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
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"?
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.
Isaac legally adopted his fathers new name and it was
as Charles Williams that he signed up with the Kings
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
Queens 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
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 Chappells 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.
hardly surprising because patriotism was at its height and
the melodies flowed quickly and fluently from Williamss
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
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 Womens 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.
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.
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.
Williamss 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, "Devils 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, theyre
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.
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.
by kind permission of This England magazine.