Using Big Band to Soundtrack Film: A Look Back with 'Avengers' Howard Blake

[caption id="attachment_37439" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="'Avengers' Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images"][/caption]

The Avengers is here! Well, one incarnation of The Avengers, because long before Marvel's super-hero-hooked movie there was the cult-British spy show The Avengers. First broadcast in Britain during the '60s, the plots showcased thrilling espionage antics that were set to a swanky and dramatic score. But there is a connection to the spy Avengers and the Marvel Universe, or at least some influence. X-Men creation Emma Frost is rumored to have been inspired by the TV Show and the X-Men's own mutant series, Excalibur, showcased a villain, Emma Steed, whose name was a sly combination of two of the TV show's main characters (Emma Peel and John Steed). Like a lot of shows from the '60s, the score in the The Avengers was sweeping, dramatic and fueled by big-band arrangements. Just last year, a collection of the series' best compositions surfaced on this two-CD set (available as an import only).

So with all-out Avengers fever in full effect, Hive checked in with composer Howard Blake, who scored the final season of the show, to get his expert views on how to use a big-band to conjure up excitement, the day Henry Mancini persuaded him to take an acting cameo in Victor Victoria, and just how you go about soundtracking a scene that involves someone falling 200 feet from the top of a lighthouse.

What initial ideas went through your mind when you got the job to score the show?

Terror! I was pretty young at the time and I had written a few documentary films and short films -- I was a sort of all-purpose studio musician and an in-house pianist for Abbey Road at that time -- so I was just getting my feet wet, really. Then suddenly I had to write the first episode and it was like the most trapeze-walking week of my life! I was a big fan of Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn Theme music but I thought it had to carry on from what Laurie was doing. I remember when I first walked in the band was all set-up -- it was the best big band you could get - and I got up for the first session in front of these very hard looks and I was ready for a very hard time! I had to write it all in a week and I just thought I'll have to suspend all criticism - like not think whether it's good enough - and I just have to cover paper and get it off to the copyist! I went up to Earl Street that day shaking with fear, and when I got in front of the guys they and the conductor all stood up and applauded, which was very unusual. But I thought it was going to be met with total silence! And that really started off a career for me.

What as the very first part of The Avengers score that you created?

The first episode was called "My Wildest Dream" and it's a very good episode, very Freudian and about this psychiatrist and he's finding people whose wildest dream is to kill their boss. It's a pretty spooky and unpleasant thing. I remember I used a bass guitar riff [plays a spooky-but-funky riff on a keyboard], and that was the baseline. Then I brought in big-band over that.

The fight scene from "My Wildest Dream":

How important is that brassy, big-band sound when scoring a show or film?

A lot, I think. That sort of score is very much of that period and I'd say that in a way it was started by Mancini on the Peter Gunn thing. It was very unusual to use the big-band, although there was a film called I Want To Live! which was scored exclusively for big-band, and that's the late-'50s. So that idea of using it for suspense for television came in with The Avengers. I think it gives a terrific punch! We had three trumpets, three trombones, five saxes, bass, drums, piano, and extras -- I used to play organ at times. It's a very exciting sound and when it really gets going it really makes the series sound very exciting.

What instruments are best to soundtrack a villain?

I used to use quite a bit of bass clarinet. If you want some oily, streaky character, you use bass clarinet and it immediately gives you that feeling. And muted brass, like a trumpet, that can get the same sort of effect. And always a bit of flute; I brought in a bass flute which was a new instrument then, too. I also bought the first Minimoog from Robert Moog, actually. It was kinda a surprise to everybody when I used that!

Did you get any feedback on the score from the actors?

The weird thing is, when you write the score on a TV series everyone is too busy filming the next scene. I recorded at Elm Street which is where the series was shot. I met up with Patrick Macnee [who played John Steed], who was a very charming person, but that was at the end of the whole series. He told me he really appreciated what I'd done. He actually asked if I could teach him to sing, but I told him that wasn't really my expertise. And Linda Thorson, who was the star of the last season [as Tara King], I remember on day one she looked pretty terrific and she was just about to go and I wished her luck. I never saw her again until, I can't believe this, last year! We had this reunion down at Chichester University last summer and I was sitting on stage and she came up and gave me a kiss. I asked her what took her so long!

Were you ever offered a cameo in the show?

Well, I later worked with Henry Mancini and he actually persuaded me to play the part of a piano player in Victor Victoria which was a big mistake!

Why was it a mistake?

I was musical director of Victor Victoria and did the big-band score in the film for Mancini so I got to know [director] Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews and Blake said, "We've got this one shot if you'd like to be in it. It's a big nightclub scene, you just come and play the piano for Julie. It'll be fun, you'll love it." I said, "Just one shot?" He said, "Yeah, just one shot." What I didn't know was I had to turn up at 6 a.m. in the morning in a white tux and they said come and sit at the piano: I sat at that piano from six in the morning until eight in the evening without a break. I got so locked they had to lift me off and take me for a massage. What they hadn't told me, which was a joke on the part of Blake Edwards who was quite the practical joker, was it's a 360 degree camera shot and as it goes around you they have to move all the audience and all the set and it's quite a complicated thing. It wasn't much fun.

What's the trickiest sort of scene to soundtrack?

In the episode called "It's All Done With Mirrors," there is a scene where the crook in it is hurled from the top of a lighthouse and he falls 200 feet all the way to the bottom and down these stoney steps, which of course is not a possible thing to do. So I started with a sort of [mimics uptempo, bouncey refrain], but I was like I can't keep doing that. So I thought I'd send up bits of it and use a xylophone, like this is not possible so I thought it would be funny and then bring it back really loud. But it's a problem where you're thinking you're working with the film to make it work. That was quite a tricky thing to score.

Watch the first part of "It's All Done With Mirrors":