Carey Blyton—Writing to Order
British Federation of Film Societies’ Film magazine, issue 25, April 1975
It is not often that a critic is made to sit bolt upright in his chair by the music score of a television play or film. Such an experience came to me in 1969 when I saw Before the Party, one of BBC-tv’s Somerset Maugham short story adaptations. I can still remember well how the hot, steamy atmosphere of up-river Borneo, the smouldering passions of a wife who was driven to murder, and the husband’s slow decline through drinking were all etched in unerringly by a master hand using the minimum of means. The composer of this compelling music was Carey Blyton, a name I had not come across before, and this was his first score for BBC-tv.
Only a few days later I watched David Cobham’s remarkable film, The Goshawk, a television documentary film based on T. H. White’s book of the same name which describes the training of a goshawk for hunting. Forewarned is forearmed, and after the first minute of the film I suspected: here again was so much underlined with such telling economy—the hawk’s savage imperiousness, the falconer’s sense of loss when the hawk was ‘irretrievably lost’, the lyricism of the countryside. So it was with a certain sense of self-satisfaction that I saw, at the end of the film, ‘Music by Carey Blyton’.
That I was not alone in thinking highly of this film was borne out later by the fact that it won the ‘Golden Gate’ award at the 13th San Francisco International Film Festival (Films as Communications category), that it has been televised four times by BBC-tv (one of its co-sponsors), and that it has sold very widely abroad to foreign television stations.
I decided to find out more about this composer, but before I did so, Fate intervened. Before 1969 was out, I had seen two further BBC-tv productions with music by Carey Blyton: It Wasn’t Me, in the ‘Wednesday Play’ series, and Doctor Who and the Silurians. The former, a black comedy by James Hanley about the age-old problem of old age, had a most disquieting and glacial score played by a few wind instruments, and the latter, a rather long-drawn-out affair (seven episodes), was only redeemed by what one writer described as; “one of the most hair-raising science fiction scores heard this side of Alpha Centauri.” Interestingly, this was achieved, I later discovered, by means of such instruments as krumhorns and medieval recorders, plus prepared piano effects (plucked notes and banshee-like sounds from inside a grand piano), and not via the Radiophonic Workshop at all. Clearly, here was a composer who needed investigating.
Carey Blyton, the nephew of the children’s writer, Enid Blyton, was born in Beckenham, Kent in 1932. A strong penchant for natural history took him, in 1950, to University College, London, to study for a Special Degree in Zoology, but the twin pulls of zoology and music – he had taken up music from scratch while convalescing from polio in 1947 – came to a head-on collision, and he abandoned science for music. After studying music privately he was admitted to Trinity College of Music, London by examination in 1953, and by 1957 he was in Copenhagen, at the Royal Academy of Music there, on a scholarship in musical composition awarded to him by the Sir Winston Churchill Endowment Fund. By this time, he had collected all three Trinity College diplomas (the last being a Fellowship in Composition), and a London University Bachelor of Music degree.
However, by 1958, the year of his return to the UK, there was nothing to indicate his flair for writing music for television plays and films: his output up to this time was mainly in the realms of chamber music and song. This latter, though, was to be crucial: the song-writer capable of underlining the emotion of a line of poetry or the passion of a single word, who can capture the atmosphere of a place or situation with a few deft strokes, is not all that far away from the intuitive film composer. By 1958, Carey Blyton had written about 50 songs, many with instrumental accompaniments.
It was not until 1963 that Carey Blyton entered the commercial stakes. Prior to this he worked full-time for a music publishing company as a music editor, but in 1963 he went freelance. His first commercial activities were the music tracks for four television commercials for Nimble Bread. These presumably were successful, for he wrote the music for all the Nimble Bread commercials until 1967. From 1963 to 1971 he wrote the music for about two dozen commercials all told, involving such products as Lux Toilet Soap, Elastoplast, Lyons’ Harvest Pies, Mackintosh’s Quality Street and Birdseye Florida Orange Juice, in addition to the Nimble Bread tracks. One commercial, Dandelion 1, for Lyon’s Harvest Pies was scored for various wind instruments including modern reconstructions of medieval instruments such as sackbuts and cornetts, probably one of the first uses of these instruments in such a context; this commercial was awarded a diploma in the 16th International Festival of Publicity Films in Cannes, 1969.
As well as his occasional work for television commercials, Carey Blyton was, during this period, extending his experience in writing music for television plays, documentary and advertising films. His first short film score was for an advertising film called Display to Sell, made in 1964, but it was not until 1966, when he wrote the music for a social documentary film about the sea-coal traders of County Durham, Low Water, that his flair for this sort of work was fully realised. Low Water, which won an award in the 12th International Short Film Festival (First Entry category) in Tours, 1967 is a true but grim story of men who live outside society in a bleak and inhospitable part of the country, a film whose inherent bleakness and sombreness is pitilessly underlined by Carey Blyton’s equally bleak and sombre score.
Since his first activities in these fields Carey Blyton has contributed significant scores to such television plays and series as Footprints in the Jungle (BBC-tv, Somerset Maugham, 2nd Series), The Pigeon-Fancier (BBC-tv, ‘Play for Today’), The Living River (BBC-tv/BP Film Unit Co-Production Series, The Web of Life—to be repeated this autumn), and another remarkable score for a second Doctor Who serial, Death to the Daleks, transmitted earlier this year.
The music for Death to the Daleks was scored for the London Saxophone Quartet, a group with which Carey Blyton has been closely associated since its formation in 1969. As well as ringing the changes on the various saxophones played by these four players, Carey Blyton also rang some very extraordinary changes with regard to the ‘doubling’ (alternative instrument) capabilities of these four clarinettist/saxophonists: two basset horns and two bass clarinets; two E-flat (high military) clarinets and two bass clarinets; various combinations of saxophones and various members of the clarinet family, including the contrabass clarinet, a leviathan clarinet which descends to the lowest notes of the average piano keyboard. All in all, a highly original score which stood out in sharp contrast to the usual radiophonic blancmange which accompanies the majority of Doctor Who serials. A brilliant touch, and one which did not go unnoticed by the children themselves, was that the music associated with the Daleks sounded like Dalek music—it had the same quality and ‘wobble’ as Dalek speech. This was one of the few radiophonic touches in the whole score: in the hands of a master, a little does indeed go a very long way. However, much as the children appreciated the ‘Dalek music’, I for one appreciated what I can only describe as the ‘Exxilon Chant’—a most hypnotic kind of primitive chant based on what seemed to be some sort of dog Latin text: I understand that this imposing edifice of choral sound was built up entirely from a solo voice … another example of a little going a long way, with a vengeance!
In addition to these highly original scores for BBC-tv, Carey Blyton has also contributed some exceptional scores to a number of documentary films over the past few years, in particular to films – like The Living River – which are concerned with natural history subjects. But this is not altogether surprising, in view of this composer’s background and sympathies.
By 1969, the RSPB Film Unit had produced about 30 films, but they had never had music specially written for any film. They were planning to make a film about the rare Red Kite. This was to be a rather special sort of film, with an introduction by the Prince of Wales, Wales being the last remaining haunt of this threatened species. On the strength of his music for The Goshawk, the RSPB asked Carey Blyton to write the music for Kites are Flying. He gave them exactly what they wanted—a taut, economical score in which the lyricism of the kite’s flight and the panoramic beauty of the Welsh hills are depicted in simple, direct, musical terms.
Kites are Flying was made in 1970. In 1972, Carey Blyton wrote music for a second RSPB film, Flying Birds, a 120-minute colour film, without commentary, showing bird flight in all its many and varied aspects: swooping, hovering, diving, dipping and so on. A very beautiful film, with a haunting score by Blyton played by the London Saxophone Quartet (in which the music comprises a theme – ‘bird flight’ – and nine variations), it has understandably been received with great acclaim at film festivals in Russia and Spain, to mention but two places of showing.
Carey Blyton’s latest film score, for the Corporation of the City of London film, Capital City, was written in 1973. Here the music, scored for a larger group of instruments than is usual with this composer (11 compared with the usual 3–6), is mildly jazzy, and – in view of the film’s subject matter, the City of London – there are several quotations of well-known London tunes. At the time of writing, this film is being shown at all ABC cinemas throughout the country double-billed with the successful feature film, The Sting.
TV, Radio, Film Composition
In 1972, Carey Blyton was invited to take the weekly two-hour seminars in composition for films, television and radio at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—a unique appointment in this country. As far as I can ascertain, this is the first time that a musical conservatoire has not only acknowledged the existence of this branch of musical composition, but offered tuition in it. Since his appointment Carey Blyton has pioneered a one-year course in this hitherto unrecognised (unspeakable?) aspect of composition at the GSM, and his course covers such things as writing for television drama, documentary films, television commercials, animation and synchronisation, setting up and conducting recording sessions, basic psychology in dealing with the director/producer, and many other aspects of this large and complex subject.
One of the banes of the life of a film or television critic is that music is so often treated as a kind of acoustic wallpaper, to cover up weak places in the dialogue or action. It is rare indeed that the music for a film or television is ‘right’, in that strange, subtle, indefinable way. It is thus both a joy and a relief when the ‘music and moving pictures’ are in perfect accord, when the composer knows his job so instinctively that music and movement are one. Such is the case in the music of Carey Blyton. Somewhere there is a film producer whose next feature is waiting to be ‘made’ by his simple, direct, haunting and memorable music. I for one hope to see that film soon.
(Since this article was written Carey Blyton has finished music for a children’s cantata for BBC Schools, Music Workshop, as well as having embarked on the music for his third Doctor Who serial, which is going under the title of The Revenge of the Cybermen, to be televised in April.)