Carl Davis and “Safety Last!”

Carl Davis. Pic by: Ramdzan Masiam (CC BY 2.0)I was very sad to hear last week that we have lost the film composer Carl Davis. He produced an amazing body of work, composing for film and TV, conducting, and writing concert works, including several ballets in recent years. Among his scores and soundtracks are The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the acclaimed documentary series The World at War and the ’90s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth). He was also an accomplished conductor, presenting many popular concerts, usually wearing one of his brightly coloured, sparkly jackets. Although he was American, he had lived for more than 60 years in Britain and contributed more to the cultural life of the country than most British people will ever do; indeed one of his favourite jackets worn at concerts around the world featured a union jack design. Unusually perhaps for someone so talented, he seemed to have been a pleasure to work with, with no-one having a bad word to say about him. Paul McCartney posted a touching tribute to “his friend”, having worked together on his Liverpool Oratorio. And I think Carl was summed up perfectly by fellow composer David Arnold as simply, “a class act and a gentleman.”

One of the more unusual aspects of Carl’s composing career was the music he wrote for silent films. This started after he was commissioned to write music for several series on silent film for Thames Television in the 1970s and ’80s. He both wrote original scores, and later reconstructed music that Charlie Chaplin had written for his own films but which was lost.

Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in "Safety Last!"

Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in “Safety Last!”

Harold Lloyd’s silent comedies tend to be overshadowed by Chaplin’s work, but they were given a new lease of life by the music Carl Davis wrote for them. In 2006 I booked a ticket to see Carl conduct his own music to a live screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival at the city’s De Montfort Hall. The film actually celebrates its centenary this year. I knew little about the it at the time; the attraction was seeing Carl Davis conduct his own score. It was the Philharmonia Orchestra, who still to this day have a residency at the hall. In the first half, he wore a bright green tailcoat, and a red waistcoat with black spots to look like a ladybird. Music included Richard Rodgers’s Carousel waltz. The second half was the film. The lights on stage were dimmed, and the players instead each had a light clipped to their music stands. The film and the music were brilliant. If you have never seen it, I do recommend it. It is at times funny, and other times nerve-wracking, whether it’s Harold nearly being late for work, or the climactic scene where he scales the outside of a building. Apparently, when it was first shown 100 years ago, some people fainted as they found the sequence so scary. The final moments have actually inspired many films, anytime you see someone hanging from a clock face (most notably Back to the Future, which opens with a Harold Lloyd novelty clock among those in Doc Brown’s workshop, and ends with the Doc hanging from a clock during a storm). The music seemed to fit the period of the film perfectly, scored for a jazz orchestra including saxophones and a banjo. Afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking the film wouldn’t be the same without Carl’s music. Happily, I was to discover that the music has featured on every release of the film since.

Carl Davis was apparently a film composer who worked in the traditional way, using his intuition and timing as a conductor to match the music to the pictures, rather than using a click track and headphones as many film composers do. In 2007, I saw him conduct live music to a series of Chaplin short films in London. At one point during the performance, the projector suffered a fault causing the picture to freeze. After a moment, Carl brought the orchestra to a halt, turned to the audience and said something must have happened, and was met with loud applause. We then went to the interval early. Afterwards, we saw the conclusion of the interrupted film. It was most interesting because they started to run the film to complete silence. Suddenly, it was just a silent film, fairly dull and two dimensional. Carl stood with his hands raised, and then at the right moment, brought the orchestra in. The film came to life again. It just showed how the film was nothing without the music – his music – and emphasised how skilled he was at synchronising the score to the pictures.

I could go on at even greater length about what a fantastic composer and showman Carl Davis was. But I’ll finish with an amusing anecdote I once heard him tell, trying in with the aforementioned Carousel. He had a long association with Liverpool, as he was married to Jean Boht, star of the ’70s sitcom Bread. For many years, he conducted big, outdoor concerts in the city. In the early days, perhaps when he was yet to become quite familiar with the city, he decided to end the concert with the local football team’s song. That would be a great way to end, with everyone joyously singing along. In the event, he was surprised to see that half the audience was happily joining in, while the other half seemed to be there in stone-faced silence. The song was of course You’ll Never Walk Alone, and for anyone like Carl who is not so familiar with English football, there are two teams in the city…

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