26 May

Tony Bennett and Robert Farnon at The Talk Of The Town

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In January 1972, Tony Bennett and Robert Farnon began recording a series of television programmes from London’s ‘Talk Of The Town’ in Leicester Square. A few Robert Farnon Society members were able to attend the rehearsals and the actual recordings, and their reports were published in the May 1972 issue (No. 36) of ‘Journal Into Melody’. The following feature (with some minor editing) is based on those impressions of some memorable Sundays almost forty years ago.



Everyone seems happy with the finished result of the Tony Bennett / Robert Farnon Television Shows recorded at London’s "Talk Of The Town" during the first three months of this year.

Tony Bennett is certainly very happy!

For the first time he is doing exactly what he wants to do on television, and virtually the whole free world will be seeing the result. Even before all the programmes were recorded he was making plans for doing a further 13 shows in London later this year. And, of course, Robert Farnon will be with him. Tony told us that having someone like Bob in charge of the orchestra is a wonderful help and comfort to him. "You know that everything will be all right. There’s no doubt that Robert Farnon will be famous within a year — and rightly so".

Robert Farnon must be happy with the superb 38-piece orchestra assembled under his baton for each of the 13 shows. Just consider these star names:

Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick (trumpets); Don Lusher and Bobby Lamb (trombones); Kenny Clare (drums); Eric Allen (percussion) and Marie Goossens (harp). The orchestra leader is Lionel Bentley.

Judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience each time, there is no doubt that they are happy with the entertainment provided on that particular Sunday evening when they have been lucky enough to he present. And finally, we in the RFAS should be happy — and delighted — that Robert Farnon is at last going to get world-wide publicity for his talents.

Each show includes a film sequence showing Tony Bennett in various parts of the country. These are accompanied by a different Farnon composition and full credit is given on the screen. The following have been included:

Melody Fair, En Route, Strolling Home, Blue Theme, Journey Into Melody, Gateway To The West, Portrait Of A Flirt, A Summer Love, A Star Is Born, To A Young Lady, Little Miss Molly, Down Home, Proud Canvas and State Occasion.

To fit in with the length of each film (and to allow a brief appearance of the orchestra at the end of each number) a few alterations had to be made to some of these pieces. Melody Fair is played in the original version (never recorded) which has a longer ending; at Chappell’s request this was shortened - unfortunately! Both En Route and Journey Into Melody have main themes extended and repeated - but the biggest ‘change’ of all is for A Summer Love. This is played when Tony Bennett wanders among the Spring flowers near Bob’s home in Guernsey; for the TV show it has been retitled A Promise Of Spring! The problem now is what to call the real A Promise of Spring if they wish to use it in the next TV series. Perhaps A Summer Love?!

[Editor: sadly the hoped-for second series did not happen. This had a familiar echo: while Farnon was recording with Sinatra in June 1962 they talked about a second LP, but it turned out to be just talk.]

The same setting is used for each show. The orchestra are at the back of the stage, with Tony and his guest stars performing in front of them. Members who have visited The Talk Of The Town (or who have seen other TV shows from there) will know that the stage extends into the theatre so that the audience is seated on three sides of it. It is certainly one of the most popular places in London for ‘outside’ TV shows. The predominant colour is gold, and most programmes use a large dark backcloth covered in stars.

[Editor: ‘The Talk Of The Town’ began life as The London Hippodrome which was originally designed as a circus when it opened on 15 January 1900. In 1909 it was redeveloped as a theatre which could also screen films, and its location in Leicester Square, at the heart of London’s theatreland, meant that it would stage many top shows over the next fifty years. In 1958 it became a theatre restaurant as "The Talk Of The Town" which thrived for 25 years. In 1983 it was transformed into a nightclub, which brought its share of problems, eventually leading to its closure. There are plans to reopen it as a Casino in 2010.]

All the shows - except two (when Sacha Distell failed to turn up!) - have guest stars in the second half, and the famous names include: Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Matt Monro, Annie Ross, Tommy Leonetti and Cleo Laine.

During the run of this series, Bob has been working to a very busy schedule. This has given him barely 48 hours at home each week. Thursday, Friday and Saturday are taken up with arranging and doing vocal rehearsals with Tony and the guest stars. 10:00 am on Sunday morning sees the start of the band rehearsals which break at noon. At 2:00 pm begins a complete run-through of each show (two were video-taped each week, except the first) and finally at around 6:00 or 6:30 there is a final break until the audience arrives and the first programme starts at around 7:45.

At the start of the show there is a short film sequence showing a newspaper van driving past and a bundle of papers thrown out. Newspaper headlines proclaim that Tony Bennett is in London at The Talk Of The Town, and the lights of the theatre then announce the show. At the same time the orchestra is playing an up-tempo version of Robert Farnon’s A Star Is Born. This reaches a climax ... there is a drum roll, and Bob’s voice (on tape) announces "Ladies end Gentlemen, from London — meet Mr. Tony Bennett!" To great applause, Tony steps down from a revolving door and rushes down the steps on to the main stage to start the show!

Now let’s have some reports from several members who have been along to the recordings.

‘Cab’ Smith went on 23 January - the first show to he taped:

On entering the showplace of the stars we were shown to our table for six, which was near the stage. Awaiting us were two bottles of ‘champagne’, as for the grade, I couldn’t tell you, but by the time the show ended we found it most enjoyable - and free at that! It was kindly supplied by Thames Television who were recording the first of their thirteen half-hourly shows in colour of their TV spectacular of Tony Bennett, with Robert Farnon and his Orchestra, John Bunch ah the piano, and Tony’s special guest star Tommy Leonetti.

While we waited for the show to start, we gazed around to see the Who’s Who in Show Business, and quite a few familiar faces could be seen near-by. On stage appeared the session men, among them Kenny Baker and Don Lusher. Then the ‘Guv’ appeared which made the group complete. About 7:40 the show got under way with Bob’s up-tempo arrangement of A Star Is Born, then on came Tony Bennett in his amicable style, singing What The World Needs Now, followed by a couple at other numbers.

After this he announced his first special guest star — Tommy Leonetti, who sang most pleasantly. Tony joined him in a duet with a second helping of What The World Needs Now, which ended the first half.

During the interval a few more familiar faces appeared, among them Tony Bennett’s wife Sandie, and Sheila Southern who were sitting at a table a few feet from us.

Part two commenced with Bob’s composition and fine arrangement of Strolling Home, which was a treat to hear and watch. Thanks, Bob.

Tony’s San Francisco had to be sung in the first show. This he sang in his superb way, followed by I Want To Be Happy with John Bunch giving out some grand chords on the 88s.

By this time the show was at an end and Tony came forward, smiling in his usual way and still full of bounce and zest to thank everybody present for being such a grand audience and to say "Goodnight folks".

I must say he puts a lot of feeling and ‘go’ into his numbers, just like he did at the Royal Albert Hall in the early part of last year with Bob. The time went so quickly, but what we saw and heard made a memorable evening, so our thanks to Thames TV for the invitation.

Three RFS members reported for JIM on the 6th February shows. First here are Margaret Foreman’s jottings:

We found our visit to The Talk Of The Town one at the most exciting nights we can remember. The evening was divided into two halves - each half representing one half-hour show when it is televised in Britain later this year. Tony Bennett’s performance was, as usual, faultless, and I feel that he and Mr. Farnon deserve each other.

Each half had its own guest star, the first was Cleo Laine and the second Annie Ross, surely two of Britain’s best singers. They each sang two songs solo and shared a third with Tony Bennett. A short piece of film was also included in each show - familiar London scenes, the Changing Of The Guard and a boat trip along the Thames. As these were shown on the monitors around the theatre they were accompanied by a Bob Farnon composition, although regrettably no mention was made to the audience of the composer or the title.

The orchestra was superb especially the rhythm section - the same group, I believe, that augmented the London Philharmonic Orchestra that Robert Farnon conducted at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1971.

The final pleasure came at the end when it was announced that a technical fault had been discovered and some of the second show had to he repeated thus giving us another chance to hear Tony Bennett and Annie Ross sing, and Mr. Farnon accompanying the Changing Of The Guard with State Occasion.

If Robert Farnon’s association with Tony Bennett means that we see and hear more of this kind of music presented, long may it continue. I, for one, will not complain!

Jimmy Gibbs was also present on 6 February:

I really enjoyed the shows … they were superb! The highlight for Farnon fans was the orchestra playing Gateway To The West to a film of Tony sailing up the river admiring all the landmarks. Cleo swung through On A Clear Day and a duet with Tony.

In the second show the highlight was Bob Farnon’s State Occasion which we were lucky enough to hear twice, as the first recording had been faulty. As Tony said: "We can listen to it again and again – I don’t mind, and I don’t suppose you do." We certainly didn’t!

All through this we sipped ‘champagne’ – on the house, of course! I liked Bob’s smooth casual approach to it all, and his parting remark to the orchestra "same time next week!" shows what a friendly get-together of superb musicians this was. How Kenny Clare enjoyed those drums! And what a laugh there was when the orchestra was recalled for the retake and one of the violinists (a big man) came puffing back with his violin already packed in its case!

It all seemed so informal. Everyone stood around chatting while the tape was checked. Yes, it was superb!

Finally a few more comments on the same show from George Fraser:

We were seated downstairs about thirty feet from the stage and were able to see and hear everything with the maximum of comfort. The orchestra was, of course, superb – as regards the guests this, of course, is a matter of personal preference. I realise that Cleo Laine is very highly regarded in the music profession as a very accomplished singer and stylist. She sang two songs, On A Clear Day and a modern pop song Making It With You but, quite frankly, she didn’t make it with me!

On the other hand I really did enjoy the singing of Annie Ross. No vocal gymnastics, she sang two good tunes – both very much with a jazz flavouring – and as luck would have it they had to be repeated.

I could have sat there all night listening to the orchestra and the two singers; it was a great experience.

David Ades reported on the 13 February shows:

Billy Eckstine guested on both these shows, looking quite different from his usual public image, but with the great voice still there. However the duet with Tony – My Favourite Things – caused as much trouble in the evening as it had during the afternoon rehearsals!

Bob’s compositions in the two filmed spots were Down Home (with added strings) and the ever-beautiful Melody Fair. Two particularly nice Bennett songs were Summer of 42 and Street Of Dreams, the latter with a splendid Bob Farnon arrangement. Also watch out for a long and unusual performance of It Had To Be You – quite a tour de force by Tony Bennett with lovely piano playing by John Bunch.

Barbara Bunfield was present on 27 February:

The orchestra straggled spasmodically on to the stage, as do orchestras all over the world; the chandeliers dimmed and the big arc lights over the stage blazed. The conductor walked on to the stage, picked up his baton and an expectant hush fell over the waiting audience. This is the sort of scene that happens nightly all over London, but, to us, this evening held a particular interest ... it was not just any conductor, this was Robert Farnon and this television recording at The Talk Of The Town was giving us an all too rare opportunity to see (and indeed hear) the master in action.

The strains of San Francisco announced the appearance of Tony Bennett, the star of the show, who gave his own particular magic to such differing songs as Wave, Get Happy and The Shadow Of Your Smile, not forgetting Bob Farnon’ s own hauntingly beautiful composition How Beautiful Is Night (With You). The guest artist was Matt Monro, who I think must be rated as the best British singer of recent years, particularly since he seems to have picked up some of the suavity and polish of American performers whilst visiting those shores.

Our president led the orchestra in his own inimitable compositions Portrait Of A Flirt and To A Young Lady and here we come to my one criticism of the presentation: both of these pieces were played as background to some extremely appealing film of Tony Bennett and his small daughter shown on the monitor screens. Now this was explained to us, but what was not mentioned was that recording of the music was still taking place and therefore most of the audience seemed to look upon this as a diversion staged for their benefit and seized the opportunity to chat amongst themselves, which, as you can imagine, annoyed Peter and myself intensely.

The high spot of the evening was, for me, a Farnon arrangement of Georgia On My Mind sung by Matt Monro; this took me back nostalgically to my youth and my love of Dixieland jazz when this was a favourite piece, but nostalgia didn’t feature at all in this arrangement - a more swinging big band sound would he hard to imagine coming right down to the romantic strings that only Mr. Farnon is complete master of. I bet Matt Monro could hardly believe his luck. I know I couldn’t!

May I digress here to mention the outstanding acoustical properties at The Talk Of The Town ... I only hope the quality comes over on the television so that we can all enjoy it together.

David Ades reported on the 5 March shows:

Blue Theme and a lengthened En Route were the Farnon specials for this Sunday’s recordings. Also a lovely Farnon arrangement of Here’s That Rainy Day. During the afternoon rehearsals I told Tony Bennett that the chattering of the audience during the film sequences was most annoying, and I said that I hoped that the microphones were not picking it up. The following week, as soon as I arrived at the theatre, Tony came straight up to me to say that he had taken my ‘complaint’ seriously, and checked some of the shows already recorded. I’m pleased to report that everything sounds fine, with no noticeable chatter on the soundtrack.

The final two shows were recorded on 12 March, and David Ades completed his impressions of a memorable series:

The last two programmes to be recorded merely featured Tony Bennett and the Robert Farnon Orchestra. As far as I was concerned they were the best of all. Not that Tony can’t face up to competition from guest stars - he most certainly can, but after all it is his TV series, and each show only lasts 24½ minutes in total. I understand that guest spots in the next series may feature instrumentalists, rather than singers. [Editor: as already mentioned, this series did not happen.]

Bob’s pieces in these final shows were Journey Into Melody and A Summer Love (retitled A Promise Of Spring on screen). Journey had the main theme repeated to increase its length; it had been hoped to use the original Chappell version, but the scores were so badly spoilt (in the Chappell fire several years previously) that they could not be rewritten in time.

We could go on forever praising these TV shows, but this article must end somewhere! May I thank all the members who have shared their ‘evening out’ with us. One point needs emphasising - the order in which the shows were recorded will not necessarily be the order of their transmission.

[Editor: the shows were eventually broadcast on ITV in Britain, but not in all parts of the country and occasionally at different times. In those days the UK’s only commercial TV broadcaster was split into many regional companies who often ‘opted out’ of the programmes being screened elsewhere. The shows were also shown overseas, and at the start of each programme a separate opening sequence was recorded especially for the USA.]

Under the headline "FARNON: THE GUV’NOR" the prestigious British weekly music newspaper Melody Maker printed the following article on 11 March 1972.

American musicians of the calibre of Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle call him "the guv’nor."

That, of course, in Stateside parlance is the ultimate accolade. "Not," says Robert Farnon, with a self deprecatory smile "as it means here - the boss, in the usual context of the word."

Yes, in one sense, Bob Farnon is the "boss man" when it comes to the specialised job of conducting a 38-piece orchestra for Tony Bennett.

The fact that Bennett chose Farnon to front and conduct his accompanying orchestra is itself enough testimony to his qualities. Yet, to the public at large, he remains a somewhat shadowy figure less well-known to those who listen to Tony Bennett on TV and concerts than some fairly lightweight talents who bounce into the spotlight via the album or singles charts.

Farnon is no dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who dismisses rock/pop with contempt. He pays tribute, in fact, to predecessors who’ve done much to break down the ‘snob’ barriers between the ‘legit’ and pop idioms.

"We owe a lot to people like Andre Previn and Leonard Bernstein for bridging the gap," he says.

America, of course, was always more flexible in its musical attitudes than Britain.

"But I think the gap started to close when Tutti Camarata (once a trumpeter with Benny Goodman) came to Britain and formed an orchestra of our top symphonic men and jazz musicians for the ‘London Town’ movie."

The gulf between the American and British ‘feeling’ for jazz is still closing.

That had a lot to do with Ted Heath’s tours of America in exchange for the Stan Kenton Band, which came here. This presented British musicians with an opportunity to see and hear American musicians at first hand.

"American musicians were not such good readers as the British musicians, but they phrased the music better, and in the case of pop and jazz music, they made a nice sound on their horns."

In his 38-piece orchestra accompanying Tony Bennett on his TV series, Robert Farnon now includes such jazz talents as Don Lusher and Bobby Lamb (trombones), Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick (trumpets), Kenny Clare (drums) and Arthur Watts (bass).

Robert arranged for Ted Heath, Geraldo and recorded on Decca, accompanying such topliners as Vera Lynn. He moved into film work, and has some 40 films to his credit.

"I first met Tony Bennett 20 years ago" he recalls. "We decided then we’d get together one day to do an album and some concert work."

Farnon has now done three Bennett albums: ‘Snowfall’, an album of the TV show with the London Philharmonic at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Tony Bennett With Love’. - LAURIE HENSHAW.

[The Melody Maker article was reprinted in ‘Journal Into Melody’ by kind permission of the Editor.]
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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.