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Kenneth Alwyn of West Chiltington

Kenneth Alwyn

Published in AAH Magazine, May 2014


I was born in Croydon in 1925. My father had been a professional soldier in the First World War with the Cheshire Regiment. He was gassed three times, wounded twice, and was involved in several key battles.

Towards the end of the war he was in charge of a burial party, and all of the men in that party caught dysentery. My father was very ill, and after being discharged had only one temporary job after the war.

My parents were great. My father bought a wind-up gramophone, and would play me to sleep each night. I remember one particular recording of Stokowski conducting Danse Macabre. I didn't know at the time, and how could he have known, that many years later I was to meet Stakowski in Japan.

My parents suffered a great deal. We moved to a one bedroom flat overlooking the hospital in which my father died. I don't really want to discuss it in detail, but I became an orphan at the age of ten.

I went to live with my aunt Maude in Windsor, Ontario and it was there that I started to properly play the piano. I had played a little before then, as mum and dad sent me to a teacher who insisted on sitting up straight and putting a penny on the back of the hands to keep them in the right position. I didn't care much for that, so it put me off the piano for a while.

I was homesick for my own country. Crystal Palace, where I ran as a boy, had burnt down, and then Edward VIII abdicated, and it all felt wrong to me. I don't know what I thought I could do, but I came home.

I returned to Croydon, living with a relative of my mother in Selhurst, and went to John Ruskin Boys' School. She told me about a composer who once lived opposite, who was apparently well-known but at that time I knew nothing about him. His name was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and he composed The Song of Hiawatha. He too had been at John Ruskin, and years later, I recorded Hiawatha with the Welsh National Opera.

People don't speak kindly of Croydon now, but it was a country town when I knew it. It was a fine place, with great traditions.

I was a choir boy and was also learning the organ. When the Second World War started, many of the choir boys were evacuated, so our 45-strong choir just dissipated. They didn't have an organist either. My voice was starting to break and I was no longer able to sing solos, so I became the organist at the age of 15.

The organ was my first love. I'll tell you, it's a useful way of learning when you have to tell Gentlemen, some of whom had fought in The Great War, what to do. But if they know you are serious, age doesn't matter. The music always comes first.

I joined the Royal Air Force in 1942, when I was 17. All young men just wanted to join at that time. It was very exciting; I hadn't even learned to drive, yet someone presented me with a nice new aeroplane! I became a pilot, but the war in the air had finished at that time so I was transferred to the Air Ministry.

After the war, I went to the Royal Academy of Music. There was no chance of me ever being able to pay to go there, but there was a shortage of teachers so the government ran a three year teacher training scheme for music. My service in the war gave me the chance to be a professional musician.

During my time there I learnt the trombone and viola, whilst still playing piano and organ. I had always wanted to be a conductor but I didn't expect to be one. The Academy opened my ears to music I'd never heard. It seems strange now, but the first concert I went to was when I was in the RAF at the age of 19.

Whilst in London, I was involved in an event that I believe had a hand in forming The Goons. I became good friends with Bob Monkhouse, who was also in the RAF. We would organise concerts for the RAF Association, and one day we decided to stage a comedy carnival. We attracted a few unknown performers at the start of their careers and in need of a shop window. They included Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan and Benny Hill. I have a poster of the night, with me listed as director. Peter and Benny stayed on to see Michael Bentine, and shortly after they came together and of course had hugely successful careers.

When the curtain went up, Bob was in a parachute harness hanging four feet above the stage. They couldn't get him down! As I had been in the RAF and had a little experience of these matters, I said 'half turn it and hit it' and he did. Bob fell on to the stage, and got the first laugh!

As a young man, I would try all sorts of things to make money. I was an extra in J Arthur Rank films and I appeared in a West End play too. Beverly Baxter, a famous theatre critic at the time, had written a much-derided play that had been booed off the stage. When he came to see our play he wrote 'this is worse even than my play!'

After the Academy, I was the last colonial officer appointed to Singapore and the Federation of Malaya. As a member of Schools Broadcasting at Radio Malaya, I had to write episodes about the adventures of music, I would read the news, and I had my own piano programme. Everything that was in a broadcast, you had to be able to do.

We had a very talented team there. David Kennard went on to work with David Attenborough, and David Cooper later ran The Food Programme for many years. But Malaya didn't turn out as well as I had hoped. The orchestra I was presented with was an eight-strong group of Dutch musicians, who had been prisoners of the Japanese. The last thing they wanted was some 25-year-old smart arse from England waving a stick at them. I think I was fairly constructive in what I did but I was only there for six months.

I was then told I had a job in New Zealand, as the conductor of a choral union. I flew to Australia and caught a flying boat to Wellington. I was dressed in tropical wear as I'd come from Singapore and it was cold and wet when I arrived. The New Zealanders were lovely people, but the choir turned out to be a disaster so I came home.

I spent five weeks in a six berth cabin in which you couldn't open the porthole otherwise the sea would come in. That was character building, I can tell you.

I came home to England and became a conductor with the touring company at Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet. Some companies were forced to tour but we considered ourselves to be a tour de force. We were taking performances of a West End standard to Stockton-on-Tees. Can you imagine kids going to see a ballet of Coppelia or Sleeping Beauty for the first time? It was magic.

The main company was the National Ballet. At the Royal Opera House, we were given the Royal Charter and therefore became the Royal National Ballet. I was there when that happened.

After five years, I reached the point where I had had enough of touring with the second company. After my last two performances in Brighton, I drove back to my apartment in Westminster and then remembered there was a party in Covent Garden with the main company. I parked my old Morris car amongst the Rolls Royces and grabbed a glass of Champagne. I saw a fellow I knew, who said 'I'm glad you could join us.' I said 'Why's that?' and he replied 'Don't you know you've got a job with us?' I thought I was out of work, and ten minutes later, I was sat there with a glass of champagne and a job with the main company.

I was with the main company of the Royal Ballet for four years, before continuing on a part time contract, which suited me as I started broadcasting a lot for the BBC.

It was a very productive period in my life. The Royal Ballet had commissioned Benjamin Brittain's The Prince of the Pagodas. I was the pianist, and Ben conducted the first five performances, after which I took over. From then on, if ever there was something Ben couldn't do, I was the person called upon.

In 1958, I got a call from John Culshaw, a recording producer at Decca. He said 'How would you like to record Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with the London Symphony Orchestra, for our first stereo release?' I didn't know a note of 1812 – not a bloody note! But I wasn't going to say that to one of the world's leading producers.

I borrowed a recording of 1812 and stayed up all night learning it. I rang John the next day and said 'I'd be delighted to do it.' He said 'There's been a hiccup, we're not doing the 1812, we're doing Capriccio Italien, March Slave.' I said 'You had better send me the music!' By the time it came to the recording a couple of days later I was exhausted, but it must have gone well as it's a gold disc now.

The sound of the cannon is supposed to be the best. It's a long kept secret, which is now out, that's it's a 2.5 rifle being fired, slowed down to quarter speed.

The BBC contacted me about Friday Night is Music Night. They wanted to lift the standard of the orchestra, so it would be known not as a Light Orchestra, but as a Concert Orchestra. They invited me and others along as guest conductors. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as it turned out I would work with BBC orchestras really until very recently.

Sidney Torch was conducting the programme, but he was unhappy with some interference on the shows, so he pulled out of doing the 1,000th Friday Night is Music Night performance just a few days before some very influential people were due to be in the crowd at Royal Festival Hall. It was a really big deal!

I got a call, and they said 'Sidney isn't going to do it, you'll have to step in.' I called Sidney and said 'It's your show, you have to do it.' But he was adamant. So I did the 1,000th Friday Night is Music Night. There was a feeling that the BBC was possibly going to ditch it, and the 1,000th show would be a great way to say goodbye. But at the end of the evening, which went very well, someone very important stood up and said 'Well, we have seen the 1000th performance, and may we all live to see the 2,000th performance!' You could hear the jaws dropping to the floor as of course they were saddled with it.

I did Friday Night is Music Night for the next 30 years. It was the flagship show of Radio 2, drawing 28 million listeners around the world at its peak, which is more than any of our television programmes do now.

I've also been able to tour in Europe, North America, South Africa and the Far East, including a time as the principal conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Japan. The other thing I suppose I'm known for is the full length recording of Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha with opera singer Bryn Terfel, and we won an award for our recording of The Ladykillers: Those Glorious Ealing Films, with the Royal Ballet Simfonia.

I haven't done much of my own composition. Really I am an interpreter of other people's music. However, I did compose the 'Concert March: The Young Grenadier.' The title relates to a photograph of the then Princess Elizabeth wearing a Grenadier Cap when she became Colonel of the Regiment in 1942. The Queen is the same age as me, and when I was 17 I was in love with her. She was a cracking looking girl. I sent a recording to The Queen and she wrote back and said she was pleased to hear the origins. but she never said she loved me!

The piece was originally composed for the Queen's Birthday Parade in 1992. The Band of the Grenadier Guards can't march to a conductor of course, so they march to a drum beat. My concert march was not suitable for a marching band. However, it was played on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace and The Queen came out on to the balcony to hear it play.

It was a nice moment and I imagined the ghosts of two old grenadiers looking in and saying 'That's our boy down there.' My great grandfather was in the Grenadier Guards, and my grandfather was one of Queen Victoria's bodyguards. My father joined the Cheshire Regiment as he couldn't leave his mother, but now I like to think that, when they played my march at the trooping of the colour, finally three generations of my family had made it to Buck House.

Also in 1992, I collaborated with Dudley Moore for his last tour. He came over from America for rehearsals, and we were playing all sorts, including Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Mozart's Piano Concerto. We came to the first night in Brighton and sure enough, in the middle of the first movement, he broke down and couldn't remember the concerto. It came to a halt.

Dudley got to his feet, and turned to face the packed house and said 'At this point, Mozart died!' The audience loved Dudley, and they wanted to laugh, but they were unsure. Dudley turned to me and said 'However, Ken, if he'd lived how do you think he might have continued? I said 'he'd had gone 'der-der-dun-dun' and I sang the second subject where he'd broken down. He said 'Well, let's try that' and he sat down and completed it faultlessly. I still think there are people in Brighton who aren't quite sure if it was part of the performance.

Last year, I was invited to unveil a blue plaque at the home of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in Croydon. Also, I have recently finished writing my memoirs, which has taken me years. I've spent a long time making changes, and sometimes it gets better and sometimes worse. It's called A Baton in the Ballet and Other places is
dedicated to the memory of my father and I hope to have it out by 4th August to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

My father wrote in my autograph book in 1934, just before he died, he quoted Hamlet. He wrote 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.' I think his point to me was that here is a pattern in life, and I've discovered that to be largely true. Sometimes you are put into a situation that you can put down to luck or coincidence, but nonetheless the pattern is there.