Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Popular composers have been my gateway into the classics

James Bond composer John Barry

James Bond composer John Barry - Credit: PA

The big news last week, for me at least, was that 22-year-old Mitchell Tanner had won the John Barry scholarship for film composition. Mitchell, who’s from Canvey Island, made the national news as a result of winning the award. Canvey’s greatest contribution to music up until now has been the rock band Dr Feelgood, whose singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilko Johnson were both island lads.

Shortly after hearing this news, the wonders of the internet allowed me to listen to some of Mitchell Tanner’s music. It soon became apparent as to why he won the award. He’s extremely good – as simple as that. From what I’ve heard, he writes stirring, rather evocative compositions which will be admirably suited to the film music which he hopes will be his career.

Essex has substantial historical connections with the classical music world. It was Ingrave, near Brentwood, where Vaughan Williams first came in 1903, in pursuit of the roots of English folk music. This eventually led to the composition of his English Folk Song Suite. At the outbreak of the First World War the composer, a comparatively old 41, volunteered for military service. A dozen years later, before being posted to France as an army medic, he returned to Essex, where he was briefly stationed at Saffron Walden.

At this time, his lifelong friend Gustav Holst, who had been rejected for army service because of ill-health was living only a few miles away in Thaxted. Here Holst had been chipping away at a piano duet which eventually became better known as The Planets Suite. Essex, therefore, in the first quarter of the 20th Century could already lay claim to at least two immortal pieces of classical music. This contradicts the still-popular if errant cultural image of a county best known for its love of cars and its slack-jawed, orange-hued beauties.

Our problem with classical music in this country, along with much of the arts, is that if it seems likeable or accessible to sufficient numbers of people, then our village elders will disqualify it. When the great British composers of the 20th Century are lined up, therefore I’ll predict that it will take a little longer before John Barry’s name is added to the pantheon.

To me, the composer should be regarded in the same light as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Elgar and Britten. But then, so should Eric Coates, Vivian Ellis, Robert Farnon (actually a Canadian) and a group of others so often consigned to the “light music” bunker.

Because of the John Barry scholarship which Mitchell Tanner has won, he will be able to study for a two-year composition course at the Royal College of Music, where Holst and Vaughan Williams studied, and where, predictably enough, John Barry didn’t.

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Most will know Barry chiefly for his glorious Bond film themes. Older listeners might recall that an early trademark of Barry’s were those chicken-cluck pizzicato strings which adorn so many of Adam Faith’s early singles. The ever-experimental Barry also wrote the Ipcress File theme, employing a Hungarian instrument called a cimbalom, sort of horizontal piano frame played with two beaters.

John Barry, along with the Beatles, was a huge part of the 1960s soundtrack. What he was particularly good at doing was gliding his often-exotic melodies upon a rich cushion of strings, to maximum dramatic effect.

His chord changes were original and always atmospheric. He could write a shampoo advert and make it sound like a yearning romantic epic. He did so in fact; with a mid-60s Sunsilk comission, entitled The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair. If the late composer’s young Canvey Island acolyte grasps even half of what Barry could do with strings and brass – which I suspect that he already can – then he’ll never be out of work.

Mitchell Tanner, I learned, not that long ago, was working as a taxi driver and seriously asking himself whether choosing to become a composer of film music had been a smart decision. The job, after all, requires a specialist talent and the type of people who do it tend not to become exactly household names: Colin Towns, George Fenton, Anne Dudley and Barrington Pheloung will be well known to some, but probably nowhere near as well-known as the stars of the many TV programmes and films for which they scored the music.

In the days before you could just look up a theme tune on YouTube and locate it within minutes, it was quite a task, getting hold of a piece of film music which had grabbed you. You’d rarely hear it on the radio, it was difficult to track down in a record shop, and, in pre-video days, when cinema films didn’t make it to TV for years, you might never hear it again.

I wasn’t brought up in a house which ever played classical music. As a teenager, therefore if music didn’t have guitars and drums, I wasn’t interested. The classics were the music of the enemy; all the boring stuff they rammed down your throat at school, while they looked down their noses at our pop culture.

This is why film and TV themes were so important. They became my gateway into the classics. I may have come the pretty way, but I’m a frequent Radio 3 listener now. I owe popular composers such as John Barry for that. I hope Mitchell Tanner is chuffed to little mintballs with his scholarship. I would be.

For more from Martin Newell, see our Essex page