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Cyril Ornadel


Cyril Ornadel

The distinguished British conductor and composer Cyril Ornadel sadly passed away on 22 June 2011, aged 86 in Israel. He went from conducting pit orchestras in the West End to writing successful scores for stage and screen, and also provided music for radio comedies and television dramas.

He was best known as the resident musical director of the London Palladium and conducted the orchestra for Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which was broadcast on ITV from 1955 to 1967, and at Royal Variety performances. He had the most famous head in television as it was seen every week by millions of viewers. Among the many stars he worked with on that illustrious stage were the Crazy Gang, Noel Coward, Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza and Judy Garland Although he was busy conducting other people’s musicals he was busily writing his own.

Although David Croft and Cyril Ornadel had started off their fledging careers at different ends of the theatrical world, Croft as an aspiring actor and Ornadel as accompanist, their paths crossed when Ian Carmichael introduced them to each other with a view to them working together to produce songs. The two hit it off straight away and together they wrote two or three hundred songs for variety shows for the BBC, Croft writing the lyrics and Ornadel composing and arranging the music.

Cyril Ornadel

In 1956, building on the success as a team, and Ornadel’s love of musical theatre, Ornadel wrote his first score, a musical called Star Maker with Croft again writing the lyrics. The show was a Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge vehicle that toured the regions with enormous success but failed to make the London theatres. Two years later they collaborated again on another touring production, The Pied Piper. For Gary Miller. The production was seen for a month at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing.

Cyril did slightly better with Portrait of My Love, which was recorded by up-and-coming singer Matt Monro.  In the last few months of 1959, Monro signed a contract with Parlophone under the mentor of George Martin. Their first outing was a pretty song called ‘Love Walked in’ but it didn’t fare well. Nonetheless George Martin had faith in his new charge and was determined their next outing would fare better. Johnnie Spence was brought in as musical director and considered the song written by Ornadel with lyrics by Norman Newell. It proved to be a wise choice and the record spiralled up the charts reaching No 3 in 1960. The song secured an Ivor Novello Award for best Son Musically and Lyrically.

Another of Ornadel’s great successes came when he wrote the music for the 1963 musical Pickwick, based on Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers. It opened at the Saville Theatre and ran for twenty months in the West End. It was also a triumph for its star lead, actor/singer Harry Secombe but the rehearsal period wasn’t a happy time. The director Peter Coe was so determined to keep the authors out of his hair that the three ended up being banned from the rehearsal rooms and had to buy their own tickets on opening night. To add insult to injury the seats were in the gods.


The show's hit number was Secombe's tour de force If I Ruled the World, which won an Ivor Novello award and reached the top 20. So successful was the song that it became Secombe’s signature tune and was later recorded by Tony Bennett. It was recently used in an advertising campaign for Vodaphone. 1965 saw Pickwick transfer to Broadway and for a time, had the distinction of being the longest-running British musical on Broadway.

Ornadel was born on 2 December 1924 in London, the son of a manufacturer who expected his son to join the family business. Ornadel had other ideas and was determined to become a musician and this ultimately caused a huge rift with his father. Cyril attended the Royal College of Music but his father felt so strongly opposed to Cyril’s career choice that in a bid to thwart his musical ambitions he informed the college that Cyril was playing piano in a nightclub and that his girlfriend was a fellow student, these were both against the college’s rules.

The plan worked in so far as Ornadel was expelled but he refused to be deterred. The war enabled him to join ENSA as an accompanist to singers Dorothy Carless and Sylvia Handel and once away from home he was able to obtain a thorough grounding in all aspects of the musical world. The trio actually ended up on Luneburg heath, where they performed the official peace-signing celebrations. It was terribly exciting for the band of musicians even though they performed in a field in front of the top brass with jeep headlights lighting the makeshift stage. It was rather windy and during the show the wind whipped up sending Ornadel’s music flying in every direction but luckily he knew the piece and carried on regardless.

After the Second World War, he carried on where he left off and began conducting variety shows. At only 25 years old he became the youngest musical director in the West End when he took the reins on the Victoria Palace’s production of Take It From Here, starring Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bently and Joy Nichols.
He graduated to musical director on touring shows, variety performances and pantomimes and fronted the orchestra at the London Coliseum for the 1952 musical Call Me Madam, with lyrics by Irving Berlin. Over the following years he was musical director for the top 1950s shows including Kiss Me Kate, The Kind and I, Paint Your Wagon, Pal Joey, Wonderful Town, My Fair Lady and Kismet. He worked with such greats as Leonard Bernstein, Forrest and Wright and Lerner and Lowe and was quoted as saying that “The stand out stars for me, were Anton Walbrook, Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner. 

Walbrook was the first star I had to conduct who used to speak his numbers. He always tried to catch me out because he’d do it differently every night. I liked Yul Brynner. He wasn’t popular in the show because he stood aloof from it all, but he wanted things right, as I did. In the theatre, when people are difficult, it all boils down to the fact that they want it right.”
He was poised for trouble when he conducted the London run of My Fair Lady as Rex Harrison was also known for being difficult and the American conductor Franz Allers, who had conducted the show on Broadway, was on standby until the first night in case Harrison took a dislike to Ornadel. ”He was as good as gold”, recalled Ornadel, who was also called on to record the show with the original cast.

In 1963 Ornadel worked again with David Croft to provide the score for an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel Ann Veronica, at the Cambridge Theatre, London with Dame Dorothy Tutin, Hy Hazel, Arthur Lowe and Ian Lavender. Unfortunately the production was panned and only enjoyed a short run.

Trasure Island

In December of 1973, Ornadel collaborated with Hal Shaper on the Mermaid Theatre’s musical production of Treasure Island, which was adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson book and starred Bernard Mills and Spike Milligan. He visited another Dickens adaptation two years later, this time Great Expectations, which was presented at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in December 1975. The show survived a British tour and then travelled through Canada - a disappointing fate for a production that had managed to sign up Sir John Mills, Moira Lister and Joy Nichols. Nevertheless both Great Expectations and Treasure Island were designated Best British Musical at the Ivor Novello Awards and Bing Crosby recorded ‘At My Time in My Life’ several years later.

Ornadel wrote film scores for the 1968 film Subterfuge, a thriller starring Joan Collins and Gene Barry, and the 1974 TV remake of Brief Encounter, with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton. His television work also included the ATV 1975 mini-series drama Edward the Seventh and the hit show Sapphire and Steel. He was recognised as helping the London Symphony Orchestra win its first gold disc with his score for television’s The Strauss Family. He also wrote the music for recordings of Beatrix Potter's children's stories, with lyrics written by Croft and read by Vivien Leigh and was a founder director of The World Record Club, Britain’s first mail order record company, and in charge of recording ‘The Living Bible’ read by Laurence Olivier as well as ‘The Living Shakespeare’ series, which featured the elite of British actors and actresses.

One of Ornadel's last scores with lyrics by Norman Newell was for Once More, Darling, modestly billed as 'a farce with music' starring Norman Vaughan, Jack Douglas and Lynda Baron. It was on the road for a few weeks (at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley and the Theatre Royal, Norwich, where it closed in July 1978). Ornadel was musical director and played at one of the two pianos that made up the show's orchestra. The cast included comedian Norman Vaughan, Jack Douglas and Lynda Baron.
Ornadel was not always the most popular conductor. One of his musicians described him as a martinet, constantly correcting both orchestra members and his arrangers.

He was awarded the gold badge of merit by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters for his services to British music and officially hung up his baton and retired in 1989 and moved to Israel with his Israeli born wife Soo (Shoshana Shapira), whom he had married in 1961. Whist in Israel he wrote his autobiography ‘Reach For the Moon’, which was published by The Book Guild in 2007. Just before he died he was quoted as saying” I never knew what I wanted to do other than make music. I’ve been lucky. I’ve no regrets about my career whatsoever. I only regret that which I haven’t done.”

His death brings an end to a very rare talent – that of composer, songwriter, pianist and a dedicated theatrical musical director.
Cyril celebrated his 80th birthday a few years ago and to mark the occasion he agreed to contribute an overview of some of the highlights and achievements of his long and illustrious career for ‘Journal into Melody’. The publication was particularly appropriate as Cyril held Robert Farnon in the highest possible regard. He wrote about their association in a letter to Reuben Musiker:

‘Robert Farnon had an enormous influence on my love of light music. When I was a student at the Royal College of Music with Laurie Johnson (The Avengers/The Professionals), Ivor Rabin (Oscar Rabin’s son) and David Katz (later to become one of England’s foremost orchestral contractors for recordings and films in the second half of the 20th century), Robert Farnon used to allow us to come to the rehearsals of his Sunday Afternoon Broadcasts from a studio in Piccadilly.
His sensational orchestrations had a never-to-be-forgotten influence on our various musical lives. I particularly remember one rehearsal when a musician had difficulty in phrasing a particular section of an arrangement. Bob Farnon asked him if he minded if he showed him how he would like it played, borrowed his instrument and performed it effortlessly. He was able to play every instrument in the orchestra.
During our time at college, Laurie Johnson formed an Andre Kostelanetz type orchestra. I wrote the signature tune and played the piano and Laurie did all the orchestrations. It was all part of our formative years.
Many years later, Bob Farnon was scheduled to conduct the Cologne Radio Orchestra for a BBC broadcast in the World Premiere of a ‘Beatles Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra’ orchestrated by John Rutter and performed by the international piano duo ‘Rostal and Shaeffer’.

At the last minute, Farnon got sick and recommended the BBC to contact me to see if I was available to stand in for him. Happily I was and as a result of his kindness I was flown to Cologne and conducted the first performance of the concerto.’

Cyril Ornadel has completed his autobiography, which is to be published in the near future under the title ‘Reach for the Moon’. He writes as follows about his book and the highlights of his career:

Reach For The Moon

‘Reach for the Moon covers my years in West End theatres, films, television and recording studios, from 1948 to 1988, working with the cream of British musicians and international stars of those years. I tell stories about the shows that I was involved in as Musical Director of the original productions in the West End, which include ‘Kismet’, at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, with Dorreto Morrow and Juliet Prowse, ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Drury Lane Theatre, with Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway, and ‘Call Me Madam’ at the London Coliseum with Anton Walbrook.
My experiences with composers, [include] Leonard Bernstein, Lerner and Loewe, Forrest and Wright. Producers [include] Jack Hylton, Lord Lew Grade, Lord Bernard Delfont, Val Parnell, George and Alfred Black, Tom Arnold, ‘Binkie’ Beaumont and Ross Taylor. Directors [mentioned include] Moss Hart, Albert Marre and Robert Nesbitt.

World Famous Stars [include] Yul Brynner, Nat King Cole, The Crazy Gang, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza, Judy Garland, Sir Noel Coward and a host of others [encountered] during my years as the Musical Director of the London Palladium, together with the ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ television series with Bruce Forsyth.

My Fair Lady

In the recording field, I conducted the stereo version of ‘My Fair Lady’ with the original stars and my own MGM series of the Starlight Symphony Orchestra celebrating the music of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and Cole Porter.

Compositions of several musicals include ‘Pickwick’ with Leslie Bricusse, starring Sir Harry Secombe; ‘Ann Veronica’ with David Croft, starring Dame Dorothy Tutin; ‘Starmaker’ also with David Croft for Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge; ‘Great Expectations’ with Hal Shaper, for Sir John Mills and Lesley Ann Downe; ‘Treasure Island’ also with Hal Shaper, for Lord Bernard Miles, the last two winning Ivor Novello Awards (The English Oscars) for the best musicals of those years.

Songs include ‘Portrait of My Love’ written by Norman Newell and recorded by Matt Monro. I have received a BMI award for 2 million broadcasts of ‘Portrait of My Love’ world-wide. ‘If I Ruled the World’ [was] written with Leslie Bricusse [and] recorded by Sir Harry Secombe and Tony Bennett, both of who won Ivor Novello Awards.

The book is an insight into the British Musical Theatre scene, covering four decades, which has never been told before from a composer/conductor’s viewpoint.
I also have many photographs and programmes taken with various stars of stage and screen. I was a founder director of The World Record Club, England’s first record mail order company, which included Lord Richard Attenborough and Steve Race on the Editorial Board.

Among the many projects we created, for which I was the record producer, were ‘The Living Bible’ narrated by Lord Laurence Olivier and ‘The Living Shakespeare’ series of recordings, which featured the cream of British actors and actresses of the second half of the twentieth century.

For films, I composed the scores of 30 pictures including the remake of ‘Brief Encounter’ with Sophia Loren and Sir Richard Burton.
As Director of Music for the television series of ‘The Strauss Family’, I conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, which was also recorded, winning them their first gold disc. Also with the London Symphony Orchestra, I conducted the award winning television series ‘Edward the Seventh’.

Over 1000 of my compositions are listed in the Book’s extensive appendix. I have been awarded the ‘Gold Badge of Merit’ by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) for services to British music.’

Research taken from the following sources:

A biography and discography of Cyril Ornadel can be found in the book ‘Conductors and Composers of Popular Orchestral Music’ by Reuben and Naomi Musiker (Greenwood Publishers, 1998).




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