It was the sound of bustling Piccadilly Circus at the heart of Thirties’ London. Motor cars honked their horns, music played, and the voice of a flower-seller could be heard repeating her familiar street cry: "Violets, luvly sweet violets!" followed by a newsboy calling "In Town Tonight! In Town Tonight!" Then, above all the noise, a policeman’s voice suddenly shouted "Stop!", and, as if by magic, the traffic was brought to an immediate standstill. After a short pause, having captured everybody’s attention, the voice of authority continued: "Once again we silence the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring to the microphone some of the interesting people who are In Town Tonight!"
That was the dramatic, attention-grabbing introduction to a BBC radio programme which, for nearly 30 years, was a national institution. Broadcast at 7.30 on Saturday evenings, "In Town Tonight" featured interesting interviews with celebrities from the world of stage, screen and music, but also, more unusually, with a colourful gallery of curious and quirky individuals. Over the years, these included tramps, gypsies, a lady chimney sweep, and larger-than-life characters such as the "Chocolate Lady of Kensington Gardens", the "Toffee Apple Queen of Roman Road", and famous racing tipster Prince Monolulu.
The programme was also loved by millions of listeners because of its catchy signature tune. Indeed, when "In Town Tonight" went on air for the first time on 18th November, 1933, more than 20,000 people wrote to the BBC asking for the title of the tune and the name of its composer. In order to deal with such an avalanche of mail, the hard-pressed BBC staff had to have special slips of paper printed. These informed listeners that the piece of music was called the Knightsbridge March and the name of its composer was Eric Coates.
Although largely unknown to the people of England when his magnificent Knightsbridge March burst on the scene, since then there can be few people in this country who haven’t been touched in some way by the music of Eric Coates.
Who could forget the stirring Dam Busters March used to accompany the exciting 1954 film which depicted one of the great exploits of the Second World War? How many thousands set to with a will to the strains of Calling All Workers, which the BBC adopted during the war as its inspiring signature tune to "Music While You Work"? As a child, you might have listened in to the Overseas Children’s Programme for which Coates wrote the march London Calling as a theme tune.
In fact it is hard to imagine how the BBC could have managed without Eric Coates. Completed at very short notice in 1946, the Television March was written for the re-opening of BBC Television after the war and was the first music to be heard over the new service. In similar vein was his jaunty Music Everywhere, a piece specially commissioned for television in 1949. The long-running Radio 4 programme, "Desert Island Discs", also owes its theme tune, By the Sleepy Lagoon, to Eric Coates.
Although these are probably the best-known of Eric Coates’s compositions, he wrote many more memorable pieces in a variety of styles. Today he is rightly regarded as "England’s Master of Light Music".
Eric Francis Harrison Coates was born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, on 27th August, 1886, the youngest of five children of the local doctor, William Harrison Coates, who was held in high regard by the mainly mining community. His mother, Mary Jane Gwyn Blower, came from Wales originally and was a talented singer and pianist. Eric remembered her as the kindest mother any boy could wish for.
Eric Coates had a happy childhood. His father was a keen amateur photographer and would often take Eric with him on expeditions to local places of interest such as Southwell with its splendid Minster.
The boy’s love of music became apparent at an early age. After hearing music on a gramophone he began composing his own tunes, and by the time he was seven years old he was studying the violin and arranging music. When he was 12 he began being taught in Nottingham by George Ellenberger, who had himself been a pupil of the great virtuoso Joseph Joachim. He progressed well and was soon receiving lessons in harmony from the respected teacher, Dr. Ralph Horner, and playing the viola in local orchestras. As a break from his musical activities Eric liked to explore the Trent Valley on his bicycle.
His parents had intended Eric to pursue a career in banking, but in 1906 reluctantly allowed him to take up a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Here his talents were moulded by Lionel Tertis, an outstanding exponent of the viola. He also came under the influence of the composer Frederick Corder and the grand old man of Scottish orchestral music, Sir Alexander Mackenzie.
The days at the Royal Academy were to mark a turning point for the young musician. In fact, so confident was Mackenzie in the young man’s future that he said: "Ye’ll start as a viola player, but ye’ll end up a composer!" How true that prophecy proved to be!
While still a student, Coates toured South Africa as a viola player in the Hambourg String Quartet. He also gained tremendous practical experience through the many evenings he spent playing in London theatres.
Eric Coates had to fight against poor health: the weak chest he had suffered as a child, and neuritis in his left arm which was aggravated by his viola playing. He longed for the day when he could give up performing for good and concentrate on composing and arranging.
In his entertaining autobiography, Suite in Four Movements (Heinemann, 1953), Coates recounted how he plucked up the courage to write to Frederic E. Weatherly, asking the great lawyer and lyric writer if he had any words that an unknown composer might use. Weatherly invited the young man to visit him at his London home, and Coates wrote a vivid description of their meeting:
"As I sat by his side listening to him read his latest verses, I felt as if I might have been writing music for years, for he did not ask me what I had done but merely enquired as to what kind of lyric I wanted. It appeared that he always composed his poems to a tune or rhythm of his own, and when reading his verses to you he would adopt a listening attitude and croon his lines in the most extraordinary manner. If the words were particularly moving he would frequently break down with emotion and have to wait until he could compose himself sufficiently to continue. His knack of painting pictures with his poems ("word-pictures", he called them) was uncanny, for with a few delightfully chosen words he could conjure up a scene which it would have taken anyone else a whole page to describe..."
Eric came away with the words of a West Country song in his pocket entitled Stonecracker John. On his way home, bumping along on the top deck of a horse-bus, a tune came into his head which he managed to scribble down. A few days later, he played it to Arthur Boosey, owner of the famous firm of music publishers.
Although Stonecracker John was not published right away, when it did appear a year later in 1909 and was sung with such great effect by the famous bass, Harry Dearth, copies of the sheet music sold in their thousands. It was Eric Coates’s first great song writing success and marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship and fruitful musical collaboration with Fred E. Weatherly.
Highly recommended by the Royal Academy, in 1910 at the age of just 23, Coates obtained a position as sub-principal, then principal, of the viola section of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In those days The Queen’s Hall was the equivalent, in terms of standing, to the modern Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Its conductor was also a solid institution of London musical life: the great Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms.
In the seven years that followed his appointment, Coates and his fellow orchestral musicians played under the greatest composers of the day. The Queen’s Hall programmes read like a roll-call of honour, with names such as Richard Strauss, Sir Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst.
Coates was exposed to some of the greatest works of the entire repertoire, and the richness of this music undoubtedly laid the foundation for the stream of composition that would soon flow from his pen. Occasionally, as light relief and to supplement his income, he played in London theatre orchestras, enjoying the tuneful wit of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Following the success of Stonecracker John, Coates’s song writing began to take off and in 1911 hisMiniature Suite received the rare honour of a Proms encore.
That year was important to Eric Coates for something else which had nothing to do with music: he met and fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with a pretty young student called Phyllis Black. It was a whirlwind romance which, despite the initial opposition of her parents (she was only 17, he was 24 and a struggling musician), resulted in their wedding on 3rd February, 1913.
Their life together was blissfully happy, and although, in the early days, the young couple struggled to make ends meet, matters improved when Phyllis became a successful actress and could supplement Eric’s irregular income.
When the First World War broke out, Eric was declared unfit for military service, so the couple continued to live in London. It was always a struggle to get his music performed and heard but he was helped enormously in this by the formation, in 1916, of the New Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra under the baton of Alick Maclean.
In 1919 Eric Coates finally gave up playing, although he often conducted his own works. In 1920 his suite, Summer Days (with its well-loved last movement, At the Dance) received its first performance, which did much to enhance his reputation. Two years later, the lively overture The Merrymakersarrived on the concert scene. Coates wrote The Three Bears fantasy in 1926 for the fourth birthday of his only child, Austin.
Sir Edward Elgar was an early admirer of Coates, placing a standing order with a record shop in Oxford Street for every new Coates recording. In contrast, the music press largely ignored his work and he was treated shabbily by those who believed light music was inferior to what they considered "serious" work.
Although Eric Coates loved the countryside, and during his life owned two cottages by the sea — at Selsey and Sidlesham in Sussex — he found it easier to compose amidst the bustle and intensity of London. He was fascinated by the scenery, customs and everyday life of London, and there was nothing more musically inspiring for him than the sight of a red London bus rolling proudly through the packed streets of England’s capital. The city was then the heart of the Empire. Big Ben sounded above London town, the BBC broadcast to the world, and the Thames was alive with shops, barges and the wealth of nations.
Coates wrote this spirit of London into The London Suite, with each movement describing some part of the metropolis. The first movement conjures up a day in the life of Covent Garden market, with a bustling tarantella, including the traditional vendors’ call "Cherry ripe, cherry ripe", once heard in the streets of the capital. The middle movement is a flowing melody that creates the impression ofWestminster in the moonlight. However, as described earlier, it was the third movement that made the composer’s name: the grand Knightsbridge March. Coates had walked around London, composing this piece in his head.
Before long the Knightsbridge March was being played everywhere and by everyone: orchestras, brass bands and dance bands added it to their repertoires; you could even hear it being played on barrel organs and mechanical pianos in the street. In fact so well known did the theme tune to "In Town Tonight" become, it was reported that a passenger on the London Underground, unable to remember the name of the station he wanted to get to, but aware of its association with this popular piece of music, solved his problem by humming the first few notes of the march to a booking- clerk. Without a moment’s hesitation, the clerk gave him a smile of recognition — and handed him a ticket for Knightsbridge!
There was no end to the stream of popular music produced by Sir Henry Wood’s one-time lead viola. The monarchy was celebrated in The Three Elizabeths Suite, complete with a swash-buckling evocation of the heroism of Drake and Raleigh. This was written during bombing raids in 1941 after Coates received a letter from the Reverend Arthur L. Hall, vicar of Barnes, suggesting that he should write a suite based on the Three Elizabeths of English royalty: Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth of Glamis (now our Queen Mother) and Princess Elizabeth (our present Queen).
Eric and Phyllis remained in London throughout most of the Second World War. They loved the night-life of the West End and spent many enjoyable hours dancing to the music of Carroll Gibbons at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand.
In 1940, Phyllis asked her husband to compose a march to which she and her fellow workers could operate their sewing machines as they made hospital supplies for the Red Cross. The result wasCalling All Workers which the BBC chose as the signature tune to their radio programme, "Music While You Work". This stirring march was played thousands of times during the war years, and it is easy to imagine the scene in a great munitions factory somewhere in England: workers tirelessly churning out the guns, bombs and instruments that would lead the nation to victory as the factory wireless blasts out Eric Coates’s high-spirited accompaniment.
Coates was a craftsman who imbued his music with a personality of its own, with melodic invention, gaiety and charm and with true English character. He worked with great method and purpose, arranging all his own music and building up a vast library of orchestral suites and songs. People remember him as a smart, very tidy man, unable to start work until he had donned his best tweed jacket and silk tie, the perfect English gentleman and quite different from many of his bohemian musical contemporaries.
With the ending of the Second World War, Coates continued to write music with undiminished energy. His ability to produce music to order was demonstrated by the jaunty Television March he composed in 1946 to celebrate the new world of television.
In 1954 he produced yet another masterpiece, a musical score for The Dam Busters, a British war film about Barnes Wallis and his "bouncing bombs" which starred Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. Coates’s music complemented the action on screen perfectly.
Apart from being a composer and conductor, Coates was very active in encouraging younger talent and was a founder member and director of the Performing Right Society.
Eric Coates died at Chichester in Sussex on 21st December, 1957, aged 71, but his very English music lives on and is currently undergoing something of a revival. It is popular in many countries, yet its roots lie in the heart of England — a land where bright young things would drive off into the country, their bullnose Morris cars carrying them From Meadow to Mayfair. It is a land in which the air was filled with the sound of military bands, country dances, and the voices of English people. As the world becomes a more complicated, more uncertain place, so the meaning of his music takes on a greater significance.
Reproduced by kind permission of This England magazine.