Gordon Langford - A
Special interview feature
A distinguished composer and musical arranger, Gordon Langford
was born in Edgware in May 1930. He was nine years old when his
first composition was performed, and in 1947 won a scholarship
to the Royal Academy of Music. In the army he played with the
Royal Artillery Band, played in a jazz group, as a trombonist
with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and with Lew Stone's dance
band. Beginning in the late 1950s, he established a reputation
as a fine orchestrator, working on many stage musicals and films.
Among the composers whose work he arranged are Henry Mancini,
Gerry Goldsmith and John Williams. He has written much music
for brass bands, and his work is frequently featured on Friday
Night Is Music Night. As a pianist he is heard on Hubert Gregg's
long-running radio series Thanks For The Memory. In 1971 he won
the Ivor Novello Award for Light Music.
Exclusively for British Musical Theatre, Mr Langford recalled
his work in British musicals, notably in the musicals of Peter
Greenwell and Leslie Bricusse.
How did you get to do musical arrangements for musical
My very first show was at the Players Theatre in Villiers
Street in London in 1958. I was working with a brilliant clarinettist
called Donald Purchese whose agent was Henry Hall, the famous
band leader. I don't know what the connection was between Henry
Hall and the Players Theatre, but Donald was going to musically
direct this musical called Gentlemen's Pastime, written by Marion
Hart, and while I was working with Donald the chance to do the
orchestrations for the show came my way. We had just a small
band. There was no room at the Players for a large band, so we
had clarinet (that was Donald), we had Henry Krein on accordion
- he was a member of a distinguished musical family. There was
Don Lawson on drums, I think Christopher Staunton on bass, and
I was playing piano.
The Players Theatre would from time to time stop their Late
Joys [programmes of Victorian music hall] and put on a musical
- that's how The Boy Friend began. Gentlemen's Pastime was my
first show. I don't remember that much about it. It had some
quite good moments actually, but it was taken off after its scheduled
Marion Hart was a very attractive lady and not untalented.
She was married to one of the theatrical Harts. I worked with
her subsequently on a show about Israel called Sing, Children,
Sing. She considered that there were enough rich Jewish businessmen
with enough money to back it, and we did a demo recording of
the songs. They were quite good. I can remember the tunes of
one or two of them, but the show didn't go very far. Tragically,
she died quite young.
Was theatre music always an ambition of yours?
No, not at all. I was interested in all music-making and really
wanted to be accepted as a serious composer. I'd been to the
Royal Academy of Music and had had a wonderful musical education.
I studied piano, and composition with Norman Demuth, and trombone
was my second instrument. I loved Norman Demuth, my professor
of composition. It was through his advice that I changed my name
from Colman to Langford. He said I should have a pseudonym, and
though I kept Colman as a forename my real name is now Langford.
I'm extremely sorry that with all the availability of music by
lesser British composers that Demuth's name isn't there at all.
I don't think there is anything commercially recorded. He would
occasionally invite his pupils along to Maida Vale Studios when
he had written incidental music for a radio play. He did the
music for the film Pink String and Sealing Wax. I started to
do arrangements, not with theatre in mind, but generally, and
when I came out of the army I had to try to find a way of making
a living. Nobody at that stage was likely to pay me to write
original music, so I was gigging around on the piano and writing
arrangements. I started writing arrangements for Donald Purchase,
who had a wonderful group. We did lots of broadcasts and because
Donald's agent was Henry Hall things sort of slotted in from
It's possible also at this time that the Players Theatre management
- that was Don Gemmell and Reginald Woolley - could see that
I could write a bit. When subsequent shows happened and I was
invited to do the orchestrations, I think they were quite happy
to support that line of thought, from Peter Greenwell particularly.
Which orchestrators , if any, have influenced your work?
I can't honestly say that my work for theatre at that particular
time was influenced by any special people, but over the years
I can tell you the people that I admired as orchestrators, not
necessarily from the early period, but from later periods. Peter
Knight was wonderful; Burt Rhodes, Ian Fraser, Dave Lindup, Ian
Macpherson, most recently David Cullen (I have enormous admiration
for him) and of course the incomparable Angela Morley. Another
one whose work I like - well, I like him as a bloke as well -
is Max Harris, so these are the people with whom I would most
like to be compared.
I have great respect for David Cullen. Where would certain
very successful writers be without him? I saw a show which I
loved but few other people did - The Baker's Wife. I had nothing
to do with it, but I was recommended to go to see it, and the
orchestra was just wonderful. I thought, there's somebody good
working here and it was David. There are other people whose work
has a sort of mastery, a certain authority, about it. The people
that I admire are the people who can write very very quickly,
like Peter Knight and David Lindup. I mean, they can do a score
in minutes where it would take me hours, which is why I had so
many sleepless nights, working, working through the night. When
I was young it was quite exciting, especially if you were in
a nice hotel and you could ring Room Service and the flunkey
would come up with bacon and eggs. But that's nothing to do with
music, that's all gastronomic.
For which musicals did you do the arrangements?
Gentlemen's Pastime, and the wonderful The Crooked Mile. Johnny
the Priest. The Three Caskets - that was another Players Theatre
production. I did one or two scores for Stop the World - I Want
To Get Off - I arranged the overture. I did occasional things
in Half a Sixpence. That was David Heneker - lovely man. House
of Cards. I and Albert. The People's Jack. The Mitford Girls.
Scrooge. Sherlock Holmes was the last one. It's not an enormous
list really but there are some good shows there. Stop the World,
for example. When I said I did a few numbers here and there,
I think there were six orchestrators. Ian Fraser was sort of
orchestrator co-ordinator and he is extremely talented. So when
I say that I arranged the Overture, what I actually did was to
orchestrate it from Ian's sketches.
With which musicals were you most emotionally involved?
Crooked Mile has to be one, but another one that I just love
was House of Cards. I think that Peter Greenwell excelled himself
with some of the melodies in that show, and I was very sorry
that it didn't do terribly well. What it did illustrate was the
awful lack of
I've got to be careful what I say here.
Some of the critics were so ill-informed and ignorant that they
just didn't know what they were saying. I think some of the papers
use the same critics for theatres as they do for football matches.
In House of Cards, there were two particular pieces that I
still think of and adore. One was called 'The End of Summer'
which I still play. There was the most glorious waltz called
The Mashenka Waltz, and I always thought that one of these days
I would do a large symphonic arrangement of it, but it hasn't
happened and it probably won't happen now. It's the most beautiful
waltz and I think that Peter absolutely excelled himself there.
Oh gosh, when I think of it now
when House of Cards ran briefly at the
Players Theatre before transferring to the Phoenix Theatre, the
orchestra was most unorthodox. We had something like flute and
clarinet, mandolin (played by Hugo Dalton, one of the best players
around), accordion, bass guitar and three trombones - now there's
an unusual line-up for you. It was the attempt to get some Russian
atmosphere. I was really most upset that that show didn't do
better, or that it wasn't recorded, even if nobody but enthusiasts
would want to buy the recording. Anyway, for my money Peter's
two best songs appeared in that show.
about The Crooked Mile?
I have a feeling that my conductor friend Kenneth Alwyn had
something to do with my being recommended for this particular
job. I wasn't completely unknown as a writer at this time but
I was known mostly for small group arrangements, and as there
was going to be a large orchestra for The Crooked Mile - well,
I can't remember the order of events, but I'm pretty sure that
Kenneth Alwyn was something to do with it, and of course I'd
met Peter Greenwell at the Players Theatre. But there was never
any thought at that time that we might be involved in a musical.
We worked very closely together. Peter at that time had a flat
at Nottingham Place near Baker Street. From time to time the
choreographer John Heawood would be there, for the ballet sequences.
It was a wonderful experience, and of course the Players management
had decided to have a really decent sized orchestra which was
something of a luxury. The original orchestra didn't have a French
horn, but when we came to work out the Overture, when that tune
'If I Ever Fall In Love' appeared, it was so crying out for a
French horn. I said, 'Gosh that would be a lovely horn tune',
so Peter telephoned the management and said 'Can we have a French
horn?' They said yes. I don't know how many extra tickets per
week they had to sell in order to pay for him, but it certainly
made a difference to the orchestra.
I'm not sure that I influenced the combination of the orchestra,
but I suppose I must have done to some degree. I suppose it's
part of an orchestrator's job to advise if not necessarily to
demand, because after that the orchestras I was asked to arrange
for were very different and usually much smaller, and often more
strange - I mean, unorthodox.
Anyway, The Crooked Mile was going into the Cambridge Theatre
but before that there was to be a fortnight in Manchester at
the Opera House, and a further fortnight in Liverpool and then
the opening at the Cambridge. The orchestra that had been booked
for us wasn't bad. It had some quite good, some fine, players,
but the thought of going to Manchester really excited me. The
plan was that key players from the London orchestra - say five
of them - would go to form the nucleus of the provincial orchestra.
I knew even then that in the Manchester area there were absolutely
wonderful musicians. I thought, oh great, there will be some
musicians from the Halle Orchestra, from what was known then
as the BBC Northern Orchestra or perhaps even the BBC Northern
Dance Band. I thought, wow, we're really going to have some fun
here. When it actually came to it, I don't know who the contractor
was, but we had the real dregs of the profession in Manchester
and it was just heart-breaking. In fact, one particular day the
music sounded so awful that I went outside and burst into tears.
I just couldn't believe that anything that I had written could
sound so awful. It was a very frustrating time for Kenneth Alwyn,
and for Peter as well. It was dreadful, dreadful.
Anyway, I was pleased to get out of Manchester. We were working
very, very hard. They put us up in the Midland Hotel which was
the best hotel but of course we didn't have much time to enjoy
it because we were often working through the night. There was
a band call the following morning and the stuff just had to be
there. It was a very trying time. Of course I was quite a young
man in those days so I could cope with it and found it all quite
stimulating and exciting, but in latter years I found it rather
depressing and distressing. But we were lucky on The Crooked
Mile - we found a chap called Pat Ryan who was the librarian
for the Halle, and he allowed us to use his photocopying facilities
which was very useful indeed.
What memories do you have of Johnny the Priest?
I imagine that it followed from the artistic, if not the commercial,
success of The Crooked Mile, and I was invited to go to see Don
Gemmell and Reginald Woolley at their office at the Players.
They said, 'We're at it again!' and it was Johnny the Priest.
I went to see the composer [Antony Hopkins]. I'm not sure that
I had much influence over the size of the orchestra here. I honestly
can't remember, but as you know it was an awful failure. There
are some quite nice songs, actually. There's one called 'I'm
Your Girl', a little waltz tune - I think I can almost remember
it to play, and another one which was the hit of the show called
'Peanuts' [listed in the theatre programme as 'Johnny Earn Peanuts'].
'Peanuts' was so successful that they used it as the play-out
music rather than the originally intended play-out, but the show
lasted just a very short time. I have very few memories of it,
except that after it had closed I received a number of telephone
calls asking if I had the music. I had to say no. All the music
so far as I could recall was left in the theatre, but it just
seemed to have vanished into thin air. That was a sad experience.
I saw I and Albert at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1972.
A notable flop. You did the arrangements for that too?
I thought it was a wonderful show. It ran for a couple of
months, and the main feature was a complicated series of back
projections, so that at the press of a button the whole scene
could change, not with people running around humping off great
bits of stage furniture. It was all done with lights, and was
really fascinating. I got on quite well with Charles Strouse
[the composer] but for whatever reason the show didn't take off.
It was originally to be called Ma'am, but it was decided to call
it I and Albert. There were some quite nice numbers in it - a
thing called 'Victoria', a love song that Albert sings to Victoria.
I remember the number was played on a late evening Radio 2 show
with some idiot of a DJ saying 'Here's a lovely song dedicated
to a railway station - Victoria' and I thought oh god help us.
You have also been associated with some of the musicals
of Leslie Bricusse.
Yes. I was asked by Leslie if I would like to do the orchestrations
for a thing called Scrooge. I had been one of the team of orchestrators
under the direction of Ian Fraser for the film version, and I
think I got involved to do the subsequent stage show because
most of the others had died. I think that's partly true. I thought
it would be too much to do the whole thing so I had the very
able Ian Macpherson as my assistant. Scrooge was quite successful.
I think it's still doing the rounds. We had Ian Pedlar as musical
director. For the film we had a symphony orchestra of something
approaching 80 players, but for the pit band we had something
like 12, including a couple of reeds, 3 brass (2 trumpets and
a trombone), a multi-percussion player (a wonderful girl who
could play several instruments at the same time), a bass player
and of course the inevitable synthesizer. The show did very well.
Encouraged by that, Leslie asked me to do Sherlock Holmes,
which opened at the Bristol Old Vic. That was a rather less happy
experience. I felt I was getting a bit past sitting up all night.
I was already well into my sixties and the final straw was kneeling
on the floor backstage with a tea-chest trying to write alterations
for this song that was going into the show the following day.
I thought, Oh no, this isn't for me. Ian Macpherson helped me
again, but I didn't enjoy that and I did write a letter to Leslie
saying that if he wants me again I'd love to be involved but
not as principal orchestrator. I'd be happy to assist another
orchestrator. There were some quite good moments, but I think
it didn't work terribly well.
There was another Peter Greenwell score, wasn't there?
The Mitford Girls.
It didn't have enough Peter Greenwell music in it. A lot of
tunes from other shows were used. It was quite a fun show, and
had an eight piece band on stage which made a change from having
the poor blokes suffocating in a pit somewhere. 'The Controversial'
was a fun number, but something wasn't quite right with the show.
It ran at Chichester for a while and then transferred to the
Globe Theatre. It promised to be very good actually. The potential
for it was enormous, but it was about the time when there were
one or two terrorist bombs going off and that could well have
discouraged people from going to see it. I got paid for it, and
it was another chance to work with Peter, who now lives in Spain.
You also list The People's Jack as one of your shows.
It seems to have vanished without trace
I remember very little about that one. It just sort of floated
by and nobody much noticed it. It was done at Manchester, a sort
of 'pocket' musical. It was nothing of great significance as
I recall. I had a feeling that Peter Wildeblood's heart wasn't
really in it.
Do you want to say anything meaningful about the art
of writing musical arrangements for theatre?
It's not something that I've particularly studied. I've just
tried to do what I thought was right and hope that it turned
out to be the right thing to do. What's the Lena Horne song about
the new-fangled tango? - 'There's nothing to it, You just sort
of stand there and just sort of do it'. The same I think applies
to writing. You have to watch things like keeping out of the
way on the one hand and yet supporting the people on stage on
the other hand. I think you'll find that nearly all the way through
The Crooked Mile the melody is carried in the orchestra nearly
all the time. In other shows if you know you've got a strong
musical actor or singer that's much easier because it adds a
certain freedom to the orchestra. There are singers who can act
and actors who can sing. One has to try to decide which is which.
Don't miss the site's extensive features on both THE
CROOKED MILE and JOHNNY
THE PRIEST - both are found on the In-Depth pages
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