Carl Davis obituary: film and TV composer known for his beloved silent film scores

Alongside his award-winning music for film and TV, Davis was the eclectically talented composer whose scores for silent films played a major role in the revival of interest in silent cinema. Neil Brand pays tribute.

Carl Davis CBETrevor Leighton

Carl Davis, whose death at 86 was announced last week, made his name with multiple gifts that embraced composition, orchestration, dramaturgy and showmanship. Where his contemporaries may have spent a lifetime anonymously labouring in music composition for large and small screens, few were as prolific, eclectic or immediately recognisable as Carl.

By dint of his personality and through the sheer memorability of his best work, Davis the performer was very much a presence, wielding the baton as conductor and artistic director of the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Summer Pops concerts (and developing the Liverpool Oratorio with Paul McCartney in 1991) or in synchronisation with nearly 60 silent film scores he composed across more than 40 years, from the mighty Napoleon to recent ‘live cinema’ performances scored for piano quintet. He loved to talk about his work, to speak directly to audiences and always to make a flamboyant presence in studio, theatre or concert hall. 

Carl arrived in the UK from New York in 1961, having already established himself in the US as a fine conductor and creator of songs and incidental music for revue, one of which, Diversions, had won an off-Broadway award and been selected for the Edinburgh festival. Ned Sherrin was Carl’s first major supporter, recognising in the young musician both a clever way with pastiche and a vibrant jazz-related understanding of the pop idiom. After seeing Diversions in Edinburgh, Sherrin commissioned Davis to write for the legendary satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was, as well as his subsequent forays into cinema such as Up Pompeii (1971). 

But television was to provide a completely different grounding for Carl as he began to produce some of his finest work with memorable themes for the BBC’s Play for Today anthology, ITV’s The Naked Civil Servant (1975), the BBC’s Oppenheimer (1980), Private Schulz (1981) and Hotel du Lac (1986). 

Carl Davis conductingPreserved by the BFI National Archive

He worked quickly and to a complex brief, yet had the chameleon ability of great media composers to be able to sum up a series or a documentary in a short, memorable theme, the musical equivalent of a haiku. His later themes for The Far Pavilions (1984) and particularly the 1995 Pride and Prejudice won him huge public acclaim. His score for The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) won him a BAFTA and an Ivor Novello award, and his scores for Champions (1984) and Scandal (1989) won him new admirers, culminating in a CBE in 2005.

But it was in 1973 that Jeremy Isaacs, then a distinguished producer and soon to be Thames TV’s director of programmes, spotted Davis’s work as crucial to the success of his 26-part series The World at War. Davis not only gave an emotional voice to the first in-depth archive presentation of the Second World War (supporting the sonorous tones of Laurence Olivier) but crafted one of the most emotive and disturbing themes in TV history. There was a strange, poetic urgency to the title sequence, which concluded with an unresolved, hanging chord as the silhouette of an Auschwitz victim faded into darkness.

It was Isaacs, aware of Davis’s eclecticism and musical vivacity, who suggested to programme-makers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill that Davis score their project, another huge series for Thames TV. Brownlow and Gill were all too aware that their material needed music to do a great deal of the heavy lifting in hooking a modern audience, and that it needed a live element to really celebrate the genre of film it dealt with. The result was the groundbreaking Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, shown on British television in 1980, the same year that Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece Napoleon was shown at the 24th London Film Festival. 

The sheer scale and diversity of Davis’s work with these two projects in such a tight timescale is staggering. He used Beethoven, Corsican folk songs, opera and revolutionary songs of the period as his starting point for the (at the time) four-hour 50-minute version of Napoleon, but his main theme, ‘The Eagle’, the illumination of dramatic subtext throughout, and the sheer showmanship of matching Gance’s breathtaking vision with urgent, impressive music was all Davis’s own.

Meanwhile, with the Hollywood series and under the guidance of David Gill, he composed innumerable musical miniatures that summed up the personalities, events, developments and tragedies of the first 30 years of cinema, many of which he would go on to develop into full scores performed live as Thames Silents and later Photoplay Productions commissions. From his charming jazz-infused evocations of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to the thunderous picture-painting of Ben-Hur (1925) and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Davis’s flow of inspiration hardly seemed to falter across the golden years of those live premieres, often at iconic London theatres such as the Palladium and featuring surprise guest appearances by such stars as Lillian Gish and Fay Wray. 

For one young musician in the early 80s, Carl seemed to embody the height of glamour and musical success, and I followed his work avidly, getting to talk to him at some of those premieres and marvelling from afar at his virtuosity. For me he is as responsible for the revitalising of silent cinema as the historians, filmmakers, academics and collectors who found and popularised the material. For Davis gave an accessible, contemporary voice to these lost masterpieces and went on to prove that the magic could be conjured up live in the auditorium as the film played out on the screen. 

His mastery of music and understanding of dramatic subtext fuelled his whole output through a long career that also embraced concert works, ballets, event commissions and collaborators from McCartney to Hinge and Bracket. But I suspect it is his legacy of live silent film scores that will last longest, and continue to win new converts to a genre of cinema that gains a wider public with every passing year and every live screening. 

  • Carl Davis, 28 October 1936 to 3 August 2023

Carl Davis’s theme for Play for Today

Carl Davis’s music for Chaplin’s Easy Street

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