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The Guardian (15/Dec/1998) - Obituary: John Addison

(c) The Guardian (15/Dec/1998)

John Addison, who has died aged 78, was one of the most English of film composers, and his jaunty, ironic scores accompanied some of the most English of films. His music was heard on the sound track of many Boulting Brothers pictures and the majority of Tony Richardson's.

On the first film for which Addison did the complete score, Seven Days To Noon (1950), Roy Boulting, the producer, kept saying, "Now we don't want big Hollywood choirs and Hollywood symphony orchestras." Most of the Addison scores that followed were lightly orchestrated, using unexpected instruments and combinations - a solo oboe, played by Leon Goossens, in Desmond Davis's The Girl With Green Eyes (1963), and Hungarian dance melodies for a train chase and a Spanish dance for a tennis match in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

For Richardson's Tom Jones (1960), for which Addison won an Oscar, he used a saxophone and an out-of-tune harpsichord, with piano music for the silent movie sequence. Yet the bawdy and joyful score had 18th century mannerisms. "I think Tom Jones is one of my best scores," Addison remarked. "When I wrote it, I didn't realise the impact it would have on Hollywood composers. It didn't have a big pop song or a big theme. It didn't have a tune that you came out humming. It was long after the event that I discovered that the score was considered to have broken new ground."

Addison admired Debussy and Ravel for the lightness and clarity of their scoring, as well as Britten and Stravinsky. "Concert music has influenced me more than film music," he claimed.

Despite coming from a non-musical family, Addison started playing the piano at a very early age. However, he was sent to Wellington military school, where his father, a colonel, had been educated. At the age of 16 he was allowed to enter the Royal College of Music, where he studied under Gordon Jacob. His musical career was interrupted by the war, and he volunteered for the Army in 1939. After six years with the 23rd Hussars, during which time he was wounded at Caen, he left as a captain. Years later, he relived his experiences of driving a Sherman tank at the battle of Arnhem when he wrote the music for Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far (1977).

It was Roy Boulting, whom Addison had met in the Army, who gave him his first jobs in the movies. This was the dance orchestration in Brighton Rock (1947), and the composition of the school song in The Guinea Pig (1949). After his eerily effective score for Seven Days To Noon, he wrote the music for Basil Dearden's Pool Of London (1951), Carol Reed's The Man Between (1953) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Maggie (1953). This latter score, dominated by a harmonica, attracted the attention of Tony Richardson at the newly-formed English Stage Company at the Royal Court.

As the accent was on realism, Richardson would say to Addison: "We're not going to have any boring violins in this score, are we?" For John Osborne's The Entertainer, Addison wrote pastiche music-hall numbers, one of which, Why Should I Care?, was sung by Laurence Olivier.

At this time Addison also wrote the music for John Cranko's smart revue Cranks, and a ballet, Carte Blanche, commissioned by Sadler's Wells, as well as contributing to a number of films, among them Reach for the Sky (1956), the story of Douglas Bader, who happened to be Addison's brother-in-law, and the Boulting Brothers' Private's Progress (1955) and Lucky Jim (1957), the title of which was sung in a mock-madrigal style. In the 1960s, the bulk of his film work was done for Tony Richardson, including A Taste Of Honey (1961), incorporating children's songs, which he discovered in working-class Manchester, where the film was shot.

Because of Addison's success with Tom Jones, he was asked to do a number of period pieces, one of them being The Amorous Adventures Of Moll Flanders (1965). But when Addison saw the rough-cut of the film, he asked his agent how he could get out of it. The agent suggested he asked for too much money. Addison got what he asked for - and stayed.

For his first American film, A Fine Madness (1966), starring Sean Connery, Addison wrote a light, airy score, using a harpsichord and a mechanical saw. However, Jack Warner, head of the studio, wanted it re-written because, according to Addison, "he expected to hear a lot of noise on the track if he was paying all those people." In the same year, Addison was called in to supply the music for Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.

After a couple more films, Addison returned to England, where he settled with his wife, Pamela, and four children in a large Georgian house on a 20-acre estate near Canterbury. Yet, despite his less than happy experiences in America, in the mid-1970s the family decided to move to Los Angeles, where there was more work than in the deteriorating British film industry.

Though Addison's scores remained distinguished, the films were less so. But he did write the signature tune for the popular TV series Murder She Wrote, which uses a piano to suggest the crime- writer heroine's typewriter. Although he taught music theory and orchestration at the Royal College of Music, and had a sextet for woodwind and a bassoon concertino performed in the concert hall, the latter given its world premiere by the Halle Orchestra earlier this year, John Addison never had pretensions to being a "serious" composer. "If you find you're good at something, as I was as a film composer, it's stupid to do anything else," he explained.

John Addison, composer, born March 16, 1920; died December 7, 1998