In July 1972, composer, Paul Lewis was briefed to compose the score for "Arthur of the Britons." He remembers his experiences well.

One afternoon in 1972, Executive Producer Patrick Dromgoole rang me and asked me to be in his office the following morning [3 July 1972], so I got up very early and drove across the south of England to Bristol with no idea why Patrick wanted to see me. While I was waiting in HTV's reception area the commissionaire mentioned that they were making a series about King Arthur.

A Celtic-style melody immediately sprang, fully formed, into my head; I took an envelope out of my pocket and wrote the tune on the back of it. The melody became The Fair Rowena, and I still have the envelope.

Envelope small

I was asked by Producer Peter Miller to compose a library of music to cover every possible eventuality, including battles on foot and on horseback, children playing and dramatic chords, for Arthur of the Britons, the series.

Luckily, having also been an archaeologist with a special interest in the medieval, I knew a lot about the period, for nothing had been shot1 and only two scripts had been written. I didn't even know what the lead actors looked like! I discussed with the producers the various situations that music would have to cover and thereafter used my imagination and historical sensibilities to gauge the musical style, embarking upon the composing of a score that is considerably more terse, energetic and astringent than my music is wont to be, in order to reflect the barbarity of the age.

I also orchestrated Elmer Bernstein's Title Theme from his pencil sketches, ignoring his suggestion to use a bass guitar. (I think he was confusing the West of England where the series was filmed with the Wild West of America!)2

I remember the intensity of composing so much music and scoring it for orchestra in such a short time, working every day from six in the morning till midnight and often one the following morning. I still have Arthur dreams: another series is going to be made and I'm back in Bristol to see the shoot and talk about more music ... Strange really - it's not as if I've done nothing exciting ever since!

I do it all. I always compose in pencil, orchestrate - (the sound of the orchestra is in my head as I compose) - and finally conduct the orchestra and produce the recording sessions. The only thing I delegated was the copying out of the parts from my orchestral score for the individual musicians: I employed had a professional copyist.

I never underestimate the importance of the viewer; after all it is for you as much as for the director or even myself that I have composed so much TV music. I wrote many years ago: "I have never regarded television as a lowest-common-denominator medium, or indeed as the poor relation of cinema, but have always regarded as a challenge and an honour the opportunity to compose the best possible music for the largest possible audience."

I could have said "the best possible music that time allows" … The timing was very tight indeed. From briefing, I had only 25 days to compose and orchestrate 80 minutes of music, mostly for full orchestra, before a 3-day dash to Brussels for two days recording with what was basically the National Symphony Orchestra of Belgium3 on a day off. And all on a budget of £3,000!

At the first session, on the evening of 28th July, we recorded the Celtic homestead music, including the recorder and harp piece I jotted down in HTV reception.

The next day there were two four-hour full orchestral sessions; the orchestra was superb, and Studio Fonior and its recording engineer Walter Coussement were magnificent. No re-mixing of any sort was required.

Arthur finished off a love affair with a Russian artist who complained that I hadn't told her I loved her for two weeks – “I HAVE been rather busy” was my reply - and made way for a love affair with a Chinese art student who was more understanding!

Paul & Hiang 1973-4
Paul Lewis with Chinese art student, Hiang

I took the music tapes to HTV the following week. To my surprise and delight, Oliver Tobias sat with us and listened to the entire score. Not only was he a lovely man, but I had never had a star take such an interest in the music before, and I haven't ever since.

A week later I was asked for a further 20 minutes of music, mostly variations on Bernstein's theme, and had a week to compose those before dashing back to Belgium!

A composer's responsibility is huge: the right music can make a film, the wrong music can ruin it. We also have to thank the Arthur of the Britons film editors. I had composed a large suite of music – themes, underscores, action music etc. After I had shown the editors how to score a couple of episodes – how to use the music, in other words – they did the rest without me and all did a wonderful job.

Some of them soon found favourite pieces and used them repeatedly; one actually reversed the tape and played a music cue backwards. It was a long sequence of sustained string tremolos punctuated by drumbeats, rising in pitch and intensity to a big climax. There was a fight in the mud which got slower and slower until the combatants dropped from exhaustion, so editor Alex Kirby played the music backwards so that it gradually sagged away to nothing! So resourceful, and the joke is I never noticed! So much grunting, clashing of weapons and muddy splodgy sounds!

The first time I saw a photo of the three lead actors was August 1972, a couple of weeks after I recorded the music. Luckily, they matched the picture I had in my mind as I composed!

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

1 Filming was scheduled to begin during June, and Director Peter Sasdy remembers that it started on time. Also, a news article which mentions an injury sustained by Oliver Tobias while filming "The Challenge" pins the filming of that particular episode – the third to be filmed - to the second week in July. It therefore seems likely that much of the first episode, "Arthur is Dead", was actually filmed during the last week in June, prior to Paul Lewis' meeting with Patrick Dromgoole. However, it was far from complete, which might explain why he wasn't shown the footage.

2 It was suggested that the fact that “Arthur of the Britons” was partly financed by a company which produced many Spaghetti Westerns - Heritage Enterprises of New York - might have helped get Elmer Bernstein on board to do the theme. Paul Lewis replied: “Indeed you’re right … When Elmer sent me the short score (a detailed sketch) of his theme to orchestrate … I said straight away to the English producers that it sounded like a Western. “You should see our opening film” was Executive Producer Patrick Dromgoole’s only response. (He had a very dry sense of humour).

Years later, Producer Peter Miller told me it was an unused theme Elmer wrote for a Western, that Heritage had knocking around in a drawer! So Elmer didn’t write it specially after all. What he was paid, if anything, I never asked and was never told.

Of the Bernstein theme, Paul said, “it was rousing but totally unsuitable. After I recorded my incidental music I was put to work again to write some tracks based on Elmer’s theme. In the first, “Apotheosis”, I attempted to take the theme as far from its origins as its opening phrase would allow, hoping that this would become the opening title music, but as you know it didn’t! Actually … what I really wanted was for the opening section of track 8, now called “Kai the Saxon”, to be the theme tune, and not use Elmer’s at all! Should this sound like sour grapes, I should reiterate that I appreciate all the qualities of EB’s tune – except its cowboyishness!!!

3 For contractual reasons, Paul invented a name for the orchestra - “The Belgian Studio Symphony Orchestra” – for use on the CD.

The incidental music, beautifully written and orchestrated for the series by Paul Lewis, was released on CD in Summer 2013, and is available here.


Arthur of the Britons

August 2015

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