Ron Goodwin was a brilliant composer, arranger and conductor, whose tuneful music reached the furthest corners of the world. Fortunately he was a prolific recording artist, so future generations will also be able to enjoy his music that has so enriched all our lives during the second half of the 20th century.
Ron was born in Plymouth, Devon, on 17 February 1925, the son of a policeman. The family moved to London, and Ron was educated at Pinner County Grammar School. He showed a keen interest in music from an early age, and while at school he learned to play the trumpet. After a half-hearted attempt to build a career in the insurance business, Ron soon realised that his future was with his first love, music, and at the age of 18 he went to work with the famous publishers Campbell, Connelly & Co. as a music copier. At the same time he pursued his studies on the trumpet and arranging at the Guildhall School of Music, and he began to play trumpet professionally with Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight – the talented group of musicians which also included Norrie Paramor and Geoff Love, both – like Ron – destined to become major EMI conductors.
In 1945 he was appointed head of the arranging department at Bron Associated Publishers, where he was involved in working with the top British bands such as Ted Heath, Geraldo and the BBC Dance Orchestra. The discipline involved in producing high quality work at short notice has been cited by many successful arrangers and composers as the best grounding that one could hope for in the cut and thrust of the music business.
In Ron’s case he learned quickly, and his talents were noticed by the top people in the business. He started accompanying stars such as Petula Clark and Jimmy Young on their hit recordings, and this led to a particularly fruitful association at Parlophone with producer George Martin (later to be knighted for his services to the music industry, especially as the Beatles’ recording manager).
‘Ron Goodwin and his Concert Orchestra’ soon became a familiar name through recordings and broadcasts. As his records started selling well overseas (especially in North America), his name came to the attention of the people who mattered in the movie business. From the outset, Parlophone allowed him to record some of his own compositions, so his credentials as a composer, as well as an accomplished arranger, were soon firmly established.
Some of his most popular LPs included Film Favourites (1954), Music To Set You Dreaming (1956),Out of this World (his first stereo album in 1958), Serenade (1961), Adventure (1966), Legend of the Glass Mountain (1968) Excitement (1970), Ron Goodwin in Concert (1971), Ron Goodwin Plays Burt Bacharach (1972), and Spellbound (1972). He also worked with Peter Sellers on his best-selling comedy albums (notably Goodness Gracious Me with Sophia Loren in 1960), and soundtrack albums were released from several of his films.
Initially Ron’s work in the film industry was at Merton Park Studios on documentaries, but in 1958 his big chance came with a commission to write his first score for a major feature film "Whirlpool". The film itself did not make the gigantic ripples that its title might have suggested, but Goodwin’s music received a favourable reaction. Two years later he was signed by MGM British Studios to compose and conduct for most of their British productions.
In total, Goodwin worked on some 60 films, and it is hard to recall any of his scores that were not memorable in some particular way. He had a gift of being able to write themes for the situations or characters that so perfectly suited what was happening on-screen. And he could take the bones of those themes and rework them in such a melodious way that even the sequences requiring what might be termed bland background music, barely audible in the cinema, were revealed in their full beauty when heard on the accompanying soundtrack albums.
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 instruments, I would use."
Goodwin soon displayed his ability for adding appropriate musical colour to any genre. His early work included Invasion Quartet (1961); The Day of the Triffids (1962); eerie harmonies for the chillersVillage 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 Agatha Christie’s famous amateur sleuth and first written for Murder She Said (1962). Ron’s catchy theme was an instant success that was to be repeated during several more films in the series.
"633 Squadron" (1964) was his first big blockbuster. True, the film had a good story in the heroic aerial exploits against the Nazis in occupied Norway, but it might have been less well-remembered today had it not been for Goodwin’s brilliant main theme. The following year Ron hit the jackpot again, this time also up in the clouds but in humorous vein with "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines". The story of an international air race in the early days of aviation, afforded numerous opportunities for different styles of comic and romantic themes to suit the wild antics of the participants, and Goodwin’s score (including the catchy main theme) was a masterpiece.
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 American distributors, United Artists, displayed an attitude akin to the barbarians of the middle ages, and 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.
In later years Goodwin explained that he had deliberately avoided hearing Walton’s score when he worked on the film. He said that he would have found it extremely difficult to compose something different. The producers required a 50-minute score in three weeks; Goodwin responded with two major themes that are now regarded among his best - "Battle of Britain" main theme and "Aces High", the Luftwaffe March which so perfectly captures the spirit of German military music of that period.
His score for The Trap (1966) has for many years been used by the BBC for its annual coverage of the London Marathon. The original film, starring Oliver Reed as a trapper in 19th-century British Columbia, has been largely forgotten.
One of Goodwin's most prestigious assignments was Frenzy (1972), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 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." The celebrated Hollywood composer Henry Mancini had already prepared a score for the film, but Hitchcock really wanted something with a more English feel, so he turned to Goodwin. The film’s opening theme bears no relationship to the grisly storyline of a murderer stalking the streets of London. As the camera travels along the Thames, taking in many of London’s most famous monuments, Goodwin’s "London Theme" could hardly be more magnificent or English. Soon afterwards the Walt Disney Studios commissioned Goodwin for One of our Dinosaurs is Missing(1975).
In 1970 Goodwin was asked to conduct a charity concert called ‘Filmharmonic’ 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. He also composed several major works for his concerts, including his "Drake 400" and "New Zealand" suites.
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.
Ron Goodwin died at his home in Brimpton Common, Reading, on 8 January 2003, aged 77.