On Sunday 21 July 2002, BRIAN KAY devoted his Radio-3
"Light Programme" to a Tribute to ROBERT FARNON
who would be celebrating his 85th birthday later
that week on 24 July. At the last minute Brian had
to abandon plans to travel to Guernsey to interview Bob
at his home, but the radio link worked perfectly, and listeners
could not have been aware that they were actually hundreds
of miles apart. In response to requests from many RFS members,
we are pleased to print the following abridged transcript
of the broadcast.
MUSIC: JUMPING BEAN
Brian Kay: Thats the familiar, and suitably bouncy
sound of Robert Farnons Jumping Bean, a novelty
number which introduces an entire programme devoted to the
music of the most distinguished light music composer living
and working today. Hes known universally as "The
Guvnor", and hes been famously described
by Andre Previn as the greatest living writer for
strings, and few would argue with that. Next Wednesday
he celebrates, amazingly enough, his 85th birthday,
and this afternoons selection is put together as part
of our celebration of that major milestone. Not only the
music, but also words of wisdom from the great man himself,
as he joins us for the programme and, indeed is, most welcome.
Bob, first of all many congratulations on having had your
bus pass now for 20 years. Not much use, I suppose, on the
beautiful island of Guernsey?
Robert Farnon: No, we have to walk everywhere, Brian. By
the way, hello and thank you for the invitation.
BK: Its great to have you on the programme. "The
Guvnor", I mentioned in my introduction. Who
first called you that, do you remember?
RF: Yes, it was accidental because in Britain the guvnor
is just the boss of anything and Don Lusher, you know the
at rehearsal someone asked him who
I was and he said, " Oh, thats the guvnor",
meaning the boss of the orchestra.
BK: Fair enough.
RF: It didnt mean what they think it does in the
States; they think it is the Governor of the State.
BK: I would stick with it if I was you; it suits you extremely
RF: Sounds good, doesnt it?
BK: It certainly does. Lets get to the heart of the
matter straight away. Light music has been at the centre
of your life for so many years and your contribution to
it has greatly enriched our lives. Are you happy with that
description? What does light music actually mean to you?
RF: Well, in Canada we called it concert music but its
the same thing. When we played Eric Coates over there they
just called it concert music not light music. It wasnt
known as that. But, no, I am quite happy with either light
BK: Did you play Eric Coates in Canada in the early days?
RF: Yes, we did, my goodness. We over there had a proms
season every year and he was always represented in at least
one number on each programme.
BK: Glad to hear it.
RF: Very popular.
BK: We are going back to those early days. The first burst
of fame you had, I guess, was presenting a programme called
Happy Gang for Canadian radio as a young man.
What was that all about?
RF: Well, Brian, I was just a member of this crowd; it
was six different musicians who got together to do a two
weeks "fill" for the summer for our very popular
radio show over there, the name of which Ive forgotten.
But our programme turned out to be so popular they kept
it on. Would you believe it, it went on for 22 years.
BK: Thats some "fill".
RF: Amazing, five days a week.
MUSIC: GOOD LUCK AND THE SAME TO YOU (The Happy Gang)
BK: Happy memories, Ive no doubt.
RF: Oh, we had a wonderful time. Every non-scripted programme
we just said more or less what came into our minds, as long
as it was clean!
BK: Fair enough, we should have you on this programme more
often. You were only in your mid-20s when you joined the
Percy Faith Orchestra as a trumpet player. Did you think
at that stage you might turn out to be a trumpeter for the
rest of your life?
RF: Yes, I did. You know, I didnt think of conducting,
I was writing all the time but
I certainly didnt think I would ever make a living
at writing but, playing the trumpet, yes I did.
BK: So you were doing arrangements for the Percy Faith
RF: Well, I was doing his choir arrangements cause
he didnt like writing for voices and therefore didnt
do it very well. So he asked me each week for his shows
to do one or two numbers for his choir.
BK: I guess more broadcasting came your way when you became
conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary
RF: Yes, that was when I came to England, Brian, and took
over the band and they brought me in to do the orchestrations.
BK: So that was the same position, really then, that Glenn
Miller had in the States and George Melachrino had over
RF: Exactly the same, Brian.
BK: Did you get to work with both of them?
RF: Yes, we worked in London. We did these broadcasts four
or five times a week, and we did a programme on the Christmas
that Miller disappeared. It was at the Queensberry Club.
We were waiting to do the show and he, of course, didnt
turn up and eventually we just went ahead without him. But
it was a very sad occasion.
BK: Was it really a broadcasting orchestra, then? I mean
was it principally put together to keep the troops happy?
RF: Yes, broadcasting, Brian, and we also did a lot of
personal appearances for the services.
MUSIC: TEA FOR TWO (Canadian Band of the AEF)
BK: When we got to the end of the war, Bob, I guess that
must have been when you decided to stay in Britain
why was that?
RF: Well, my ambition even as a young lad was writing for
movies and, of course, in Canada we didnt have any
industry to speak of, and then when I got to England I found
that there was such a wealth of work to be had writing for
pictures, if you could get your foot in the door.
BK: How did you get your foot in the door?
RF: Through my wife. Yes, she was the casting director
for the Herbert Wilcox productions of Anna Neagle
so I told her I loved her more times than I should. So she
got me my first film.
BK: Was that Spring In Park Lane?
RF: Thats right, yes.
BK: Well that was a pretty good start. But you didnt
think youd be a movie composer for the rest of your
RF: No, not really, it was just one of the things I wanted
to do. I wanted more than anything, of course, to write
serious music which had to be postponed when I joined the
BK: And is still on hold, presumably?
RF: Well, I get a few pieces in from time to time but not
BK: What was there about English or British light music
that particularly appealed to you?
RF: Well, it was very refreshing to me and very similar
to our concert music, as we were calling it in Canada. But
much more sophisticated, and great composers such as Haydn
Wood, Eric Coates and several others. And they were inspirational
MUSIC: LONDON BRIDGE MARCH (Eric Coates)
BK: Inspirational, Bob, but not necessarily an influence,
RF: Not really an influence, no, because my influence was
more American than it was English.
BK: Well, the general feeling seems to be that English
music at that stage needed something of a shot in the arm
and you were the man to supply it.
RF: Well I was told that, too
BK: Did you actually meet people like Eric Coates?
RF: Yes, I did. I matter of fact met him many, many times
and on one occasion he had written a suite called The
Three Bears Suite in which he had a little jazz
section. But he said, "I cant write jazz, would
you mind rewriting this for me?" So I sat down one
day and rewrote this little section.
BK: I dont think you have been credited on the record
RF: No, that was a secret.
Editor: this would have been for Eric Coates adaptation
of the Waltz Theme, for the Chappell (and Decca) recordings.
BK: What sort of a man was he to meet and work with?
RF: He was a sweet little man, Brian, he really was a lovely
person. He and I had the same music publisher, therefore
we met quite frequently.
BK: Did he actively encourage you?
RF: Well, no - funny with composers, its seldom we
ever meet let alone discuss our work. No, there was no influence
just a mutual admiration, I suppose.
BK: Like yourself he was a great tunesmith, if I may put
it that way. Where do those marvellous melodies come from,
both yours and his?
RF: You know, I wish I could answer that. I dont
know. I just sit down and decide to write something. If
it comes then I continue until I finish it. If it doesnt
I walk the dog and try later.
BK: Divine inspiration?
RF: Yes, I think so.
BK: You settled in this country in the 40s; I mean you
came to live here completely. Were there not the opportunities
in Canada for you to do the sort of work you wanted?
RF: Well, you know I didnt even find that out, Brian,
because after the war I asked if I could be discharged in
Britain because I wanted to get my foot in the door as soon
as possible here and start doing movie work and radio.
BK: Did you feel homesick at all once you got here?
RF: You know I didnt because both my parents were
born on this side of the "Pond" and it wasnt
strange to me; it was home really and I was quite happy
BK: And yet you wrote all those wonderful Canadian
Impressions. Do they bring the open countryside
of Canada back to you?
RF: I wrote most of the pieces of that kind when I was
over here so I must have been a bit homesick, mustnt
MUSIC: LAKE OF THE WOODS
BK: Those sort of larger scale works, Bob
regret not having the chance in a sense to write more of
RF: Yes, I do, but the light music took over as far as
I was concerned and all the pieces were doing so well I
ended up not having enough time to devote to more serious
pieces until later on in my life.
BK: Well, maybe, you can start afresh now?
RF: Yeah, well I made up for it a little bit but not enough!
BK: So, England in the 1940s, you were involved with all
the great names, like Ambrose and Ted Heath, and became
a staff arranger for Geraldo. How did that come about, that
sort of appointment?
RF: Well, now
the story can be told now but at the
time it couldnt because I was still in uniform and
I was moonlighting at night and writing for Ted Heath and
bands when I shouldnt have been. I should have been
writing for the Army, but they heard the Army orchestra
and they liked what they heard so they asked me to contribute
to their libraries, which I did quite a lot.
BK: When Geraldo went to the States you took over as conductor.
RF: Yes, he signed me for a year under contract to arrange
exclusively for him and when he went to the States he asked
if I would take over the orchestra, which I did.
BK: Was this all gradually leading to the formation of
your own orchestra the Robert Farnon Orchestra?
RF: Yes, it was because it was very shortly after that
when I left Geraldo that the BBC offered me the Sunday programme
called Melody Hour.
BK: Ah, its our fault, is it?
RF: Yes it is. Thats how it started.
BK: And one of your first big hits with them was Portrait
of a Flirt, I think.
RF: Yes, it was, and then Journey Into Melody and
a few things like that which were also used as themes for
certain radio shows like In Town Tonight and
MUSIC: PORTRAIT OF A FLIRT
BK: Portrait of a Flirt and Jumping Bean appeared
in 1948 on your first 78. Bob, I wonder which was the "B"
RF: Well Jumping Bean was the first one Id
done and the Portrait of a Flirt, although it was
nothing like the Jumping Bean, that was the sort
of sequel. They said, "You must write another Jumping
Bean", and it was very successful.
BK: I suppose youd call it a double "A"
side in that case. And the orchestra mainly worked in the
early days for radio programmes and backing singers like
Vera Lynn and Gracie FieldS and even Norman Wisdom and the
Ilford Girls Choir, I see.
RF: That came about because during the Army days when we
were doing our broadcasts we also accompanied a lot of these
famous British names, and then I met up with them later.
They asked me to write other things for them.
BK: I was going to say they were specifically asking for
you, or was it youd become a staff conductor/arranger,
so to speak, for Decca?
RF: Well, that was the reason for Gracie and, yes, several
youre quite right, it was.
BK: Did it leave enough time for composing because I guess
thats what you wanted to do most?
RF: Well, it certainly left enough time, Brian, to compose
light music because I was composing it most of the time.
And the arrangements just came in incidentally, they were
not difficult to do and Id roll them off in a week
or so and then get back to doing something original.
BK: The very idea of rolling them off in a week or so!
Yes, I see. Was the novelty number, as we call it, your
best way in as a composer so to speak?
RF: You know it was that because of Jumping Bean,
BK: Sure. By the end of the 40s you were certainly absolutely
in, and then you had 20 years as an arranger for Chappells,
which brings me on to the Queens Hall Light Orchestra
and that connection there.
RF: It was a fine orchestra which recorded in a very fine
hall in London called Queens Hall.
Editor: Bob was referring to the origins of the QHLO,
many years earlier. By the time Bob was conducting it the
Quieens Hall had already been destroyed by enemy bombing
on the night of 10/11 May, 1941.
BK: So if you turned up at Chappells in the morning
at 9 oclock, presumably dead on the dot, and somebody
said we want you to write a three minute piece, you just
sat there and wrote it, did you? Is that how it worked?
RF: I wish I had. Occasionally it happened that way but
mostly it was a little harder work than that.
BK: What did they do did they commission certain
things from you or
RF: Well all the big
they gave me my head mostly,
carte blanche all the time, they said just write whatever
BK: And you managed to perform all this music, presumably,
with the QHLO?
RF: Oh yes, very much, and all my broadcasts, of course.
MUSIC: PROUD CANVAS
BK: Bob, your very distinctive sound and harmonies: how
do you conjure up those sounds?
RF: You know I have been asked that many, many times, Brian,
and I dont know the answer. I think its that
gift from that Man up in the Happy Hunting Ground.
BK: Is that what it is? Presumably, working with an orchestra
like the QHLO was in itself some inspiration to you when
it comes to sound?
RF: Oh yes it was a splendid orchestra with the finest
musicians in the country. I couldnt believe it, one
day I said, "Who is that horn player we have today?",
cause I wasnt too familiar with them
not by name and the horn player was Dennis Brain!
And I didnt know until later.
BK: And how come? I mean what intrigues me (Ive often
mentioned this on the Sunday afternoon programme) is the
absolutely natural way in which they phrase light music.
Was it natural or did it need somebody like you standing
in front to bring it out of them?
RF: Well, they needed a little help at first but they soon
got used to that idiom and, of course, they loved playing
it because it was completely different to them, different
style, and then it became, I dont know, standard sound
British light music to a certain extent. It was sound that
the Americans admired so much and wondered
to be asked sometimes, "How many basses did you use
in that recording?" I said, "One".
BK: Just one? Is that true?
RF: They thought we had a gallery of them!
BK: Just looking back to Proud Canvas, I sense in
that music the influence of Hollywood film music. You did
write music for 40 films: Spring in Park Lane,
weve mentioned, The Road to Hong Kong,
those sort of films. Did you enjoy writing for films because
its a very different discipline, isnt it?
RF: Brian, I just loved writing for films, I really did.
I felt well heres a type of music youre writing
and it wont be lost out on the airwaves and never
heard again. Its on film now and it will be heard.
BK: But the actual process of writing music, did you have
to write to a stopwatch and that sort of thing?
RF: Yes, I did. But I didnt mind that, I enjoyed
it. It was a good discipline, too.
BK: And did you see the movie before you started to write
RF: Yes. With musicals we didnt because the music
was recorded first and then the film was shot, but with
dramatic films, of course, we did see a lot of the rushes
and that was a great help, you know, if we saw a love scene
or an action section then we knew what it was going to look
like before we started writing.
MUSIC: FINALE FROM CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER
BK: What about songs and theatre music, Bob? Did that ever
have any real appeal for you?
RF: I wasnt very good at it, Brian, so I didnt
write very much in the way of songs. I remember one year
being asked to write a number for the Eurovision Song Contest.
I think when they had the last six to select from mine was
BK: Far too good for the Competition, obviously.
RF: I dont know but I didnt take to it. Occasionally
I would write a song
the song was easy to do but
the lyrics would take me two or three months and I always
needed the help of my wife.
Editor: the song in question was "Country Girl",
later a big hit for Tony Bennett.
BK: But you were always happy to arrange other peoples
songs, of course.
RF: Oh yes, of course. I dont just arrange but I
put quite a lot of composition into it, too. And Ive
been told thats what makes my score just a little
BK: It certainly does. And what did it mean to you to be
working with great singers like Sinatra and Tony Bennett?
I know you worked with him a great deal.
RF: You mention two who were delights to work with - it
was so easy - all the professionals are great - its
the ones who werent that good at their job that were
difficult to work with - but not these people.
BK: You just did one big album with Sinatra, didnt
RF: Yes, he only did one in Britain; he wanted to just
say, "Well, Ive done an album of British songs",
because there was a wealth of material to choose from. And
he picked some very nice ones.
MUSIC: A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE (Frank
BK: Bob, when light music in a sense declined in the 60s,
70s and 80s, I guess you had to find some kind of new direction?
RF: Well, thats when I returned to writing more serious
music. Well I had nothing else to do so I went back to base
BK: Why do you think that decline took place? What do you
think was it that reduced its impact at that stage?
RF: Well, its just like most popular music it doesnt
last forever, the styles are continually changing. Although
I must admit the latest one, rock n roll, has
been going on a long time!
BK: It has, hasnt it? I suppose also opportunities
I mean the spa orchestras and the hotel orchestras
and even concert orchestras and all those BBC light music
orchestras, for example, they ceased to exist.
RF: That is the answer, really, the orchestras were dwindling
and we had no one to write for; for instance in a country
like Norway where they only had one orchestra in the whole
country, but at one time in Britain we had eight or nine.
BK: Well, thank goodness, we still have the BBC Concert
RF: Oh yes, thats keeping the flag flying; its
the only one that is.
BK: You must have been very grateful for the opportunities
you had of having so many orchestras to write for?
RF: Yes, and I was fortunate, too, with my contact with
Chappell publishers. They did so much for me.
BK: Well it resulted in four Ivor Novello awards: Westminster
Waltz in 56, Sea Shore in 60, Colditz
March in 73, and a special achievement award for
outstanding services to British music in 91. Do those
awards matter a great deal to you?
RF: They certainly do - I polish them every Sunday morning!
BK: And even Grammys as well on the other side of
just as popular. The one youve
got, I see, was for your arrangements for the Singers Unlimited.
Something very close to my heart.
Editor: Bob was nominated for a Grammy for his work
with the Singers Unlimited, but he actually won the award
for Lament with trombonist J.J. Johnson
MUSIC: THE MORE I SEE YOU (The Singers Unlimited)
BK:That must have been an extraordinary outfit to work
for because they, I think if I remember rightly, recorded
the vocals at a separate time from the orchestra?
RF: Yes, thats right. They didnt record till
wed done the accompaniments usually and, also, they
were done in a different country. I would do the accompaniments
in London and they would record over in Germany separately.
Well, they had to with the Singers Unlimited because they
only had four voices but they had about 16 vocal tracks.
Another wonderful musician who I love very much and loved
working with is Shearing and we did the same with him. He
did his piano tracks before us and then we put the accompaniment
BK: I was going to say that you came here from Canada and
George Shearing went west, and youve recently done
another CD with him. Is it different?
RF: I was going to say we didnt even see each other
passing on the ocean! No, we never met until quite recently.
BK: So you simply werent in the studio on the same
RF: Oh no, not at all, some times a month or two went by.
Editor: Bob is remembering the On Target
album with George Shearing. They were definitely both working
together in the CTS Studios at Wembley for the Telarc CD
How Beautiful is Night.
MUSIC: PUT ON A HAPPY FACE (George Shearing)
BK: So, Bob, 85 approaching next Wednesday, youre
still happy to be working, obviously?
RF: Very much so, yeah!
BK: Whats coming up?
RF: Let me think now Ive just finished an
album recently with the Scottish jazz singer, Carol Kidd;
and then I did an orchestral album with strings; and the
next one is a Christmas album for Tony Bennett, recording
Christmas in July but, as you know, they have to be recorded
several months ahead in order to do all the processing.
BK: Looking back over your life, would you have changed
the way things have gone? I know you still have this hankering
to write a major symphony or whatever.
RF: Well, Ive often thought about that and in the
early days I used to be very cross and wished that I had
done more studying, serious studying. But now Im not.
Im not angry with myself for not studying.
BK: Id say youd managed pretty well without.
And youre happy with the way light music is once again
RF: Yes, very much so. Its encouraging and Im
delighted. I dont know whether I could write it but
Im pleased to see that even my old warhorses are being
BK: And will be for many years to come, Im sure.
Well, the world of light music has undoubtedly been enriched
by your massive contribution to a style of music which so
many enjoy for its tunefulness, its catchiness and the sheer
feel-good factor it gives. Im sure all your devoted
fans world-wide would want to join me in wishing you everything
of the best on Wednesday for that big birthday and, indeed,
to say, Bob Farnon, thanks for sharing your thoughts with
us today and, of course, thank you for the music!
RF: Brian, thank you very much.
MUSIC: WESTMINSTER WALTZ
Editor: my very special thanks to Peter Burt who willingly
volunteered to undertake the arduous task of
transcribing this broadcast.