Carl Davis on composing music from Reigate to Cranford
He has penned some of our best-loved film and television anthems, and delights concert-goers up and down the land with his flamboyant stage costumes. But composer and conductor Carl Davis, who is married to Bread actress Jean Boht, likes nothing better than to get away from it all at his Reigate bolt-hole, where he has written many of his finest pieces
Think of your favourite television theme tunes and the chances are at least one will have been written by composer and conductor Carl Davis.
The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is almost as famous for Carl’s sparkling pastiche forte piano concerto as it is for Colin Firth in his wet shirt, and his elegiac signature music for that period classic Cranford is as distinctive as Miss Pole’s bonnet.
World War II buffs will also know his stoic theme tune for the groundbreaking documentary series The World at War. And let’s not forget his melodies for the big screen. Remember The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with Meryl Streep’s mysterious hooded figure reflected to perfection in a passionate viola solo?
But what you may not realise is that many of his melodic scores are composed right here on our home turf in the spectacular Reigate bolt-hole he shares with his actress wife Jean Boht, known to millions for her role as matriarch Nellie Boswell in the Eighties sitcom, Bread.
The couple fell in love with their stunning Sixties house, built on the slopes of Reigate Hill, in 2001 and decided they had to have it. “I’ll never forget our first glimpse,” says Carl, with characteristic enthusiasm. “We just looked at the view from the house and gasped. For half an hour, we didn’t speak – we just stared.”
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The Reigate retreat
Their principal home is an 18th century town house in Chelsea, which also houses Carl’s studio and offices. They bought their Surrey property to separate work from home, but no sooner had they moved in than a BBC film crew arrived with Elizabeth Taylor to record an interview, and their daughter Hannah, a Los Angeles producer and director, transformed the ground floor into a filmset for a movie.
“It has been used as a location for lots of things and it’s especially good for parties,” says Carl. “An architect friend once likened its Californian feel to the set of a Seventies’ Joan Collins soft-porn movie, but I’ve had a lot of flak from Jean for repeating that. She says it will put people off if we decide to sell!”
The couple actually put the house up for sale last year, but have since taken it off the market. “We keep vacillating. We have periods when we love it and periods when we say we don’t use it enough to warrant the cost of maintaining it. But it’s a spectacular space and I always long for the moment when I can say: ‘Let’s go to Reigate,’ because I love it there.
“I have a favourite place where I like to work at the head of a large table, and I look out with one eye and watch the morning visitors to our mini nature reserve. The foxes come for a drink at our private lake, and there’s always a heron just after 6am because it’s very heavily stocked!”
Carl got to know Reigate well when he recuperated at the house after an operation. While convalescing, he wrote large chunks of a ballet score and was greatly cheered by the sight of Margot Fonteyn’s statue when he travelled through the town centre. “Ballet has been very dominant in my career and something I love to do – and there was Margot wishing me luck,” he says.
Believe it or not, Carl will be celebrating his 75th birthday this year and will be marking the event with the release of three albums, as well as the premiere of his new Ballade for Cello and Orchestra, commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
He makes few concessions to age. “When I was 50, I had the thrill of being ‘jumped on’ by Eamonn Andrews for This is Your Life, and I remember saying: ‘But I’ve only just begun.’ I still feel that way.”
A child prodigy
Raised in Brooklyn, the grandson of Russian immigrants, Carl was a sickly child whose frequent bouts of pneumonia confined him indoors. It was then that his love affair with music began and he listened avidly to the two classical music stations broadcast in New York City.
He was a musical prodigy. At two years old, he could play the piano, at seven he could sight-read and by eight he was standing outside the New York Met giving impromptu lectures to anyone who would listen on the operas that were being performed inside.
After seeing Disney’s classic film Fantasia, he promptly sacked his piano teacher for refusing to let him study Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece that featured largely in the film, but continued playing – everything from pop to Parsifal.
“We had good public libraries in Brooklyn with comprehensive music sections and I devoured scores. My mission was to be able to sight-read and sing operas, text and all.”
He moved to Britain in 1960, when his revue Diversions, co-authored with Steven Vinaver, travelled to the Edinburgh Festival after winning an Off-Broadway Emmy. Its success brought him to the attention of producer Ned Sherrin, who commissioned him to write music for the BBC’s satirical show That Was the Week that Was. The exposure made him hot property, and he went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
Love at first sight
Meanwhile, he has been married to Jean for nearly 40 years and they have two daughters, the previously mentioned Hannah, and Jessie, who has given them three grandchildren. They met at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1969 and Jean once told an interviewer that she’d never seen anyone so barmy in her life – he had a large hole in his shirt and his coat was ripped. Promptly taking him in hand, she produced a needle and thread, and proceeded to sew them up.
Is he aware that she affectionately describes him as “that lunatic Carl Davis?” He pauses, before replying drily: “Look in the mirror, darling.”
These days, he also has a new love in his life, his very own independent record label called the Carl Davis Collection. Deciding to capitalise on the growth in internet music sales, he is re-recording and releasing new compilations of his most popular works with soloists and orchestras of his choice.
He’s particularly excited about his latest album, Heroines in Music, which includes concert versions of his TV and film music for Pride and Prejudice, Cranford and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In July, he will also be releasing orchestral recordings of his favourite Beatles tracks with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
“I’ve always had strong links with the band. Their rise to fame virtually coincided with my arrival in England and I also did a two-year collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney when we worked on The Liverpool Oratorio, premiered in 1991.” When I ask how they rubbed along, he replies with a clipped laugh: “On the work level, fabulous. I say no more.”
Carl isn’t remotely precious about his art and says that writing principally for a concert stage setting has never appealed to him. First and foremost, he has always been a commercial artist because he prefers the immediacy of film, theatre and dance. “Some critics have dismissed me as a television composer, but actually I think I’ve made a real difference to television,” he says, with uncharacteristic seriousness.
He is also responsible for introducing a new generation to the silent movie, and has written or reconstructed scores for some of the most famous pre-talkies, including Abel Gance’s 1927 five-hour epic Napoleon and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as many Charlie Chaplin films.
At the baton
And then, of course, there’s his hugely successful conducting career, which began with the Napoleon project and has since encompassed the BBC’s Proms in the Park and the popular outdoor concerts at Leeds Castle. An unashamed populist, his colourful conducting outfits – not least his Union Jack tail ensemble – are famous in concert halls up and down the land.
On one memorable occasion, he even donned a sparkling gold suit for a concert devoted to Oscar-winning film music. “I thought: ‘Well, if I can’t bring an Oscar on stage, I could be the Oscar.’”
Carl may be long past retirement age, but it seems we ain’t seen nothing yet. “I want to keep doing this for as long as I can,” he says. Let’s hope the early morning visitors to his Surrey lake will continue to inspire him.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Fanny’s Farm Shop at Markedge Lane in Merstham. It has a tea room, tea garden and even resident chickens, pigs and sheep. It’s a bizarre jumble of a place, but it’s so weird I love it.
Place to shop: Knights of Reigate in Bell Street. It’s one of those old-fashioned department stores which sell everything from slippers to vast three-piece suites. It also has a wonderfully eclectic fabric area, where I’ve bought wildly extravagant material for my tail coats.
View: Outside my window.
Place to chill: Home again.
Place to visit: The Leatherhead Theatre. It’s terrific. It’s very architecturally exciting and puts on great shows.