The Autobiography That
Only Just Started
When Trevor Duncan died on 17 December 2005 aged 81, the
world of Light Music lost a great composer, and we in the
Robert Farnon Society mourned the passing of a true friend.
He liked to be known as 'Treb' and his birth name was
Leonard Charles Trebilco. He adopted 'Trevor Duncan' when
his music started to become popular, as it avoided problems
with favouritism while he was still working at the BBC.
RFS Secretary David Ades first met Trevor at his home
in Enmore, Somerset, in April 1994 when he was commissioned
by Marco Polo to write the notes for a new CD of his music.
This started a friendship that was to last for the rest
of Trevor's life, and which resulted in him attending a
summer meeting of our society in Somerset, culminating in
his grand participation in a splendid London meeting in
April 2004 when he was Guest of Honour in celebration of
his 80th birthday year.
Soon afterwards Trevor told David that he wanted to write
about those periods of his life which made the greatest
impact upon his success as a composer. He did not envisage
anything as grand as an autobiography, but he felt that
some reminiscences might shed some light on the influences
that would shape his future career. Later on he hoped that
he could concentrate on the years when his gift of composition
was at its peak, and how he hoped that he would be able
to progress into other areas – such as a popular 'opera'
which occupied him in his last years, but largely due to
lack of interest from potential collaborators it failed
to make any real progress. He was also disappointed that
no one had ever commissioned him to write a ballet score.
Treb started making some pencil notes during 2004, and
sent them to David. It was planned that a series would begin
in Journal Into Melody when he had reached the time
in his life, around 1950, when his career as a light music
composer really began to take off.
Sadly the first set of notes was to be the last. Soon
afterwards Trevor was taken ill, and after several months
he died in Taunton hospital.
In fond memory of Trevor we feel that the time is now
right to publish those notes, even though they are often
fragmented and tend to concentrate on his Royal Air Force
experiences during the Second World War. He never had the
opportunity to revise what he had jotted down, but only
minor editing has been applied, and it is hoped that the
impressions Trevor wished to convey have been faithfully
This is Trevor Duncan's own story.
Born 1924 [the exact date was 27 February 1924]. Joined
BBC straight from school in 1941 as Junior Programme Engineer,
also called Studio Manager. JPEs played records (like seawash,
thunder, engines etc and did 'spot' effects like door opening,
telephone handset noises, horses hooves).
Did sound FX [effects] on ITMA (from Bangor, North Wales),
Merry-go-round, Much Binding In The Marsh and others from
BBC Studios in Lower Regent Street, London. Also worked
below ground at 200 Oxford Street for the BBC Imperial Service.
When playing Lili Bolero I never knew that it was followed
by coded messages to the resistance workers in France.
1943: Joined the Royal Air Force as wireless operator,
air crew. ITW (Initial Training Wing) then sent to No. 4
Radio School (Madely). Learned morse [code], and elementary
servicing of 1154 and 1155 transmitter and receiver. First
flying communication in D.H. Dominies, trying to hear signals
through all the mush, and practising D.F. [direction finding]
with loop aerials, taking turns with a few other students
at the receiver.
In June/July did a gunnery course at No. 8 Gunnery School,
Evanton near Inverness in Ansons.
August 1944: OAFU in Ansons WT cross country.
November: 81 OTU (Operational Training Unit) – map
reading, cross country low flying, formatting in Whiteleys.
December: circuits and landings, glider lifts (Horsas).
1945 – February: Stirling IV. Heavy Conversion Unit.
Crewed up, Circuits and landings. Day and night cross-country
flying (find Rockall!).
March: ORTU. Glider flights, exercises cross-country and
sea, and some operations including towing Horsas over the
Rhine (Operation Varsity 24.3.45).
April: 196 Squadron, B Flight, Shepherds Grove. Glider
lifts cross-country. Transporting prisoners, petrol, etc.
May: Transporting troops, prisoners, petrol to Norway.
June: Group exercises with gliders. Ferrying Stirlings
to Maghdaberry (Ireland).
July: Transporting petrol to Norway.
August & September: Transporting Czechs from Prague,
men, women and children. RAF personnel from Copenhagen.
October: To India 1588 Heavy Freight Flight. In Stirling
V (IV converted to civil transport).
1946: St Mawgan, Castilo Benito, Lydda, Shaibah, Karachi,
Santa Cruz. Flew back to England and to India a few times.
Based at Santa Cruz, near Bombay, India. Moved freight all
around Middle East, Madras, Calcutta (Dum Dum), Pegu (Burma),
Butterworth (Malaya), Phapham, Bamrauli, Chakeri, Palan,
Delhi, Allahabad, Kollang, Mingaladon, Hmawbi, Mauripur.
20 May 1946 Stirling V withdrawn (the Dakota was more
June: Posted to Dum Dum airfield (Calcutta). Did ground
jobs. Receiving signals – mostly for met. Mapping,
also worked on 'approach control' – ETAs and number
of dinners required, etc. Later did signal briefing for
aircraft crews, radio beacon information etc…
1947: Demobbed. Came home by ship on the Arundel Castle
with large bunch of bananas.
Rejoined the BBC.
There was an examination waiting. To the amazement (and
probably annoyance) of my colleagues, I took it right away.
It was a test of everything I knew and had learned from
curiosity; and was indeed what every balance engineer should
Musical instruments and their transpositions, acoustics
(frequencies, absorbtion, echo and reverberation). Simple
circuits such as oscillators and rectification, microphones,
I took the exam, passed and was put straight away on to
balance and control of orchestras – Light Music Department.
This was when I first met Ernest Tomlinson! I balanced
all those lovely little bands for which Ernest arranged
Leroy Anderson's compositions.
[At this point Trevor jumps ahead to 1954, but we know
from other sources that he continued to work as a balance
engineer at the BBC during this period. He has credited
Ray Martin as being the conductor who encouraged him to
compose, resulting in his first big success High Heels
as the 1950s dawned.]
1954: I applied for the job of music producer in the Variety
Department. I got the job because I didn't really want it!
I loved the balancing job... I loved it very much, but the
salary and status of producer was higher. I had begun composing
and had a few pieces published. The future looked promising,
so I resigned. I shall never forget the reaction of my boss
Jim Davidson. He was horrified! 'What are you going to do?'
But it's hell outside.'
He did not know about my work, but 'Trevor Duncan' was
already marked as 'staff' and his compositions were being
denied performances on the radio, so I went.
Editor: no doubt 'Treb' was planning to embellish
these notes before publication, and it would have been nice
to learn more about the years between 1947 and 1954 since
they were so important in establishing his credentials as
a leading composer of production music. I hope readers
with knowledge that I lack will forgive any spelling mistakes
in the list of places that Trevor visited during his RAF
This article first appeared in 'Journal Into Melody'
issue 188, June 2011