George Fenton (composer of the music for ‘The Duke’ – film directed by Roger Michell with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren)

Sebastian writes:

The Duke was a real joy to work on,” says composer George Fenton, who wrote the music for this completely delightful film, directed by Roger Michell (1956-2021).

George Fenton has written scores for over 100 films, and dozens of plays and TV programmes. He has received five Oscar nominations, multiple Ivor Novello, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Emmy and BMI Awards and a Classical Brit.

The film, released today 25 February, has fabulous central performances by Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in the leading roles, and Fionn Whitehead (whose father, incidentally, is jazz saxophonist Tim Whitehead) as their son.

I was commissioned by The Arts Desk to review the film (LINK TO REVIEW), but was also curious to find out more about the music, which makes its presence felt in a highly effective way.

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About one minute into the film, a lively jazz piece by George Fenton, also used with the final credits, plunges the viewer straight into the world of sixties dance bands. There are some very clever “needle drops” later in the film (Adam Faith, Acker Bilk, Helen Shapiro – full list below…) as well as evergreens from the English light music canon such as Jack Strachey’s In Party Mood aka the BBC Radio Theme for Housewives’ Choice ) which also recall the early 1960s in a highly evocative way.

George Fenton. Photo credit: Michael Speed

LondonJazz News: I think this was the first time you worked with Roger Michell?

George Fenton: That’s right, I had never worked with him before The Duke.

LJN: So how did it happen?

GF: I had worked on another lockdown project, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, and the producer Kevin Loader called me to ask if I would be interested in The Duke. At that time we were all locked down, so Roger Michell and I didn’t meet, we were just talking on the phone. The editor sent me the film, and I wrote some ideas and did some mock-ups, and sent them to him and we took it from there.

LJN: How was Roger Michell to work with?

GF: I loved working with him because, unlike a lot of people, he was happy to be decisive. He would simply say “I like it like that” or “I don’t think we need anything there,” or “do something like that”…and I would do and he’d always be very clear whether he wanted it like that or not.

He was perfectly happy to take responsibility for everything in his films and that’s why everyone loved him. He was very talented, a complete film-maker across all areas of film: brilliant in the cutting room, brilliant with the camera, and at the same time a very funny and generous person to be with. The Duke was a real joy to work on.

LJN: That lively opening track with the big band really stays in the mind…how was the actual recording?

GF: When I started recording the demos, because of Covid I didn’t have any idea whether we would ever be able to record. So the first thing I did with the jazz pieces for the beginning and the end was to send a click-track and a guide to drummer Ian Thomas. He played the drums and sent them back to me. And that is what we used on the final thing – he did play them again, but we all liked the ones he’d done when he’d been on his own.

When we eventually could record, putting a swing band in the studio was so strange… It was quite a novel experience to see sections of saxes and brass with everyone miles apart – but the guys played brilliantly!

LJN: There are moments, like the first time he emerges, shamed, from two weeks in prison, where the music seems to throw light on the central character played by Jim Broadbent.

GF: What I was thinking there was about him as an “innocent”. At that point, with his campaigning, [and he also knows it], he’s a failure. So there is a kind of trudging plonk plonk with the brass there… I thought it would give the feel of ‘this useless man from Newcastle’… with a sixties feel… It’s the same idea at the moment when he’s taking the picture back to the National Gallery.

LJN: Have you done a score for a film set in a period as recent as the 60s?

GF: Well, no. Not a period so close to now. I’ve done the music for films set in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. But I was alive when it happened so I was close enough to the films of the sixties to know the tone of the way they used to be scored. So that was going around in my head. For example when he’s creeping around in the gallery… I used three bass flutes, a ‘sub-Mancini heist music feel.’ It was fun to do! (laughs).

LJN: There are some lovely needle drops to land us in the sixties…

GF: I can’t take credit for some of the really good needle-drops. I loved the way Roger used Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore with Jim Broadbent asleep in the library….Roger was brilliant at that sort of thing.

His choices, his options, the things he was talking about as needle drops really informed me as to what the score would be about.

LJN: But I understand this was not your last collaboration with Michell – that you did one more film with him before he suddenly passed away last September.

GF: Yes, I did the music for a documentary he made in lockdown. It’s a film made from archive, Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts (Release Date 3 June. LINK )

MUSIC CREDITS (list reproduced here with specific permission obtained from Pathe Productions Limited)

MUSIC BY George Fenton


Orchestra leader THOMAS BOWES


Music Preparation GILES THORNTON


Recorded and mixed at AIR STUDIOS

Recorded and mixed by MAT BARTRAM


= = = = =

*SHOP WINDOW – Composed by Ivor Slaney – Published by de Wolfe Music – Licensed courtesy of de Wolfe Ltd

*WHAT DO YOU WANT? – Written by John Worsley – Published by EMI Mills Music Ltd – Performed by Adam Faith

*IN PARTY MOOD – Composed by Jack Strachey – Published by Chester Music Limited trading as Campbell Connelly & Co

*BACKGROUND NO.2 PLAY IN Composed by Derek Laren – Published by de Wolfe Music – Licensed courtesy of de Wolfe Ltd

*SALUTE THE BRAVE – Composed by Ivor Slaney – Published by de Wolfe Music – Licensed courtesy of de Wolfe Ltd

*A TASTE OF HONEY – Written by Robert Scott & Ric Marlowe – Published by Songfest Music Corp (ASCAP) – Performed by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass – Courtesy of Herb Alpert Presents, Inc.

*A NICE CUP OF TEA – Written by Alan P Herbert, Henry Sullivan – Published by B Feldman & Co Ltd

Performed by Gracie Fields – vocal, Fred Hartley – piano, & his Quintet -Licensed courtesy of Retrospective Records

*STRANGER ON THE SHORE – Written by Acker Bilk – Published by EMI Music Publishing Ltd -Performed by Acker Bilk – Licensed courtesy of K-tel Music Inc

*CORONATION STREET – Written by Eric Spear – Published by Mercury Music Co Ltd

*WALKIN’ BACK TO HAPPINESS – Written by Mike Hawker, John Schroeder- Published by Universal/Dick James Music Ltd. on behalf of Filmusic Publishing Co. Ltd. – Performed by Helen Shapiro – Courtesy of Warner Music UK Ltd

*DR NO Cue – Written by Monty Norman – Published by EMI United Partnership Ltd – Performed by Monty Norman – Licensed courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – Music Inc under license from EMI Music Publishing Ltd

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