Robert Farnon - A Personal Memory
by Pip Wedge
Robert Farnon's loss is hard to accept, but the joy of his many talents will be with me for as long as I live, and forever in the panoply of his glorious music which is there for the world to enjoy. I was fifteen when Robert Farnon's name first impinged on my consciousness. Ever since, I have loved first his music and then the man for so many years.
In London in the autumn of 1944, doodlebugs were still roaring overhead, and soon our days were punctuated with even louder explosions as V2 rockets arrived without warning. The invasion of Europe had been pulled off successfully, but the war was far from over, and for my family, living in Forest Hill S.E. 23 at that time, just about all our entertainment came from the radio.
The presence of so many members of the Allied Forces in Britain during the build-up to D-Day had prompted the formation of the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme on radio. This utilized the facilities of the BBC, and its programming included performances by both British and Allied performers and orchestras. Captain Robert Farnon came from Canada as the conductor and chief arranger for Canadian Band of the AEF; the Orchestra, and many small groups from the band, could be heard on-air several times a week and these programmes quickly became one of my favourite sources of entertainment.
When Bob stayed on in London after the war, his work as a staff arranger for Geraldo, and arranger for other British bands, kept him out of the public spotlight for a while. Yet, as he started writing and recording 'moodmusic' for Chappell’s, one could not help but be aware of his work, without knowing who had written it, as show after show in radio and television featured Farnon compositions.
The bell rang for me early in 1948, when I was acting with an amateur dramatic repertory company in a play called "Fly Away Peter" (written, coincidentally by one A.P. 'Pip' Dearsley). At each performance, before the curtain went up at the beginning of each act, the stage manager set the mood by playing what I thought was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I'd ever heard (and I still think so, 54 years later). At the end of the first performance, I checked the orange-and white-labelled 78rpm record on the turntable. It was "Portrait of a Flirt", and it was with no surprise that I recognized the composer's name.
As luck would have it, my subsequent move into the music business, first as business manager to Steve Race and later as Assistant Editor of the New Musical Express, led to my running the music department forAssociated-Rediffusion, Britain's first commercial TV station to go on the air. In that capacity, I set up a music and record library, and one of my jobs was helping producers find background and theme music for their programmes. So often it was a Farnon composition that did the job, and I counted myself very lucky to be paid for spending my working hours surrounded by so much wonderful music, which I could play whenever I liked.
As the years moved on, the Farnon name became more and more widely known, through his light music writing and arranging, his conducting, and his scoring of music for several films. In a life filled with music, mine was continually enriched by the distinctive string writing and harmonic and melodic creativity that hallmarked each new work that Bob wrote or arranged.
Teddy Holmes was running Chappell's in the early 1950s, and I have the vaguest of memories of meeting Bob in Teddy's office around that time, but our first real meeting did not happen until many years later. He came to Toronto in 1997, during a visit to Canada for the celebrations to mark his 80th birthday. I had had correspondence and phone conversations with him in the process of working with Glen Woodcock to get Fred Davis's tape of the Canadian AEF Band's Lost Recordings issued on CD, but it was a very special moment indeed when we shook hands in the studios of Manta Sound in the summer of 1997.
Subsequently, as the Canadian rep for the Robert Farnon Society, I've been proud to do what I could to try to get this exceptionally talented Canadian musician the kind of recognition in his native land that has for so long been accorded to him around the world.
Each time I would call or write him with news of another small victory — a radio program here, a newspaper or magazine article there - his gratitude was almost embarrassing. He never ceased to sound genuinely surprised that anyone cared that much about him, and that anyone would devote airtime or newsprint to him and his work.
Bob's talents were unique, and fully deserved the accolades he received over the years from his peers and from the public at large. He will be sadly missed, and so fondly remembered. It must however have been a source of much satisfaction to him, as it is to us, to know that his music will live on as his legacy to the world. Those of us who have been lucky enough to know him as a friend, will have the added joy of remembering the lovely warm man with the irrepressible sense of humour and the heart full of warmth.
Goodnight Bob, old friend. Sleep well. See you in the morning.
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