Saturday, 22 November 2008

Clifton Parker: Western Approaches

Clifton Parker, like many film composers, is someone whose music will have been heard by many people, but few will know him by name or reputation. For example. the Robert Newton version of Treasure Island, Kenneth More in Sink the Bismarck! and the Walt Disney feature The Sword and the Rose all have scores by Parker. But perhaps one of his finest achievements was the music for part feature, part documentary Western Approaches.

This is a gripping story about twenty-four seamen who have had their ship torpedoed and are adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. After many days at sea they see smoke from a lone merchantmen. Naturally, they send up the distress rockets to attract its attention. But just then they see the periscope of a German U-boat and realises that they are being used to decoy the British ship to destruction. The men in the lifeboat desperately try to warn the merchantman, but she receives two torpedoes in her hull. The ship is evacuated, save for the captain and a few men. The U-boat surfaces to complete the job, but it is itself sunk by the captain and his party left on board. Naturally the men in the lifeboat are finally rescued.

See a short extract from this film at YouTube

John Huntley in his seminal British Film Music, believes that this was one of the Crown Film Unit’s best films. The film was shot in Technicolor and used real sailors instead of actors. It is described as being “realistic, exciting and dramatic.”


The composer and critic Hubert Clifford writes in the Tempo magazine for June 1945:- "Western Approaches is among the two or three outstanding British films of the war period. It is a triumph of intelligent direction over the difficulties of using 'naturals' instead of professional actors. ‘Western Approaches ' comes unscathed through the gorgeous Technicolor, in spite of many sequences being stiff with visual falsehoods, in the picture-postcard conventions of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons.
The film is full of magnificent sequences, true and convincing, and provides the composer, Clifton Parker, with many opportunities of contributing to it even within the scope of the naturalistic drama. This is, I believe, Clifton Parker's most important film score to date. It is highly effective and is always apt, and it reveals quite a new side of a composer who had previously been known-and far less known than the quality of his music merited-only as a composer of light music. To his task in ' Western Approaches' Parker brought a fine sense of orchestral colour, plus skill and taste in handling his medium. Although it seemed that his music broke little new ground it nevertheless was always vital and significant.”

Clifton Parker later adapted some of the music from Western Approaches into a short tone poem. He called it Seascape. This work in three short sections, beginning rather tranquilly as the merchant ship leaves its berth in an American port. Naturally as the boat reaches the mid-Atlantic it begins to get stormy, and this is reflected in the expansive music. The last joyful section alludes to the rescue of the seamen and their safe arrival in ‘blighty’.
James Marshall has noted that due to the wartime economies the musical budget for the film was only £521. Out of this some £100 was paid to the composer. The remainder was shared out between Muir Mathieson and the forty-eight players of the London Symphony Orchestra after their recording session at Denham Studios in 11 April 1944.


The tone poem 'Seascape' is available from Chandos The film itself is available from Amazon

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