Sidney Torch, MBE, distinguished himself in two musical spheres. In his early years he gained a reputation as a brilliant cinema organist, but in the second half of his career he switched to composing and conducting Light Music, with even greater success.
He was born Sidney Torchinsky of Ukranian parents, at 27 Tottenham Court Road in London’s West End in 1908. His father, an orchestral trombonist, decided to anglicise the family name, and it was he who introduced his son to the rudiments of music. Young Sidney studied piano at the Blackheath Conservatoire, where he soon displayed evidence of an unusually retentive memory. As he entered an examination room he discovered, to his horror, that he had left behind at his home in Maida Vale all the compulsory music. He had no alternative but to play from memory, and passed the exam with distinction. He shared the same professor for piano tuition as Gerald Bright, later to achieve fame in Britain as the band-leader Geraldo.
Clearly Torch must have been a talented pianist, because his first professional engagement was as accompanist to the celebrated violinist Albert Sandler. He then moved into several cinema orchestras playing for silent films, starting at Stratford Broadway in East London, but the arrival of the talkies forced him to consider a musical change of direction. Full orchestras were no longer needed in cinemas, and even such prestigious ensembles such as Emanuel Starkey's orchestra at the Regal, Marble Arch, (in which Torch also played piano) had to go. But every picture palace of note decided to install an organ and the Regal was no exception; a Christie was built in 1928 by the famous London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard. At the time it was the largest theatre organ outside the United States.
Torch became assistant organist to Quentin Maclean at the Regal, Marble Arch, taking over this famous Christie Organ (following a short residency by Reginald Foort) full time from 1932 to 1934. His signature tune became, appropriately, the popular song "I've Got To Sing a Torch Song" (from the Hollywood film "Gold Diggers of 1933") to which he added his own special lyrics. From Marble Arch Torch moved on to the Regal, Edmonton, leaving in 1936 to join Union Cinemas, opening many new organs and recording at their flagship theatre, the Regal Kingston. In 1937 he opened the magnificent Wurlitzer Organ at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, which was then the largest cinema organ in England.
Torch was a real 'star' of the cinema organ in those pre-World War II days. Through his many personal appearances, broadcasts and commercial recordings he had reached the very top of his profession. In 1940 he was called into the Royal Air Force, and initially was stationed near Blackpool, where he continued to record at the Opera House. He first trained as an air gunner in the RAF, but was subsequently commissioned and attained the rank of Squadron Leader. He became conductor of the RAF Concert Orchestra, which gave him the opportunity to study more closely the intricacies of orchestral scoring. This experience was to stand him in good stead when he returned to civilian life after the war.
Torch realised that the days of the cinema organ as he knew it were numbered, so he turned to light orchestral composing, arranging and conducting, where he quickly established himself through his radio broadcasts and commercial recordings. He wrote the catchy signature-tune for the famous BBC Radio series "Much Binding In The Marsh", and also discovered that his composing talents were ideally suited to the requirements of the production music (mood music) publishers, that were rapidly establishing libraries in London. Chappells had already started recording light music for the use of radio, film, newsreel and eventually television companies as far back as 1942, drawing mainly upon the talents of Charles Williams, who conducted the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on those 78s. From 1946 onwards Sidney Torch contributed many different works to the Chappell catalogue, both under his own name and also as Denis Rycoth (an anagram). He also conducted the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on these special recordings, working alongside Williams, Robert Farnon, Peter Yorke, Wally Stott, Clive Richardson and many other luminaries of light music in the post-war years. Francis, Day & Hunter employed Torch to conduct their New Century Orchestra when their library was founded in 1947, and he remained with them for two years until a Musicians' Union ban halted all such work in Britain.
In 1946 the Daily Mail organised a 'British Film Festival' with well-known actors recreating on stage scenes from some notable British films of the war years in which they had appeared, accompanied by Torch conducting a large symphony orchestra plus some of his own linking music. Although the BBC originated most of the material it broadcast on the radio in those days, London musicians were also employed by transcription services (LangWorth, Muzak etc.) and overseas broadcasting organisations such as Radio Luxembourg and IBC. Torch was closely associated with the Harry Alan Towers radio production company which supplied programmes to Radio Luxembourg and, occasionally, even to the BBC.
In 1953 the BBC decided that it needed a new programme whose brief was: "to help people relax after the week's hard work and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend". With Sidney Torch's full participation, the formula for "Friday Night Is Music Night" was devised - with such foresight that the programme survives to this very day. The BBC Concert Orchestra had been formed the previous year, and Torch conducted them for almost twenty years in this series, until his retirement in 1972.
During this period Torch became one of the most popular and respected conductors in Britain. His countless broadcasts included many celebrity concerts, often at London's Royal Festival Hall as part of the BBC's regular Light Music Festivals. He had a reputation as something of a martinet, according to the musicians and singers who performed under his baton. One described the crackle that emanated from his starched shirt-cuffs on some of his rapier-like downbeats. Singers dreaded 'the glare of the Torch' if they failed to please the maestro. But he was also remembered for various acts of kindness, seldom made public, but nevertheless appreciated by some of his musicians who needed temporary financial assistance. He demanded smartness in dress from his musicians, and always had in reserve an extra pair of gloves or black socks in case of need. His music was also often entertaining to watch as well as hear: his London Transport Suite and Duel/or Drummers are ideal examples requiring, as they do, such athletic participation from the percussion section.
Following his retirement Sidney Torch seemed to lose interest in his previous musical activities. He rarely wanted to talk about his pre-war stardom as a cinema organist, and similarly dismissed most attempts to get him to recall his great moments in light music. In a rare radio interview in 1983 he admitted that he had been cruel to most of his producers, although he felt that most of them probably benefited from the experience. He was appointed MBE in 1985.
He died at his Eastbourne, Sussex home on 16th July 1990 at the age of 82, having been pre-deceased by his wife Elizabeth Tyson (a former BBC producer) six months earlier. Sidney Torch's music is still remembered by the many admirers of the cinema organ and light music. "Friday Night Is Music Night" is still regarded by many as 'his' programme, and his own compositions and arrangements are still regularly performed by 'his' BBC Concert Orchestra. Few musicians could have a better memorial to their talents.