15 great British film scores

No question, The Third Man is one of the greatest British thrillers, but a lot of the magic comes from its distinctive zither score. What are the other great British film scores?

John Oliver
Updated:

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

There are numerous aspects of The Third Man that readily come to mind when one thinks about this masterly film; Carol Reed’s astute direction, Robert Krasker’s tilted angles, the ferris wheel scene, Orson Welles and his cuckoo clock, and, of course, the indispensable music score by Anton Karas.

Reed first encountered Karas at a pre-shoot party in Vienna, and eventually tracked him down with the intention of using his zither music as a sporadically employed appendage to a more conventional score. However, in order to capture the atmosphere of Vienna with greater veracity, Reed, working in accord with producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, decided to use Karas’s music alone. And what an inspired decision that was.

Anton Karas plays his zither while watching a specially marked copy of The Third Man (1949) that indicates to the musician when he should start and finish his playing

Anton Karas plays his zither while watching a specially marked copy of The Third Man (1949) that indicates to the musician when he should start and finish his playing

The zither, a stringed instrument associated with the traditional folk and café culture of central Europe, gave the film a new, fresh sound; its ability to describe a range of musical moods, from the jaunty (the famous Harry Lime theme) to the melancholic (that audacious long take final shot), entrancing audiences worldwide. It remains one of British cinema’s greatest, and certainly most unique, scores. And there is no shortage of competition here, as this further selection of 15 of the finest film scores to have graced British cinema attests.

Things to Come (1936)

Gustav Holst wrote the music for The Bells (1931), but, as both film and score are lost – and thus the quality of either unknown — the way is left open for the music composed by Arthur Bliss for Alexander Korda’s ambitious sci-fi opus to be adjudged the first great British film score. An adaptation of a H.G. Wells novel, it was at that author’s suggestion that Bliss was contracted to compose the music. The exhilarating end result, composed before shooting even began, would be one of the more praised and memorable aspects of this erratic, yet fitfully brilliant film. 

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Alexander Korda yet again, as it was the renowned mogul who was responsible for nurturing the career of one of the greatest of all film composers: Miklós Rózsa. Under contract to the producer from 1936, the Hungarian-born Rózsa would score nine films for Korda through to 1942, with his exuberant and lushly romantic music for this lavish fantasy adventure being the high point of the composer’s pre-Hollywood career. Winning the first of his numerous Academy Award nominations for this majestic score, Rózsa had truly earned his place as one of the foremost composers then working in cinema.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

A major concert hall composer who refused to believe that working in the cinema was beneath a man of his renowned reputation, Ralph Vaughan Williams was adept at composing for both documentaries and features. His greatest work was undoubtedly the score he wrote for this tragic story of polar exploration, the hauntingly beautiful music successfully capturing both the bleakness and beauty of the Antarctic wastes, with his use of the female voice, whether choral or solo soprano, being particularly inspired and effective. Vaughan Williams was to later use the score as the basis for his Symphony No. 7, or Sinfonia antartica.

Dracula (1958)

James Bernard scored more films for Hammer than any other composer, and it was his atmospheric and often frenzied music that defined the sound of the company’s productions, his inimitable scores giving the films an added, and sometimes much needed, vitality and energy. While this particular film did not require an energy boost, Bernard still provided what would be one of his best scores, the main three-note motif representing Dracula, derived from the very syllables of that character’s name, powering the score from the outset, its unrelenting, pounding momentum over the opening credits forcefully establishing the formidable presence and power of the count himself.

Mysterious Island (1961)

The great Bernard Herrmann would score four films for effects supremo Ray Harryhausen, with this splendid version of the Jules Verne novel being the third and, from the point of view of the music, the best of that quartet. Harryhausen himself cited Herrmann’s score as being crucial to the film’s success, with the composer providing a wide range of outstanding themes to audibly characterise the various giant creatures encountered on the titular island, although the film’s musical tour de force remains the ‘furious battle of strings, woodwind and brass’ (as one reviewer described it) that accompanies the opening balloon escape sequence.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean and Maurice Jarre during the music production for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean and Maurice Jarre during the music production for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Bernard Herrmann was also one of at least seven composers who were approached to write the score for David Lean’s monumental first world war epic, but those composing duties finally fell to Maurice Jarre, a composer who had initially been contracted as a music co-ordinator. While this was the fourth English-language film which Jarre would score (he had worked in French cinema since 1952), it was, without doubt, the one that placed him firmly on the international map, rightly winning him the first of three Academy Awards. It remains one of the greatest of all film scores.

Goldfinger (1964)

In the same way that James Bernard’s music defined the sound of Hammer’s output, the work of John Barry would likewise define the sound of the James Bond franchise. The second of the 11 Bond films that Barry would score, and the first where he would write the title song (lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse), Goldfinger is still one of the best of all the Bond scores. The soundtrack album became so successful that it knocked The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ off the number one spot in the US charts.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Composed to accompany Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous version of Shakespeare’s play about tragic young lovers, Nino Rota’s ravishing score also enjoyed life outside the cinema as a bestselling album. And no surprise there, as the Italian composer’s richly melodic music, particularly the poignant love theme, was crucial to the film achieving popularity (no easy feat with a Shakespeare adaptation). And while it is the love theme that successfully tugged at most heartstrings (and still does), Rota was to compose many other beautiful themes and melodies for the film, all of which served to enrich the production. Undoubtedly one of the composer’s greatest works.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

While Ron Goodwin provided a number of well-received themes for war films, his score for this spectacular and exciting WW2 adventure movie is undoubtedly his best, the composer himself declaring it to be his own personal favourite. While Goodwin provides notable music throughout, including the two longest pieces he ever wrote – for the tense cable car sequences – it is the main theme itself that sets the blood racing, with the initially faint snare drum phrases rising in ferocity until the brass finally breaks in to herald the onset of one of the most stirring war themes of all.

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)

Despite its haphazard construction and a plethora of plot deficiencies, this sporadically effective period horror piece soon gathered an avid cult following, and Marc Wilkinson’s atmospheric score, arguably the most distinctive aspect of the entire film, was a key factor in why the film became a fan favourite. Employing such diverse instruments as the ondes martenot and, despite the bucolic English setting, the eastern European cimbalom, Wilkinson created an unsettling musical landscape through which the film’s Satan-hugging young tearaways could cut a bloody swathe. Without recourse to any hackneyed ‘scary’ music, Wilkinson created one of the great British horror scores.

The Mission (1986)

Jeremy Irons plays the oboe in The Mission (1986)

Jeremy Irons plays the oboe in The Mission (1986)

For this story of colonialism and missionary zeal in 18th century South America, Ennio Morricone, in a rare excursion into British cinema for the Italian maestro, composed one of his most moving and powerful scores. Mining the ethnic music of American native tribes and the musical traditions of the Catholic Church, Morricone utilises a mixture of pan flutes, tribal drums and chants, liturgical choirs and, naturally, the oboe (one of the film’s lead characters plays the instrument) to beautiful and touching effect. The end result is a magisterial score that successfully transcends the film’s imperfections.

Henry V (1989)

It may have appeared foolhardy to try and better, both cinematically and musically, the celebrated 1944 film version of Shakespeare’s history play, yet director/star Kenneth Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle went ahead and did precisely that. Although this was Doyle’s first film score (he was previously house composer with Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company) it arguably remains his best, the stirring background music to Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech and the stunning post-Agincourt choral piece ‘Non nobis domine’ being the stand-out musical moments. Following this triumph, Doyle would score all but three of the subsequent 13 features directed by Branagh.

Ravenous (1999)

A bizarre and eclectic fusion of historical drama, horror movie, black comedy and western adventure required an equally bizarre and eclectic music score. The combined efforts of Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman provided just that. For this tale of cannibalistic terror in California’s Sierra Nevada in the 1850s, Albarn and Nyman, working separately and not in direct collaboration, used a multitude of instruments, including accordion, banjo, harp and flute, to create a mesmerising score that fittingly encompassed the amusing, the exciting and the disturbing. A striking score for an underrated film.

Music from Ravenous is currently unavailable on Spotify.

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

Like Patrick Doyle before him, Nigel Hess was a cinema novice with a theatre background (musical director with the Royal Shakespeare Company), although he did have a string of television credits to his name. Yet he certainly made his cinematic mark with this deeply moving score for a story centred on the relationship between two elderly ladies and a gifted violinist who they nurse back to health following a shipwreck, his haunting and plaintive musical themes, composed principally for the violin (with virtuoso Joshua Bell on the soundtrack), gaining lasting popularity. Hess, tragically, has yet to write for the cinema again.

Under the Skin (2013)

Another cinema novice, singer and composer Mica Levi was best known for her work with the experimental band Micachu and the Shapes before she announced her arrival on the film scene in quite startling fashion, with her truly original and unsettling score for Jonathan Glazer’s surreal alien-on-the-loose sci-fi film. Creating a totally unique sound with electronics, strings and percussion, Levi conjures up a suitably menacing atmosphere to complement the man-hunting perambulations around Scotland of a lifeforce sucking alien. Levi deservedly won the accolade of best composer at the 2014 European Film Awards for this astounding score.

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