The Autobiography That Only Just Started
When Trevor Duncan died on 17 December 2005 aged 81, the world of Light Music lost a great composer, and we in the Robert Farnon Society mourned the passing of a true friend.
He liked to be known as 'Treb' and his birth name was Leonard Charles Trebilco. He adopted 'Trevor Duncan' when his music started to become popular, as it avoided problems with favouritism while he was still working at the BBC.
RFS Secretary David Ades first met Trevor at his home in Enmore, Somerset, in April 1994 when he was commissioned by Marco Polo to write the notes for a new CD of his music. This started a friendship that was to last for the rest of Trevor's life, and which resulted in him attending a summer meeting of our society in Somerset, culminating in his grand participation in a splendid London meeting in April 2004 when he was Guest of Honour in celebration of his 80th birthday year.
Soon afterwards Trevor told David that he wanted to write about those periods of his life which made the greatest impact upon his success as a composer. He did not envisage anything as grand as an autobiography, but he felt that some reminiscences might shed some light on the influences that would shape his future career. Later on he hoped that he could concentrate on the years when his gift of composition was at its peak, and how he hoped that he would be able to progress into other areas – such as a popular 'opera' which occupied him in his last years, but largely due to lack of interest from potential collaborators it failed to make any real progress. He was also disappointed that no one had ever commissioned him to write a ballet score.
Treb started making some pencil notes during 2004, and sent them to David. It was planned that a series would begin in Journal Into Melody when he had reached the time in his life, around 1950, when his career as a light music composer really began to take off.
Sadly the first set of notes was to be the last. Soon afterwards Trevor was taken ill, and after several months he died in Taunton hospital.
In fond memory of Trevor we feel that the time is now right to publish those notes, even though they are often fragmented and tend to concentrate on his Royal Air Force experiences during the Second World War. He never had the opportunity to revise what he had jotted down, but only minor editing has been applied, and it is hoped that the impressions Trevor wished to convey have been faithfully preserved.
This is Trevor Duncan's own story.
Born 1924 [the exact date was 27 February 1924]. Joined BBC straight from school in 1941 as Junior Programme Engineer, also called Studio Manager. JPEs played records (like seawash, thunder, engines etc and did 'spot' effects like door opening, telephone handset noises, horses hooves).
Did sound FX [effects] on ITMA (from Bangor, North Wales), Merry-go-round, Much Binding In The Marsh and others from BBC Studios in Lower Regent Street, London. Also worked below ground at 200 Oxford Street for the BBC Imperial Service. When playing Lili Bolero I never knew that it was followed by coded messages to the resistance workers in France.
1943: Joined the Royal Air Force as wireless operator, air crew. ITW (Initial Training Wing) then sent to No. 4 Radio School (Madely). Learned morse [code], and elementary servicing of 1154 and 1155 transmitter and receiver. First flying communication in D.H. Dominies, trying to hear signals through all the mush, and practising D.F. [direction finding] with loop aerials, taking turns with a few other students at the receiver.
In June/July did a gunnery course at No. 8 Gunnery School, Evanton near Inverness in Ansons.
August 1944: OAFU in Ansons WT cross country.
November: 81 OTU (Operational Training Unit) – map reading, cross country low flying, formatting in Whiteleys.
December: circuits and landings, glider lifts (Horsas).
1945 – February: Stirling IV. Heavy Conversion Unit. Crewed up, Circuits and landings. Day and night cross-country flying (find Rockall!).
March: ORTU. Glider flights, exercises cross-country and sea, and some operations including towing Horsas over the Rhine (Operation Varsity 24.3.45).
April: 196 Squadron, B Flight, Shepherds Grove. Glider lifts cross-country. Transporting prisoners, petrol, etc.
May: Transporting troops, prisoners, petrol to Norway.
June: Group exercises with gliders. Ferrying Stirlings to Maghdaberry (Ireland).
July: Transporting petrol to Norway.
August & September: Transporting Czechs from Prague, men, women and children. RAF personnel from Copenhagen.
October: To India 1588 Heavy Freight Flight. In Stirling V (IV converted to civil transport).
1946: St Mawgan, Castilo Benito, Lydda, Shaibah, Karachi, Santa Cruz. Flew back to England and to India a few times. Based at Santa Cruz, near Bombay, India. Moved freight all around Middle East, Madras, Calcutta (Dum Dum), Pegu (Burma), Butterworth (Malaya), Phapham, Bamrauli, Chakeri, Palan, Delhi, Allahabad, Kollang, Mingaladon, Hmawbi, Mauripur.
20 May 1946 Stirling V withdrawn (the Dakota was more efficient).
June: Posted to Dum Dum airfield (Calcutta). Did ground jobs. Receiving signals – mostly for met. Mapping, also worked on 'approach control' – ETAs and number of dinners required, etc. Later did signal briefing for aircraft crews, radio beacon information etc…
1947: Demobbed. Came home by ship on the Arundel Castle with large bunch of bananas.
Rejoined the BBC.
There was an examination waiting. To the amazement (and probably annoyance) of my colleagues, I took it right away.
It was a test of everything I knew and had learned from curiosity; and was indeed what every balance engineer should know.
Musical instruments and their transpositions, acoustics (frequencies, absorbtion, echo and reverberation). Simple circuits such as oscillators and rectification, microphones, loudspeakers etc.
I took the exam, passed and was put straight away on to balance and control of orchestras – Light Music Department.
This was when I first met Ernest Tomlinson! I balanced all those lovely little bands for which Ernest arranged Leroy Anderson's compositions.[At this point Trevor jumps ahead to 1954, but we know from other sources that he continued to work as a balance engineer at the BBC during this period. He has credited Ray Martin as being the conductor who encouraged him to compose, resulting in his first big success High Heels as the 1950s dawned.]
1954: I applied for the job of music producer in the Variety Department. I got the job because I didn't really want it! I loved the balancing job... I loved it very much, but the salary and status of producer was higher. I had begun composing and had a few pieces published. The future looked promising, so I resigned. I shall never forget the reaction of my boss Jim Davidson. He was horrified! 'What are you going to do?'
But it's hell outside.'
He did not know about my work, but 'Trevor Duncan' was already marked as 'staff' and his compositions were being denied performances on the radio, so I went.
Editor: no doubt 'Treb' was planning to embellish these notes before publication, and it would have been nice to learn more about the years between 1947 and 1954 since they were so important in establishing his credentials as a leading composer of production music. I hope readers with knowledge that I lack will forgive any spelling mistakes in the list of places that Trevor visited during his RAF service.
This article first appeared in 'Journal Into Melody' issue 188, June 2011
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