Ron Goodwin in conversation, 2000

Interview by Jonathan Broxton

Saturday 12th August 2000 saw the popular composer, arranger and conductor Ron Goodwin taking charge of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra for “Music from the Movies”, part of the annual Music on a Summer Evening series of concerts presented by IMG in association with English Heritage.

Set in the beautiful grounds of Kenwood House in Hampstead, and playing to a massed audience that swelled almost 12,000 during the day, the RPCO and Goodwin performed a series of film scores and show tunes, followed by a spectacular firework display that lit up the North London skyline. Goodwin’s repertoire for the evening spanned over fifty years of the cinema, from the classic musicals of the 1940s to Hollywood blockbusters of the 1990s. The evening kicked off with a rousing performance of Goodwin’s own Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines from the 1965 film of the same name, a gloriously bombastic march for the full orchestra. This was followed by “America”, Leonard Bernstein’s flashy set piece from West Side Story, and Ernest Gold’s bold and sombre theme from Exodus.

The crowd recognised several of the pieces from the medley “Stepping Out with Fred Astaire”, which included selections from Easter Parade and Top Hat, before making way for a contemporary arrangement of James Horner’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, featuring a lovely flute solo by Jane Pickles. Goodwin’s thunderous theme from Force 10 From Navarone raised the tempo another few notches, before slowing things down again with his arrangement of the traditional melody “Scarborough Fair”. The first half of the concert concluded with Ary Barroso’s infectious “Brazil”, a vibrant Latino piece which featured in the Michael Kamen-scored film of the same name, and a magnificent tribute to the legendary Miklós Rózsa, which included specially-arranged suites from his scores Ben-Hur, The Red House and The Four Feathers, the first of which featured a sublime solo from the RPCO’s leader Rolf Wilson.

The second half got under way with Jerome Moross’s classic expansive Western theme from The Big Country, by which time the sun was setting and the gargantuan crowd was beginning to get a little more boisterous. Cole Porter’s sexy “Begin the Beguine”, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s well-loved “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita and John Williams’ soaring theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial were met with general approval, but by the time David Rose’s burlesque classic “The Stripper” reached those at the Lakeside, many of the audience members felt it was time to join in with the proceedings! The classic songs “Come Fly With Me”, “Strangers In The Night”, “New York New York” and “My Way” which constituted the suite of Frank Sinatra music saw the RPO accompanied by the majority of the audience on vocals, even if some of the lyrics didn’t quite come out the way there were intended.

The Caribbean standard “The Peanut Vendor” brought about the funniest line of the day when, during the rehearsal of the piece, Goodwin looked at the members of the percussion section and told them, without a trace of irony, that their maracas were too big! Fortunately, for the performance itself, a smaller pair had been located, as the sizzling samba music was appreciated by the spectators. As the glorious strains of John Williams’ legendary Star Wars music filled the air, the sky above Kenwood Lakeside was suddenly filled with hundreds of fireworks, eliciting collective oohs and ahhs from those who witnessed the spectacle. With the thunderous 633 Squadron acting as an encore, the RPO were bathed in the shimmering hues of the fireworks, bringing to an end a concert of some of the best film music ever written.

Ron Goodwin was born in Plymouth, Devon, in 1925, and gained his musical experience working as an arranger for music publishers, before joining Parlophone EMI Records in the 1950s to work with artists such as George Martin, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. Goodwin composed his first score, Whirlpool, in 1958, and went on to write music for many of the most popular and successful British films of the 1960s and 70s. Among his credits are The Day of the Triffids (1962), 633 Squadron (1964), Operation Crossbow (1965), Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965), The Trap (1966), Where Eagles Dare (1969), Battle of Britain (1969), Frenzy (1972), Candleshoe (1977) and Force 10 From Navarone (1978). He was the recipient of a Golden Globe nomination in 1972 for his score for Frenzy, and was awarded the 1994 Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, receiving the honour from Sir George Martin.

Since his semi-retirement from full-time film scoring in the late 1980s, Goodwin now spends much of his time guest-conducting symphony orchestras at home and abroad, and as far afield as Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore. His appearance with the RPCO at Kenwood is the latest in a similar series of performances undertaken by the composer, who despite the rather meagre surroundings backstage, seems to be enjoying the experience. “I admit I generally prefer indoor concerts nowadays,” Goodwin says. “You have much more contact with the audience when they are closer to you; you can have a laugh and a joke with the lady in the front row, and generally there is much more atmosphere. When you have events such as this one, it is much more difficult to strike up a rapport with the paying public.”

However, one advantage of the Music on a Summer Evening series is the sheer scale. “The audiences are enormous. There can be up to 10,000 people at these things some years, especially if the weather is good. You could never pack that amount of people into somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall. People bring their picnic baskets and their bottles of champagne, spread their blankets on the ground and turn it into more of a social event than an evening of music appreciation. In that respect, I see these things as an extension of the old concerts in the park, when the local brass bands would take to the bandstand and entertain the public”.

Having conducted several of these open-air concerts over the years, Goodwin has plenty of experience of what the audience expects and appreciates in terms of the music the audience wants to hear. “I do try to vary the programmes,” the composer notes, “and pick out pieces the people will know – even if they don’t know the film, the music will be familiar straight away. Take this year, and the Miklós Rózsa tribute. Two-thirds of the crowd will have absolutely no idea who Miklós Rózsa was, but as soon as the theme from Ben-Hur kicks in they’ll recognise it immediately.” To that end, Goodwin says he intentionally does not tailor his concerts for the film music aficionado, and instead tries to mix the film music with other standards. “That’s why I’ve got the Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra tributes in there. This isn’t really an event for the film music collector – it’s a family day out with music”.

Goodwin last wrote a film score in 1987, for a Danish animated feature called Valhalla. “It was actually a very good film – it brought together a lot of the world’s top animators, from the UK and America and Australia – but it was seen by very few people. It was distributed widely across Scandinavia and did quite well financially there, but it only played at film festivals here in England”. So, having spent the best part of a decade away from the film music world, does he miss it? “I don’t miss the two-week deadlines, I can tell you that!” Goodwin laughs in response. “I’m always pretty busy with composing commissions, new arrangements for the concerts, programme music for KPM and so on – but, to be honest, I do miss it. I love the art of making music fit a film, of synchronising it with the emotions and the action up on the big screen.”

Over the years, Goodwin has become famous for his war-movie marches, like Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron, and his theme for The Trap has reached a wider audience after the BBC decided to use it as their theme music for their annual coverage of the London Marathon, but he often feels that his best works have been overlooked in favour of these more crowd-pleasing tunes. “All of those war movie scores were written under a great deal of pressure”, he notes, “and it’s a moot point whether I think they’re any good or not. You feel you can always do better if you were given more time, or more money, or had this or that, but they’ve become popular over the years, so I must have done something right!” When pressed to nominate a favourite score of his own, Goodwin thinks for a moment and eventually comes up with an answer. “I liked the score I wrote for a terrible film called Beauty and the Beast, which was made in 1976 and starred George C. Scott and his fourth wife, Trish Van Devere. It was an awful film really – I think it opened on Wednesday and closed on Thursday – but I was really pleased with my music for that. It was a nice subject, and allowed me to be quite romantic and gentle – completely opposite to all those martial things I had written previously.”

“George C. Scott was terribly miscast, though,” Goodwin muses. “He was never the most handsome of men, and during the session when we were recording the final scene where the hero (Scott) changes from being a beast back to his human form, the orchestra all stopped playing in unison and shouted ‘Bring back the beast!!’. It was a very funny moment.”

Critical success came Goodwin’s way in 1972 with his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, Goodwin’s only official recognition by the American movie industry. Goodwin’s success came at the expense of the great Henry Mancini, whose original score was thrown out by Hitchcock, allowing Goodwin the opportunity to write one of his most respected works. “I never heard Mancini’s score,” Goodwin recalls, “but knowing Henry the way I did you can guarantee that it would have been very good. But the differences between a good score and a bad score are purely subjective. I think Mancini and Hitchcock just had different ideas about what the film needed musically, because when he came to me he was very explicit about what he wanted. He made copious notes, and explained in great detail what he wanted and where.” As a result, their working relationship turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant, and Goodwin warmed to the legendary director. “Hitch and I got on very well, actually. It was around the time he had to leave the country for tax reasons that we were working on Frenzy, and we communicated mainly by phone and mail, sending each other rushes and snippets of music. He must have been very pleased with what I wrote, though, because I remember after everything was finished he called me in the middle of the night to thank me for my contribution. He had no need to go to those lengths, really, but I greatly appreciated the acknowledgement. It’s just a shame we never managed to work together again.”

On working with the Royal Philharmonic, Goodwin made special note of the way the orchestra are able to perform the music correctly with such speed and precision. “I’ve always considered the RPO to be a first class orchestra. It always amazes me that, the first time they play the music, they are spot on. All the expression marks, all the dynamics, are perfect straight away. Of course, there are always tricky bits that need ironing out during a rehearsal, but on the whole they are on the money from the word go.” “In fact, I could have probably done the concert without rehearsing, and no-one in the audience would have noticed. In many ways the rehearsal is superfluous – this is the one orchestra where I would happily take a chance, forego the rehearsal, and go straight into the performance, because I have confidence that they would get it right. I have never come across a more solid group of musicians.”

This interview would not have been possible without the co-operation of Ron Goodwin, Ron Shillingford, Tom Syracuse and Stephen Kear.