If you look closely at who composed much of the catchy Light Music we all so enjoyed in our youth, then one name stands out. All the more surprising, therefore, that he became a largely forgotten figure.
Charles Williams was prolific and without equal in familiar popular music. His pedigree was impressive and his achievements remarkable, so who was this man who bequeathed so much enjoyment to the nation by writing the signature tunes for such programmes as "Dick Barton, Special Agent", "Jennings at School", "BBC TV Newsreel", and "Friday Night is Music Night"?
His real name was Isaac Cozerbreit and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland on 8th May, 1893, in Turner Street, East London. His father, a former travelling child singer whose repertoire ranged from synagogue liturgies to choral and operatic music, changed his professional name to Charles Williams, the same as a nationally-known choral conductor.
In 1913 Isaac legally adopted his father’s new name and it was as Charles Williams that he signed up with the King’s Royal Rifles during the Great War. It meant his violin-playing and general studies at the Royal Academy of Music were interrupted, but after hostilities ceased he resumed his career and joined the famous J.H. Squire Octet. Two years later, in 1920, he formed his own Charles Williams Octet. The tscene was set for greater things.
Versatility might have been a good middle name because Charles was just at home at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as he was in the theatre pit of the Empress cinema in Brixton. As Leader of the prestigious New Symphony Orchestra, he played under the baton of Sir Landon Ronald, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Edward Elgar, the latter presenting him with an autographed copy of his biography in recognition of valuable services rendered.
By 1923 Charles fancied having a go with the baton himself and took to freelance conducting with several different cinema orchestras performing for, and during the intervals between, silent films. After a residency at the New Gallery in Regent Street, he moved to the Davis Theatre in Croydon and so enjoyed the experience that in 1929 he collaborated with others to write the music for the first British sound film. Entitled Blackmail, it was the 10th movie to be directed by an up-and-coming young man called Alfred Hitchcock.
Over the next 20 years Charles Williams wrote a huge amount of film music, virtually none of which was publicly credited to him. This was not unusual, however, indeed all movie music up until about the Sixties — even that composed by such famous names as William Walton and Vaughan Williams — was invariably thrown away after the film was released. Like most early radio and television programmes, nobody ever envisaged any future interest. How wrong they were!
Williams’s contribution to the large screen included further commissions from Alfred Hitchcock, the comedies, of Will Hay, and the 1937 version of The 39 Steps starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Post-war he had a great hit with "The Dream of Olwen" from the film While I Live, Recorded by many artistes (including Rawicz and Landauer on Evergreen Melodies E56) this music became almost synonymous with his name and long outlasted the celluloid. Surprisingly, in 1960 his "Jealous Lover" was chosen as the theme for the American film The Apartment. Starring Jack Lemmon, it was a huge success and reached Number 1 in the charts over there!
The golden era of sound movies lasted until the late-Forties, and altogether Williams contributed music to more than 100 different films, including many for Gainsborough and Gaumont-British, whose Shepherds Bush premises later became the BBC Lime Grove studios after the independent film industry collapsed. This kept him busy but occupied only a small fraction of his eventful career.
From the late-Thirties onwards the demands from Cinema Newsreels prompted the big London publishers to set up Recorded Music Libraries. The pioneers included de Wolfe, Boosey & Hawkes, and Bosworth, followed by Paxton, Keith Prowse and the most important of them all, Chappell, who had established the original 1916 Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra (QHLO), to promote their own music in live concerts. Although this ceased with the birth of radio in the mid-Twenties, the New QHLO was now established to provide "mood" music for the infant Chappell Recorded Library.
Around this time, because they would not allow him to compose as well as conduct, Charles Williams turned down an offer from Boosey and Hawkes to lead a similar recording orchestra. It turned out to be Chappell’s good fortune because in 1942 they invited him take charge of their New QHLO. As a result, the war years saw some marvellous 78 rpm background Light Music recordings and it was not long before the public wanted to hear more of the tunes and less of the programmes.
This was hardly surprising because patriotism was at its height and the melodies flowed quickly and fluently from Williams’s musical quill. Titles such as "Convoy Attack", "Naval Action", "Sons of the Air", "Desert Warfare", "Engine Room" "War in the Jungle", "Searchlight", "Resistance" and "Commandos" all speak for themselves. They were miniature masterpieces which kept the patriotic musical flame alive. Not all the music was dramatic, however, and many quiet, reflective works also emerged, none more so than "The Young Ballerina", famous as the background music to the television interlude called "The Potter’s Wheel".
Other famous pieces included "Voice of London", (signature tune of the QHLO), "The Old Clockmaker" which introduced "Jennings at School", "Girls In Grey" (a tribute to the Women’s Junior Air Corps) which jauntily serenaded the airwaves circling round the mast of Alexandra Palace at the start of each "BBC Television Newsreel", and "A Quiet Stroll", a delightful signature tune to the early morning "Farming" programme. "Rhythm on Rails" introduced "Morning Music", "High Adventure" preceded the long-running "Friday Night Is Music Night", and many others were heard at the cinema on "Pathe News".
By all accounts Williams was a real gentleman and extremely popular with his fellow musicians whom he inspired to great heights. This probably explains why he was never short of people to record on Saturday mornings at the EMI studios in Abbey Road.
Realising the commercial potential of his music, in 1946 he resigned as conductor, composer and arranger for the QHLO (the prefix "New" having by now been dropped) and went freelance He was succeeded firstly by Robert Farnon (see Evergreen Spring 2002), and later by Sidney Torch, both of whom carried on his pioneering work. Charles, meanwhile, established his own Concert Orchestra drawn from the same brilliant instrumentalists as the QHLO, broadcasting several times a week on BBC radio.
Farnon and Torch also later operated independently with identities cunningly disguised for copyright purposes, e.g. the elusive Ole Jensen and the Melodi Light Orchestra which were pseudonyms for Robert Farnon and others. It was a golden era of melody and all three men broadcast regularly on the radio. However, it all came to an end during the early-Sixties when a routine supply of mood music was no longer required — but what a recorded legacy they left behind.
Much of Williams’s music was not intended for the general public to buy but everything that did appear on commercial Columbia 78 rpm records was eagerly snapped up. Mention "Dick Barton" to anyone over 60 and they will immediately think of the breathtaking signature tune, "Devil’s Galop" (only one "l" in Galop which is a dance not a horse race!). It is a fast and energetic tune but in order to further magnify the suspense, the BBC sound engineers played it even faster, usually preceded at the end by a breathless Dick Barton gasping something like "Look out Snowy, they’re getting away!"
Sadly, alcoholism was a disease which he constantly battled against during the latter stages of his life and his awareness of the problem led to him declining an honorary Doctor of Music degree offered by Oxford University. He no longer considered himself worthy of the award nor trusted himself to attend such an important ceremony. Given his brilliant musical pedigree and influence on his many peers, this was nothing short of a personal tragedy.
After living much of his life in Hampstead, West London, Charles retired with his wife to Findon, on the South Downs near Worthing in West Sussex. He died there on 7th September, 1978, aged 85, a largely forgotten figure because Light Music had gone out of fashion. However, a recent upsurge of interest in our great British musical heritage has brought about a much-needed reappraisal of this truly great composer.
Reproduced by kind permission of This England magazine.