Suffolk’s Lovejoy and Black Beauty composer creates web archive
To win an Ivor Novello award for your first major piece of orchestral composition out of college is a wonderful achievement. To follow it up five years later with a second award for the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ground-breaking production of Privates on Parade announces the arrival of a serious talent.
Although, Denis King only unleashed his prodigious composing talent on the world in the early 1970s, he had already been in showbusiness for the best part of 20 years.
From the early 1950s he had been part of one of Britain’s earliest boy bands The King Brothers, close harmony singers, who from 1951 wowed audiences in musical halls, clubs, The Windmill Theatre and live television with their close-knit vocals and chirpy stage personality. In 1956 they became the youngest variety act to play the London Palladium alongside the ever-present Bruce Forsyth.
Songs like A White Sport Coat and Standing On The Corner (Watching The Girls Go By) kept them at the top of the charts and in constant demand on the variety circuit until the arrival of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the mid-60s suddenly made their act seem very tired.
“By 1969, we knew the group was over. Our time had passed. I retired to the golf course and my brothers went their separate ways.
“My brothers Mike and Tony were older than me. Tony certainly wasn’t as interested in the group as Mike and myself and I think was quite relieved when it came to an end. I think Dad rather press-ganged him into it.”
During their 20-year career in musical hall and on the variety circuit they worked with everyone from Max Bygraves to Morecambe and Wise to Harry Secombe.
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He said that touring in twice nightly variety was exhausting but a wonderful crash course in the delights and pitfalls of showbiz life.
“You have to be there and you have to give it your best for every show – no matter how many times you have done it or how rotten you are feeling that night.
“Touring the halls was hard work but tremendous fun because you got a real sense of camaraderie. You’d meet familiar faces in a variety of different combinations from engagement to engagement – everyone from Roy Castle and Frankie Vaughan to Shirley Bassey and Alma Cogan.
“I also got to appear in London with big American stars like Howard Keel, Bobby Darin, Judy Garland and my hero Frank Sinatra, who even said: ‘Hiya kid,’ as he passed me backstage and got into his waiting limo.”
Denis, who now lives in Walberswick – which has to be one of the most creative villages in the country – said that there was never any suggestion that he would do anything else.
“I grew up in showbiz. I was born in Hornchurch and my father worked for the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. He was very musical. He was not a professional musician but he had an extraordinary musical ear. He had this amazing ability to play a tune on anything.
“I grew up during the war and he noticed when I was very young I could copy him on the piano. Apparently when I was six I sat down and played Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In, which is what he had just played, and I reproduced it perfectly note for note.
“He immediately found me a piano tutor and started entering me in talent competitions.”
He said that in the early 1950s, Denis and his two brothers formed a trio and started auditioning for slots on variety bills and for live BBC television.
“I think Dad was very ambitious on our behalf. Mike was 17 and anxious to get into the business, Tony, as I said wasn’t really bothered, and although I was 13 I looked about three and we eventually landed a spot on a BBC talent show called Shop Window.”
He said that their act was so unusual that they caused a stir in the following days papers and as a result were persuaded to turn professional. This would have been fantastic news except for the fact that Denis was still at school, so arrangements had to be made in each city they played for him to receive some schooling.
“We toured for months on end because it those days all provincial towns had their variety theatres or music halls.
“I would get up at eight o’clock, have breakfast, go to school, come back to the digs at 4pm, have a cup of tea and a sandwich and then go the theatre and do two shows.”
He said that the recent Victoria Wood docu-drama on the early career of Morecambe and Wise gave a very accurate portrayal of what life was like on the variety circuit.
Another problem reared its head when they were booked into The Windmill Theatre in Soho – home of Britain’s first and most tasteful all-nude revue – and the proving ground for all Britain’s best variety acts.
“Because we were so young, me in particular, we had to be kept in our dressing room until we were called to the stage, which was a huge disappointment.
He said that during that engagement, because The Windmill did a revolving show they did six performances a day, 36 shows a week.
One of the benefits of doing gigs like The Windmill and touring in variety was that artists got to refine their act. “You learned how to read and work an audience. You refined your material. You basically had the same act for a year or more, so you got to know it very well. Now television uses everything up in a single broadcast.”
During the latter half of the sixties worked started to dry up. Variety theatres closed and light entertainment shows on television that had provided a lot of work wanted to tap into The Mersey Beat.
“By the end we were just doing working men’s clubs and that was soul destroying.
“After we went our separate ways I spent much of my time on the golf course until my first wife suggested that perhaps I did something with myself and I went to Guildhall School of Music to learn about composition and orchestration.”
He said that during the latter years of The King Brothers when they had recorded a single, he had often written the B-Side and enjoyed the process of writing music and this then provided him with a continued link to the world of showbusiness.
He would become aware of just how close a link when shortly after graduating from Guildhall in 1972 he was offered the opportunity to provide the theme tune and incidental music to a new children’s television show called Black Beauty.
“I got to hear of the job through a publisher friend. I submitted something I wrote and out of about 16 entries, they chose mine. That was fantastic because that was the first thing of consequence I had written.
“What was really gratifying was that it went on to win all these awards including the Ivor Novello and before this I didn’t really know much about orchestrating for serious musicians because I had only done pop stuff or a bit of jazz. Suddenly being confronted with banks of strings and horns was a little daunting I can tell you.”
Armed with his inherent musicality Denis took the challenge in his stride and quickly carved out a reputation for being a reliable and inventive creator of TV theme music.
“For things like Black Beauty and Lovejoy it’s not just writing the theme tune its writing all the incidental background music – that’s a lot of music and I learnt as I went along.”
And during the next 20 years was a regular fixture on television writing music for more than 100 television series including East Anglian favourite Lovejoy, the Eric Sykes short Rubarb, Rubarb and the Jon Pertwee classic Worzel Gummidge.
Running in tandem with his TV career Denis was also busily working on music for the stage.
He said that he had help from fellow Hampstead resident Dudley Moore who he describes as innately musical and a wonderful pianist. “We were very matey and he said: ‘I’ll help you out. What are you doing? He was a wonderful musician and I think it’s a shame that the comedy took over because he was brilliant on piano.
“Also he was a serious organ scholar. He played Bach fugues like you’ve never heard. He was a lovely man.”
In 1977 Denis was invited to provide the music for a new Peter Nichols play Privates on Parade which was being premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I got that job through a friend of mine, Michael Blakemore. He phoned me up and told me that Peter Nichols had written a new play for the RSC. It was a play with music and they wanted someone to provide the songs and music.
“They were originally going to get their in-house composer to write something but for some reason or other he couldn’t do it, and now it was a bit of a rush job and what did I think?
“I met Peter Nichols and he explained that it was a pastiche of the 1940s and the music had to reflect that. He had written most of the lyrics, so I took them home and set to work.
“I knew the era very well. It was the kind of stuff I grew up with and so I wrote most of the score in about four days. I phoned up Michael Blakemore and he said: ‘Well, what do you think?’ and I said: ‘Well, I think I’ve done it.’ There was stunned silence at the other end before he said: ‘What do you mean?’ I told him that I thought it was ready, so he and Peter Nichols came round I played the demo and Peter was ecstatic. He kept saying: ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s it.’
“So it was done that quickly and easily and it turned out to be a huge success.”
The score also earned Denis his second Ivor Novello award whch he shared with Peter Nichols for Best Musical.
In recent years he has struck up another illustrious theatrical partnership working with Alan Ayckbourn on a trio of new musicals Whenever, Orvin – Champion of Champions and Awaking Beauty.
The connection came through Maureen Lipman who he had worked with on her hugely successful stage show Re: Joyce! which ran for years and gave Denis a minor nervous breakdown.
“It was just having to concentrate and be in public view for two hours every night. You also had to react every night as if it was the first time you’d heard these stories and songs.
“Because Maureen is not a trained singer you had to play it exactly the same way every night or she would be lost and just having to concentrate for that length of time did me in. Originally it was going to be eight weeks but it was so successful that it kept being extended and then extended again.”
He added that he and Maureen were put up at Ayckbourn’s home for a week when they did a series of fund-raising performances for the Stephen Joseph Theatre. “I got to know him while we were there and a year later I sent him a show I had written with Mary Stewart-David called Baby on Board.
“He called us up and invited us to Scarborough for a chat. He said that he liked it and did we mind if he directed it? To be honest we were ecstatic.”
This proved so successful that it prompted a series of collaborations between Denis and Alan, including a family show Whenever which was adapted for BBC Radio.
It was followed a more adult, dark fairytale, called Awaking Beauty which explores what happens after Sleeping Beauty wakes up. “It was very funny, very dark. It was an extraordinary experience because I had never written with him before. Previously he had sent me stuff. He writes very quickly. He worked in his office in the house he had hired in St Tropez, we brought in a piano and we worked together. He said that he wanted to create a musical without musicians which I thought was quite novel. So what we did was orchestrate it for the voice.”
Denis and his American-Norwegian wife Astrid moved to Walberswick in the early 1990s. Having lived at Hampstead in London.
Astrid said: “We came up here in October. It was a grey, wet day. I thought why on earth would you want to move outside London. Once we got here, it took me just 20 minutes to change my mind. It looked just like New England in the fall, where I grew up.
“I said to Denis if it looks this good on a grey overcast day, imagine how spectacular it would be with the sun out.”
One of Denis’ passions is swimming in the sea. He started all-year round swimming in the ponds around Hampstead Heath and continues with a group of friends off the beach at Walberswick.
“It’s great way to start or finish the day. It really makes you feel invigorated. I have a thermometer which I take with me and I think in all the years we have been going down, it’s only been too cold to go in either once or twice.”
This weekend Denis and Astrid are hosting the launch of a new website which will act as an archive for Denis’ work and which has been illustrated with clips and anecdotes.
Astrid said: “A great friends of ours, Luke Jeans, has shot and edited footage to make the website a fun experience and we have people like Bernard Hill, Maureen Lipman, Michael Palin and Ronnie Corbett adding some light-hearted insights into Denis’ work
“Also we have a reunion of the King Brothers performing Standing On The Corner here in Walberswick in 2011 and cross cut to a performance on the Morecambe and Wise Show in the ‘60s. They’ve still got it.”
The Denis King website can be found at www.deniskingmusic.com