well, you know I didn’t even find that out, Brian, because after the war I asked if I could be discharged in Britain because I wanted to get my foot in the door as soon as possible here and start doing movie work and radio.
BK: Did you feel homesick at all once you got here?
RF: You know I didn’t because both my parents were born on this side of the "Pond" and it wasn’t strange to me; it was home really and I was quite happy here.
BK: And yet you wrote all those wonderful ‘Canadian Impressions’. Do they bring the open countryside of Canada back to you?
RF: I wrote most of the pieces of that kind when I was over here so I must have been a bit homesick, mustn’t I?
MUSIC: LAKE OF THE WOODS
BK: Those sort of larger scale works, Bob …do you regret not having the chance in a sense to write more of those?
RF: Yes, I do, but the light music took over as far as I was concerned and all the pieces were doing so well I ended up not having enough time to devote to more serious pieces until later on in my life.
BK: Well, maybe, you can start afresh now?
RF: Yeah, well I made up for it a little bit but not enough!
BK: So, England in the 1940s, you were involved with all the great names, like Ambrose and Ted Heath, and became a staff arranger for Geraldo. How did that come about, that sort of appointment?
RF: Well, now … the story can be told now but at the time it couldn’t because I was still in uniform and I was moonlighting at night and writing for Ted Heath and bands when I shouldn’t have been. I should have been writing for the Army, but they heard the Army orchestra and they liked what they heard so they asked me to contribute to their libraries, which I did quite a lot.
BK: When Geraldo went to the States you took over as conductor.
RF: Yes, he signed me for a year under contract to arrange exclusively for him and when he went to the States he asked if I would take over the orchestra, which I did.
BK: Was this all gradually leading to the formation of your own orchestra – the Robert Farnon Orchestra?
RF: Yes, it was because it was very shortly after that when I left Geraldo that the BBC offered me the Sunday programme called ‘Melody Hour’.
BK: Ah, it’s our fault, is it?
RF: Yes it is. That’s how it started.
BK: And one of your first big hits with them was Portrait of a Flirt, I think.
RF: Yes, it was, and then Journey Into Melody and a few things like that which were also used as themes for certain radio shows like ‘In Town Tonight’ and what not.
MUSIC: PORTRAIT OF A FLIRT
BK: Portrait of a Flirt and Jumping Bean appeared in 1948 on your first 78. Bob, I wonder which was the "B" side?
RF: Well Jumping Bean was the first one I’d done and the Portrait of a Flirt, although it was nothing like the Jumping Bean, that was the sort of sequel. They said, "You must write another Jumping Bean", and it was very successful.
BK: I suppose you’d call it a double "A" side in that case. And the orchestra mainly worked in the early days for radio programmes and backing singers like Vera Lynn and Gracie FieldS and even Norman Wisdom and the Ilford Girls’ Choir, I see.
RF: That came about because during the Army days when we were doing our broadcasts we also accompanied a lot of these famous British names, and then I met up with them later. They asked me to write other things for them.
BK: I was going to say they were specifically asking for you, or was it you’d become a staff conductor/arranger, so to speak, for Decca?
RF: Well, that was the reason for Gracie and, yes, several … you’re quite right, it was.
BK: Did it leave enough time for composing because I guess that’s what you wanted to do most?
RF: Well, it certainly left enough time, Brian, to compose light music because I was composing it most of the time. And the arrangements just came in incidentally, they were not difficult to do and I’d roll them off in a week or so and then get back to doing something original.
BK: The very idea of rolling them off in a week or so! Yes, I see. Was the novelty number, as we call it, your best way in as a composer so to speak?
RF: You know it was that because of Jumping Bean, I think.
BK: Sure. By the end of the 40s you were certainly absolutely in, and then you had 20 years as an arranger for Chappell’s, which brings me on to the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra and that connection there.
RF: It was a fine orchestra which recorded in a very fine hall in London called Queen’s Hall.
Editor: Bob was referring to the origins of the QHLO, many years earlier. By the time Bob was conducting it the Quieen’s Hall had already been destroyed by enemy bombing on the night of 10/11 May, 1941.
BK: So if you turned up at Chappell’s in the morning at 9 o’clock, presumably dead on the dot, and somebody said we want you to write a three minute piece, you just sat there and wrote it, did you? Is that how it worked?
RF: I wish I had. Occasionally it happened that way but mostly it was a little harder work than that.
BK: What did they do – did they commission certain things from you or …
RF: Well all the big … they gave me my head mostly, carte blanche all the time, they said just write whatever you like.
BK: And you managed to perform all this music, presumably, with the QHLO?
RF: Oh yes, very much, and all my broadcasts, of course.
MUSIC: PROUD CANVAS
BK: Bob, your very distinctive sound and harmonies: how do you conjure up those sounds?
RF: You know I have been asked that many, many times, Brian, and I don’t know the answer. I think it’s that gift from that Man up in the Happy Hunting Ground.
BK: Is that what it is? Presumably, working with an orchestra like the QHLO was in itself some inspiration to you when it comes to sound?
RF: Oh yes it was a splendid orchestra with the finest musicians in the country. I couldn’t believe it, one day I said, "Who is that horn player we have today?", ‘cause I wasn’t too familiar with them – not by name – and the horn player was Dennis Brain! And I didn’t know until later.
BK: And how come? I mean what intrigues me (I’ve often mentioned this on the Sunday afternoon programme) is the absolutely natural way in which they phrase light music. Was it natural or did it need somebody like you standing in front to bring it out of them?
RF: Well, they needed a little help at first but they soon got used to that idiom and, of course, they loved playing it because it was completely different to them, different style, and then it became, I don’t know, standard sound British light music to a certain extent. It was sound that the Americans admired so much and wondered … I used to be asked sometimes, "How many basses did you use in that recording?" I said, "One".
BK: Just one? Is that true?
RF: They thought we had a gallery of them!
BK: Just looking back to Proud Canvas, I sense in that music the influence of Hollywood film music. You did write music for 40 films: ‘Spring in Park Lane’, we’ve mentioned, ‘The Road to Hong Kong’, those sort of films. Did you enjoy writing for films because it’s a very different discipline, isn’t it?
RF: Brian, I just loved writing for films, I really did. I felt well here’s a type of music you’re writing and it won’t be lost out on the airwaves and never heard again. It’s on film now and it will be heard.
BK: But the actual process of writing music, did you have to write to a stopwatch and that sort of thing?
RF: Yes, I did. But I didn’t mind that, I enjoyed it. It was a good discipline, too.
BK: And did you see the movie before you started to write the music?
RF: Yes. With musicals we didn’t because the music was recorded first and then the film was shot, but with dramatic films, of course, we did see a lot of the rushes and that was a great help, you know, if we saw a love scene or an action section then we knew what it was going to look like before we started writing.
MUSIC: FINALE FROM ‘CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER’
BK: What about songs and theatre music, Bob? Did that ever have any real appeal for you?
RF: I wasn’t very good at it, Brian, so I didn’t write very much in the way of songs. I remember one year being asked to write a number for the Eurovision Song Contest. I think when they had the last six to select from mine was last.
BK: Far too good for the Competition, obviously.
RF: I don’t know but I didn’t take to it. Occasionally I would write a song … the song was easy to do but the lyrics would take me two or three months and I always needed the help of my wife.
Editor: the song in question was "Country Girl", later a big hit for Tony Bennett.
BK: But you were always happy to arrange other people’s songs, of course.
RF: Oh yes, of course. I don’t just arrange but I put quite a lot of composition into it, too. And I’ve been told that’s what makes my score just a little bit different.
BK: It certainly does. And what did it mean to you to be working with great singers like Sinatra and Tony Bennett? I know you worked with him a great deal.
RF: You mention two who were delights to work with - it was so easy - all the professionals are great - it’s the ones who weren’t that good at their job that were difficult to work with - but not these people.
BK: You just did one big album with Sinatra, didn’t you?
RF: Yes, he only did one in Britain; he wanted to just say, "Well, I’ve done an album of British songs", because there was a wealth of material to choose from. And he picked some very nice ones.
MUSIC: A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE (Frank Sinatra)
BK: Bob, when light music in a sense declined in the 60s, 70s and 80s, I guess you had to find some kind of new direction?
RF: Well, that’s when I returned to writing more serious music. Well I had nothing else to do so I went back to base one.
BK: Why do you think that decline took place? What do you think was it that reduced its impact at that stage?
RF: Well, it’s just like most popular music it doesn’t last forever, the styles are continually changing. Although I must admit the latest one, rock ‘n’ roll, has been going on a long time!
BK: It has, hasn’t it? I suppose also opportunities … I mean the spa orchestras and the hotel orchestras and even concert orchestras and all those BBC light music orchestras, for example, they ceased to exist.
RF: That is the answer, really, the orchestras were dwindling and we had no one to write for; for instance in a country like Norway where they only had one orchestra in the whole country, but at one time in Britain we had eight or nine.
BK: Well, thank goodness, we still have the BBC Concert Orchestra.
RF: Oh yes, that’s keeping the flag flying; it’s the only one that is.
BK: You must have been very grateful for the opportunities you had of having so many orchestras to write for?
RF: Yes, and I was fortunate, too, with my contact with Chappell publishers. They did so much for me.
BK: Well it resulted in four Ivor Novello awards: Westminster Waltz in ’56, Sea Shore in ’60, Colditz March in ’73, and a special achievement award for outstanding services to British music in ’91. Do those awards matter a great deal to you?
RF: They certainly do - I polish them every Sunday morning!
BK: And even Grammy’s as well on the other side of the Atlantic … just as popular. The one you’ve got, I see, was for your arrangements for the Singers Unlimited. Something very close to my heart.
Editor: Bob was nominated for a Grammy for his work with the Singers Unlimited, but he actually won the award for ‘Lament’ with trombonist J.J. Johnson
MUSIC: THE MORE I SEE YOU (The Singers Unlimited)
BK:That must have been an extraordinary outfit to work for because they, I think if I remember rightly, recorded the vocals at a separate time from the orchestra?
RF: Yes, that’s right. They didn’t record ‘till we’d done the accompaniments usually and, also, they were done in a different country. I would do the accompaniments in London and they would record over in Germany separately. Well, they had to with the Singers Unlimited because they only had four voices but they had about 16 vocal tracks. Another wonderful musician who I love very much and loved working with is Shearing and we did the same with him. He did his piano tracks before us and then we put the accompaniment to it.
BK: I was going to say that you came here from Canada and George Shearing went west, and you’ve recently done another CD with him. Is it different?
RF: I was going to say we didn’t even see each other passing on the ocean! No, we never met until quite recently.
BK: So you simply weren’t in the studio on the same day?
RF: Oh no, not at all, some times a month or two went by.
Editor: Bob is remembering the ‘On Target’ album with George Shearing. They were definitely both working together in the CTS Studios at Wembley for the Telarc CD ‘How Beautiful is Night’.
MUSIC: PUT ON A HAPPY FACE (George Shearing)
BK: So, Bob, 85 approaching next Wednesday, you’re still happy to be working, obviously?
RF: Very much so, yeah!
BK: What’s coming up?
RF: Let me think now – I’ve just finished an album recently with the Scottish jazz singer, Carol Kidd; and then I did an orchestral album with strings; and the next one is a Christmas album for Tony Bennett, recording Christmas in July but, as you know, they have to be recorded several months ahead in order to do all the processing.
BK: Looking back over your life, would you have changed the way things have gone? I know you still have this hankering to write a major symphony or whatever.
RF: Well, I’ve often thought about that and in the early days I used to be very cross and wished that I had done more studying, serious studying. But now I’m not. I’m not angry with myself for not studying.
BK: I’d say you’d managed pretty well without. And you’re happy with the way light music is once again very popular?
RF: Yes, very much so. It’s encouraging and I’m delighted. I don’t know whether I could write it but I’m pleased to see that even my old warhorses are being played again.
BK: And will be for many years to come, I’m sure. Well, the world of light music has undoubtedly been enriched by your massive contribution to a style of music which so many enjoy for its tunefulness, its catchiness and the sheer feel-good factor it gives. I’m sure all your devoted fans world-wide would want to join me in wishing you everything of the best on Wednesday for that big birthday and, indeed, to say, Bob Farnon, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today and, of course, thank you for the music!
RF: Brian, thank you very much.
MUSIC: WESTMINSTER WALTZ
Editor: my very special thanks to Peter Burt who willingly ‘volunteered’ to undertake the arduous task of transcribing this broadcast.