It was the
sound of bustling Piccadilly Circus at the heart of Thirties
London. Motor cars honked their horns, music played, and the
voice of a flower-seller could be heard repeating her familiar
street cry: "Violets, luvly sweet violets!" followed
by a newsboy calling "In Town Tonight! In Town Tonight!"
Then, above all the noise, a policemans voice suddenly
shouted "Stop!", and, as if by magic, the traffic
was brought to an immediate standstill. After a short pause,
having captured everybodys attention, the voice of authority
continued: "Once again we silence the mighty roar of
Londons traffic to bring to the microphone some of the
interesting people who are In Town Tonight!"
the dramatic, attention-grabbing introduction to a BBC radio
programme which, for nearly 30 years, was a national institution.
Broadcast at 7.30 on Saturday evenings, "In Town Tonight"
featured interesting interviews with celebrities from the
world of stage, screen and music, but also, more unusually,
with a colourful gallery of curious and quirky individuals.
Over the years, these included tramps, gypsies, a lady chimney
sweep, and larger-than-life characters such as the "Chocolate
Lady of Kensington Gardens", the "Toffee Apple Queen
of Roman Road", and famous racing tipster Prince Monolulu.
was also loved by millions of listeners because of its catchy
signature tune. Indeed, when "In Town Tonight" went
on air for the first time on 18th November, 1933, more than
20,000 people wrote to the BBC asking for the title of the
tune and the name of its composer. In order to deal with such
an avalanche of mail, the hard-pressed BBC staff had to have
special slips of paper printed. These informed listeners that
the piece of music was called the Knightsbridge March
and the name of its composer was Eric Coates.
largely unknown to the people of England when his magnificent
Knightsbridge March burst on the scene, since then
there can be few people in this country who havent been
touched in some way by the music of Eric Coates.
forget the stirring Dam Busters March used to accompany
the exciting 1954 film which depicted one of the great exploits
of the Second World War? How many thousands set to with a
will to the strains of Calling All Workers, which the
BBC adopted during the war as its inspiring signature tune
to "Music While You Work"? As a child, you might
have listened in to the Overseas Childrens Programme
for which Coates wrote the march London Calling as
a theme tune.
it is hard to imagine how the BBC could have managed without
Eric Coates. Completed at very short notice in 1946, the Television
March was written for the re-opening of BBC Television
after the war and was the first music to be heard over the
new service. In similar vein was his jaunty Music Everywhere,
a piece specially commissioned for television in 1949. The
long-running Radio 4 programme, "Desert Island Discs",
also owes its theme tune, By the Sleepy Lagoon, to
these are probably the best-known of Eric Coatess compositions,
he wrote many more memorable pieces in a variety of styles.
Today he is rightly regarded as "Englands Master
of Light Music".
Harrison Coates was born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, on
27th August, 1886, the youngest of five children of the local
doctor, William Harrison Coates, who was held in high regard
by the mainly mining community. His mother, Mary Jane Gwyn
Blower, came from Wales originally and was a talented singer
and pianist. Eric remembered her as the kindest mother any
boy could wish for.
had a happy childhood. His father was a keen amateur photographer
and would often take Eric with him on expeditions to local
places of interest such as Southwell with its splendid Minster.
love of music became apparent at an early age. After hearing
music on a gramophone he began composing his own tunes, and
by the time he was seven years old he was studying the violin
and arranging music. When he was 12 he began being taught
in Nottingham by George Ellenberger, who had himself been
a pupil of the great virtuoso Joseph Joachim. He progressed
well and was soon receiving lessons in harmony from the respected
teacher, Dr. Ralph Horner, and playing the viola in local
orchestras. As a break from his musical activities Eric liked
to explore the Trent Valley on his bicycle.
had intended Eric to pursue a career in banking, but in 1906
reluctantly allowed him to take up a scholarship to the Royal
Academy of Music. Here his talents were moulded by Lionel
Tertis, an outstanding exponent of the viola. He also came
under the influence of the composer Frederick Corder and the
grand old man of Scottish orchestral music, Sir Alexander
at the Royal Academy were to mark a turning point for the
young musician. In fact, so confident was Mackenzie in the
young mans future that he said: "Yell start
as a viola player, but yell end up a composer!"
How true that prophecy proved to be!
a student, Coates toured South Africa as a viola player in
the Hambourg String Quartet. He also gained tremendous practical
experience through the many evenings he spent playing in London
had to fight against poor health: the weak chest he had suffered
as a child, and neuritis in his left arm which was aggravated
by his viola playing. He longed for the day when he could
give up performing for good and concentrate on composing and
In his entertaining
autobiography, Suite in Four Movements (Heinemann,
1953), Coates recounted how he plucked up the courage to write
to Frederic E. Weatherly, asking the great lawyer and lyric
writer if he had any words that an unknown composer might
use. Weatherly invited the young man to visit him at his London
home, and Coates wrote a vivid description of their meeting:
I sat by his side listening to him read his latest verses,
I felt as if I might have been writing music for years, for
he did not ask me what I had done but merely enquired as to
what kind of lyric I wanted. It appeared that he always composed
his poems to a tune or rhythm of his own, and when reading
his verses to you he would adopt a listening attitude and
croon his lines in the most extraordinary manner. If the words
were particularly moving he would frequently break down with
emotion and have to wait until he could compose himself sufficiently
to continue. His knack of painting pictures with his poems
("word-pictures", he called them) was uncanny, for
with a few delightfully chosen words he could conjure up a
scene which it would have taken anyone else a whole page to
away with the words of a West Country song in his pocket entitled
Stonecracker John. On his way home, bumping along on
the top deck of a horse-bus, a tune came into his head which
he managed to scribble down. A few days later, he played it
to Arthur Boosey, owner of the famous firm of music publishers.
Stonecracker John was not published right away, when
it did appear a year later in 1909 and was sung with such
great effect by the famous bass, Harry Dearth, copies of the
sheet music sold in their thousands. It was Eric Coatess
first great song writing success and marked the beginning
of a lifelong friendship and fruitful musical collaboration
with Fred E. Weatherly.
by the Royal Academy, in 1910 at the age of just 23, Coates
obtained a position as sub-principal, then principal, of the
viola section of the Queens Hall Orchestra. In those
days The Queens Hall was the equivalent, in terms of
standing, to the modern Royal Festival Hall on Londons
South Bank. Its conductor was also a solid institution of
London musical life: the great Sir Henry Wood, founder of
In the seven
years that followed his appointment, Coates and his fellow
orchestral musicians played under the greatest composers of
the day. The Queens Hall programmes read like a roll-call
of honour, with names such as Richard Strauss, Sir Edward
Elgar and Gustav Holst.
exposed to some of the greatest works of the entire repertoire,
and the richness of this music undoubtedly laid the foundation
for the stream of composition that would soon flow from his
pen. Occasionally, as light relief and to supplement his income,
he played in London theatre orchestras, enjoying the tuneful
wit of Gilbert and Sullivan.
the success of Stonecracker John, Coatess song writing
began to take off and in 1911 his Miniature Suite received
the rare honour of a Proms encore.
was important to Eric Coates for something else which had
nothing to do with music: he met and fell instantly, head-over-heels
in love with a pretty young student called Phyllis Black.
It was a whirlwind romance which, despite the initial opposition
of her parents (she was only 17, he was 24 and a struggling
musician), resulted in their wedding on 3rd February, 1913.
together was blissfully happy, and although, in the early
days, the young couple struggled to make ends meet, matters
improved when Phyllis became a successful actress and could
supplement Erics irregular income.
First World War broke out, Eric was declared unfit for military
service, so the couple continued to live in London. It was
always a struggle to get his music performed and heard but
he was helped enormously in this by the formation, in 1916,
of the New Queens Hall Light Orchestra under the baton
of Alick Maclean.
Eric Coates finally gave up playing, although he often conducted
his own works. In 1920 his suite, Summer Days (with
its well-loved last movement, At the Dance) received
its first performance, which did much to enhance his reputation.
Two years later, the lively overture The Merrymakers
arrived on the concert scene. Coates wrote The Three Bears
fantasy in 1926 for the fourth birthday of his
only child, Austin.
Elgar was an early admirer of Coates, placing a standing order
with a record shop in Oxford Street for every new Coates recording.
In contrast, the music press largely ignored his work and
he was treated shabbily by those who believed light music
was inferior to what they considered "serious" work.
Eric Coates loved the countryside, and during his life owned
two cottages by the sea at Selsey and Sidlesham in
Sussex he found it easier to compose amidst the bustle
and intensity of London. He was fascinated by the scenery,
customs and everyday life of London, and there was nothing
more musically inspiring for him than the sight of a red London
bus rolling proudly through the packed streets of Englands
capital. The city was then the heart of the Empire. Big Ben
sounded above London town, the BBC broadcast to the world,
and the Thames was alive with shops, barges and the wealth
this spirit of London into The London Suite, with each
movement describing some part of the metropolis. The first
movement conjures up a day in the life of Covent Garden
market, with a bustling tarantella, including the traditional
vendors call "Cherry ripe, cherry ripe", once
heard in the streets of the capital. The middle movement is
a flowing melody that creates the impression of Westminster
in the moonlight. However, as described earlier, it was the
third movement that made the composers name: the grand
Knightsbridge March. Coates had walked around London,
composing this piece in his head.
the Knightsbridge March was being played everywhere
and by everyone: orchestras, brass bands and dance bands added
it to their repertoires; you could even hear it being played
on barrel organs and mechanical pianos in the street. In fact
so well known did the theme tune to "In Town Tonight"
become, it was reported that a passenger on the London Underground,
unable to remember the name of the station he wanted to get
to, but aware of its association with this popular piece of
music, solved his problem by humming the first few notes of
the march to a booking- clerk. Without a moments hesitation,
the clerk gave him a smile of recognition and handed
him a ticket for Knightsbridge!
no end to the stream of popular music produced by Sir Henry
Woods one-time lead viola. The monarchy was celebrated
in The Three Elizabeths Suite, complete with a swash-buckling
evocation of the heroism of Drake and Raleigh. This was written
during bombing raids in 1941 after Coates received a letter
from the Reverend Arthur L. Hall, vicar of Barnes, suggesting
that he should write a suite based on the Three Elizabeths
of English royalty: Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth of Glamis (now
our Queen Mother) and Princess Elizabeth (our present Queen).
Phyllis remained in London throughout most of the Second World
War. They loved the night-life of the West End and spent many
enjoyable hours dancing to the music of Carroll Gibbons at
the Savoy Hotel in the Strand.
Phyllis asked her husband to compose a march to which she
and her fellow workers could operate their sewing machines
as they made hospital supplies for the Red Cross. The result
was Calling All Workers which the BBC chose as the
signature tune to their radio programme, "Music While
You Work". This stirring march was played thousands of
times during the war years, and it is easy to imagine the
scene in a great munitions factory somewhere in England: workers
tirelessly churning out the guns, bombs and instruments that
would lead the nation to victory as the factory wireless blasts
out Eric Coatess high-spirited accompaniment.
a craftsman who imbued his music with a personality of its
own, with melodic invention, gaiety and charm and with true
English character. He worked with great method and purpose,
arranging all his own music and building up a vast library
of orchestral suites and songs. People remember him as a smart,
very tidy man, unable to start work until he had donned his
best tweed jacket and silk tie, the perfect English gentleman
and quite different from many of his bohemian musical contemporaries.
ending of the Second World War, Coates continued to write
music with undiminished energy. His ability to produce music
to order was demonstrated by the jaunty Television March
he composed in 1946 to celebrate the new world of television.
he produced yet another masterpiece, a musical score for The
Dam Busters, a British war film about Barnes Wallis and
his "bouncing bombs" which starred Michael Redgrave
and Richard Todd. Coatess music complemented the action
on screen perfectly.
being a composer and conductor, Coates was very active in
encouraging younger talent and was a founder member and director
of the Performing Right Society.
died at Chichester in Sussex on 21st December, 1957, aged
71, but his very English music lives on and is currently undergoing
something of a revival. It is popular in many countries, yet
its roots lie in the heart of England a land where
bright young things would drive off into the country, their
bullnose Morris cars carrying them From Meadow to Mayfair.
It is a land in which the air was filled with the sound of
military bands, country dances, and the voices of English
people. As the world becomes a more complicated, more uncertain
place, so the meaning of his music takes on a greater significance.
by kind permission of This England magazine.