Ron Grainer was one of the outstanding composers of music for British television. He was born in a small town called Atherton, Queensland, Australia on 11th August 1922, where his father owned the local milk bar. His mother played piano and Ron was on the keyboard from the age of two and considered a child genius, playing concerts for the local community by the age of six. He also showed the first sign of his versatility at the tender age of four when he began to learn the violin, practicing for two hours before and after school. In order to develop this talent further, he also studied the piano to such a level that, by his early teens he was a proficient performer on both instruments. He was never allowed to play any games which might injure his fingers so led a pretty lonely life. During these years he was an excellent scholar who also had to complete homework assignments. Maths was his special subject, which helped enormously in his orchestrations later on.
the second world-war, he studied music under Sir Eugene Goosens at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, but this was interrupted by World War II. He was called up to serve in the army on the islands after Japan invaded and Australia sent forces to monitor planes flying over. It was there that a barrel crashed against his leg when he was travelling in a truck and they had to drive over open ground very fast. He managed to get one leg over the tailgate but the other leg was crushed. There were no doctors at the base and he was in terrible pain and unconscious for several days before he was given medical treatment, by then ostiomialitus had entered the bone marrow. They wanted to amputate but he couldn't have survived the anaesthetic, so he did not lose his leg but was in and out of hospital for years and received an army disability pension.
During his time at the Sydney Conservatory he developed an interest in theosophy which lasted throughout the rest of his life. Before leaving Australia he had a close friendship with the poet and theosophist Ernest Briggs. He later told his son, Damian, that if it hadn't been for the war and his injury, he may not have become a professional musician and composer. He was very close to becoming a civil engineer and had always enjoyed mathematics.
He returned to Sydney Conservatorium when the war ended but he gave up the violin to concentrate on composition. During this time he rented a room from Margot who became his wife. She had her daughter living with her who had an aversion to meat and so she and Ron bonded as Ron had become totally vegetarian during his treatment.
The couple decided to move to England, as a means of raising his international profile. However, on arriving in 1952, he initially found regular work as a pianist in light entertainment, touring as part of a musical act - The Alien Brothers & June - with other acts such as Billy Daniels, Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Al Martino and Billy Eckstine. Playing in such exalted company, he was rewarded with no less than three appearances at the London Palladium and also gained something of a reputation as a piano accompanist, often helping out at charity shows organised by Record & Show Mirror proprietor, Isodore Green, the brother of the well-known jazz critic, Benny Green.
During this period, Grainer made his first recordings, albeit as an accompanist, backing Irish folk-singers Charlie McGhee and Patrick O'Hagan, and was also heard on a Christmas record by Shari. He became fascinated with the sound produced by the antique instruments he had started to collect, and soon developed this interest by writing works for some of them. The virginal, the heckle-phones, the shaums, the tenor comporium, as well as the more modern Ondes martinet were amongst those he successfully tackled, and one of these early works was an ambitious jazz-ballet score.
He began to act regularly as musical adviser to many gala programmes produced by Associated Rediffusion TV, including those featuring Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas. His bread-and-butter work, however, still lay as a pianist and he was much in demand at the BBC TV rehearsal rooms, which eventually opened a number of important musical doors for him. From this vantage point he was asked to write music for a number of television plays, including The Birthday Party, and also accepted the job as musical adviser to a Julie Andrews series. He made such a strong impression on executive producer Andrew Osborn, that he was commissioned to write both the theme and incidental music for a new detective series - "Maigret" (1960) - based on the books written by Georges Simenon. In using harpsichord, banjo and clavichord, Grainer perfectly captured the Gallic atmosphere and, in doing so, contributed enormously to the ultimate success of the series. This proved to be a major landmark in Grainer's own career. His work on Maigret, which began in 1960 with Rupert Davies in the title role, was directly responsible for him securing his first recording deal with Warner Bros., who issued both a single and e.p. featuring musical extracts from the BBC series. Bandleader Joe Loss also recorded the theme and perhaps surprisingly it was his single which reached number 20 in the charts.
Over the next few years, a succession of TV themes and scores followed, many for the BBC. The first of these was Happy Joe in 1962, the theme to "Comedy Playhouse" - a series designed to give try-outs to pilots for potential new comedy series. This cheerful sounding melody became extremely familiar with its catchy whistling, encouraging Pye, Grainer's new record company to issue it on a single. One of the first Comedy Playhouse pilots to get its own series was "Steptoe and Son" (1962), which starred Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett as the feuding father and son rag and bone men. Grainer was invited to compose the theme, which he named Old Ned - a reference to the horse which in the opening sequence was shown pulling the cart along. Helped by the enormous success of the series, the theme to Steptoe and Son was recorded by many artists although this saturation coverage spoilt the chances of any one version charting. Old Ned won for Grainer his second successive Ivor Novello Award, following success with Maigret the previous year.
One of BBC's very first cooking programmes, Fanny Craddock, transmitted in 1963, also benefited from a Grainer theme, as did Giants Of Steam, "The Flying Swan" (1965) & "The Old Curiosity Shop" (1962) . While Grainer worked on the score for the feature film, Some People (1962), he encountered The Eagles, an instrumental group which hailed from Bristol, where the film was being shot. If not actually Grainer discoveries, they were certainly his protégées. They were managed by Margot Grainer and eventually re-recorded a plethora of Grainer originals, and at one time even shared their new Roehampton home! Their recording of "Oliver Twist" (1962), written by Grainer for the BBC's adaptation for children's television in 1962, is to this day the only recorded version In the same year further film work ensued in the form of The Dock Brief (1962), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Live Now - Pay Later (1962), while the following year he was assigned to write the music for The Mouse on the Moon (1963), a comedy written by Michael Pertwee and directed by Richard Lester. Despite these credentials and an excellent cast which included Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody, Bernard Cribbins and Terry-Thomas, the film failed to live up to expectations. Grainer's theme was covered by The Countdowns, who are actually an orchestra under the direction of John Barry. Also in 1963, Grainer was asked to provide a theme for a new children's BBC's science fiction series entitled "Doctor Who" (1963). Despite some changes in the arrangement, this theme is still being used today - some 43 years later! The very first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in November, on a day when television was dominated by the news of the shooting of President Kennedy, so tended to pass almost unnoticed, but soon became one of the most popular children's programmes of all time.
Producer Ned Sherrin was impressed with Grainer's ability to create themes for such a wide variety of programmes and in the same year commissioned him to compose the theme for the ground-breaking satirical BBC TV show, "That Was the Week That Was" (1962) and its successor, "Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life" (1964). Lyricist Caryl Brahms provided the words sung by Millicent Martin. Around this time, Grainer started experiencing eye problems which doctors attributed to excessive working under artificial lighting.
In 1964 he wrote the film-score for Nothing But the Best (1964) - a comedy drama written by Frederic Raphael which starred Alan Bates, Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews and Millicent Martin. The Eagles also featured both in the film and on the soundtrack. Director Clive Donner had previously worked with both Grainer and The Eagles on Some People. The Eagles often rehearsed at the house in Roehampton, the noise making it impossible for Ron to write. This was the one of the reasons why he eventually split from his Margot and moved to London. Here he met Jennifer who was appearing in his first musical, Robert & Elizabeth, which he wrote with lyricist Ronald Millar. This was a musical about the lives of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, based on The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with an original cast including June Bronhill, Keith Michell and John Clement, who also featured on the original cast album. Work on this musical won for Grainer a third Ivor Novello Award.
Ron and Margot divorced and he and Jennifer moved into a top floor flat in Queen Anne Street, just around the corner from Harley Street. He bought his first house in the Algarve in 1963. So did Cliff Richard who was their neighbour, the Shadows, Frank Ifield and a whole bunch of other stars who wanted a place away from prying eyes. He and Jennifer married in 1966, the year their son Damian was born, and they moved permanently to Portugal in September 1968 after spending many prolonged holidays there. Ron suffered from Tunnel Vision, which meant he was losing his sight from the sides and would eventually become blind. In England he had to work a lot with artificial lighting whereas in Portugal the light was so clear he could work in daylight and didn't even need glasses. They moved from central Albufeira to a farm they converted a couple of years afterwards so that Ron could become an organic farmer. Being able to work alone on the land inspired much of his music during this period.
In 1966, a second musical, On the Level, also written with lyricist Ronald Millar wasn't quite so successful, though an original cast album did materialise featuring Sheila White & Rod McLennan. However, in 1970, he returned to the world of stage musicals with Sing a Rude Song, which benefited from lyrics written by Caryl Brahms & Ned Sherrin. It opened at the Greenwich Theatre prior to a London West End run at the Garrick Theatre.
After concentrating for a few years on films and theatre work, 1967 saw him back on the small screen. "Man in a Suitcase" (1967), an ITC series starring Richard Bradford as McGill - a one man investigator, featured another exciting Grainer theme. Next up, he produced an unforgettable theme for "The Prisoner (1967). What's often not related is the fact that Grainer was originally ITC's third choice as composer for the cult series, after they rejected earlier efforts from Robert Farnon & Wilfred Josephs. Moreover, Grainer's own original attempt, Age of Elegance, was deemed inappropriate by producer and star, Patrick McGoohan, who initially disliked the tempo, deeming it far too languorous. Grainer's swift response was to speed it up. What transpired was precisely the type of theme McGoohan envisaged and is the one which eventually graced each episode.
Although Grainer did not write the popular title song, To Sir, with Love (1967), he did write the score and his association with the success of the film led to further offers and in 1968 he scored three more. The Assassination Bureau, (1969), was a frantic black comedy starring Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg, Only When I Larf (1968), which boasted a screenplay based on the Len Deighton book, and a cast which included Richard Attenborough, David Hemmings and Alexandra Stewart as a trio of confidence tricksters, and Lock Up Your Daughters! (1969) - the bawdy comedy based on the very successful stage musical of the same name. The stage version had featured music and lyrics by Laurie Johnson and Lionel Bart, but Grainer was in sole charge of the film score.
Grainer's impressive portfolio of music involving detectives or special agents was further enhanced in 1969 with "Paul Temple" (1969), created by thriller-writer Francis Durbridge for a series of novels in the 1930s. However, the BBC's adaptation, one of their first major colour productions, placed him in a contemporary setting where he, as a writer turned amateur sleuth, was portrayed by Francis Matthews. The series proved an enduring success, extending to 52 episodes over four seasons, ending in September 1971. However, his talents were not solely confined to this genre as two contemporaneous BBC commissions - Boy Meets Girl and The Jazz Age - bear witness to. Boy Meets Girl, which began in 1967, was a series of plays adapted from modern fiction, of which The Raging Moon (1967), later a highly acclaimed film, was one such example, while The Jazz Age, which began two years later, collected the works of such notable authors as Noel Coward and John Galsworthy, as a means of producing a series of plays set entirely in the twenties. His theme for this was a deliberate throw-back to the music of that period.
In the early seventies, Grainer achieved further success as a writer of television themes with three commissions for London Weekend Television: Man In The News, "Trouble with Lilian, The" (1971) and "The Train Now Standing (1972), as well as one for Thames - "For the Love of Ada" (1970). The Train Now Standing was a gentle comedy drama set at Burberry Halt - one of the few rural railway stations to escape the Beeching axe. Bill Fraser starred as stationmaster Hedley Green who still worked by the GWR 1933 rule book, and other regulars included Denis Lill and Pamela Cundell. Grainer's theme instantly conjures up images of an era of old-fashioned steam trains, a subject on which he had previously worked for the BBC in the early sixties.
He didn't neglect his film duties either during this period, scoring Hoffman (1970), a curious vehicle for Peter Sellers, and Charlton Heston's The Omega Man (1971) - nowadays regarded as a cult movie. Grainer was enjoying life in Portugal and had no intention of returning to work in England. However, the work became less frequent because the antiquated phone system in Portugal made it difficult for him to be contacted. If people cannot be reached easily then someone else is found to take their place very quickly and that was what happened. Jennifer urged him to return and this eventually caused their initial separation. He did finally go back to stage a musical he had written with Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms called 'Nickleby and Me' based on Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, which was not much of a success, however he got seen around and was offered work so stayed in the UK.
Their son, Damian, also returned to the UK in 1975 to go to Hurstpierpoint boarding school, because of the Portuguese revolution and the political climate. They all left together but only Jennifer returned. Damian spent his school holidays mostly with her and Ron eventually moved to Brighton so that Damian could live with him when he became a daytime student at Lewes Grammar School.
Around this time he was commissioned by Anglia Television to write the theme for a new mystery series entitled "Tales of the Unexpected" (1979). Author Roald Dahl, perhaps best known for his children's stories, proved equally as adept at devising and writing many macabre plots for this networked series. Featuring a different cast every week, each self-contained half-hour episode usually ended with a teasing denouement, which, in effect explained its title.
Thames Television provided Grainer with two further commissions in that same year. "Born and Bred" (1978) and "Edward & Mrs. Simpson" (1980), two very contrasting programmes. Born And Bred was a comedy series set in Battersea, London, which focused upon the stifled and unrealised aspirations of a group of middle-aged residents, whereas Edward & Mrs Simpson based itself on the uncrowned King Edward XIII's constitutionally controversial relationship with divorcee and subsequent wife, Wallis Simpson.
Grainer enjoyed a fruitful relationship, artistically and commercially with the BBC and in 1979 he obtained a further two commissions from them. Malice Aforethought (1979) (TV), written by Philip Mackie from the original novel by Francis Iles, told the story of a country doctor (Hywel Bennett) who plots to murder his wife (Judy Parfitt) to enable him to continue with a passionate affair. Managing to retain the suspense of the original novel, this was a delightfully observed representation of life in the English countryside during the thirties. This four-part series was broadcast in the same year (1979) as Rebecca (1979) - a strict adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel, which once again teamed Grainer with producer Richard Beynon, after their success with Malice. Directed by Simon Langton, Rebecca starred Jeremy Brett, Joanna David and Anna Massey.
Ron Grainer continued writing music for television and films right up to his death in 1981. Two comedies for Independent Television: "Shelley" (1979) and "It Takes a Worried Man" (1981) benefited from his themes, while his score for The Business Of Murder, an episode of LWT's Saturday Night Thriller series, was his very last and was transmitted posthumously in 1982. Oh 21st February, 1981, only ten days after being admitted to Cuckfield Hospital in Sussex, suffering from cancer of the spine, he died at the early age of 58. He had remained good friends with Jennifer after the divorce and she flew in from Portugal to be at his side.
Very much the unsung hero amongst film and TV composers, Grainer is still being discovered. In the late nineties, for example, Chris Evans chose his Man in a Suitcase theme to introduce the very popular "TFI Friday" (1996). Evans also made a feature out of the opening titles of "Tales of the Unexpected" (1979) (featuring Grainer's music) by inviting the original dancer on to the show.
Geoff Leonard, Pete Walker and Jenny & Damian Grainer. most recent update April 2008.
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