I wanted to write something about Carl Davis, but I didn’t really know where to begin. Other people can say far more intelligent things about his music. Other people were in the right time at the right place.
But for an accident of birth, my first introduction to the work of Carl Davis might have been his astonishing score for The World at War, or more aptly for my interests, his collaborations with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill on the Thames Silents, or on the landmark television series Hollywood. I was lucky however, to be exactly this age: I was a bookish teenager when the BBC broadcast Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Andrew Davies, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and with a soundtrack by Carl Davis. Formative.
Once I became immersed in the world of silent cinema, encounters with Davis’s music become milestones. I was in a rapt audience for a screening of Ben Hur in the Royal Festival Hall, where the score was so rousing that I felt we were all about to be swept away by the excitement and continue the sea-battle scene in the Thames outside.
I was lucky enough to see two unforgettable live screenings of the epic Napoléon (and one long conversation with the man himself about how he did it): a tremendous achievement of composition, an astonishing feat to conduct live. A hush-hush preview screening of Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry? in a church hall in east London. Thrilling Pordenone galas – too many to mention but why not single out one of the greatest silents of them all, King Vidor’s The Crowd at Pordenone in 2017? Or A Woman of Affairs starring Greta Garbo, the close to my first Giornate in 2012.
On Valentine’s Day in 2020, I was in Bratislava of all places to see, and hear his ballet Tulák Chaplin, a tribute to the Little Tramp in dance, with wonderful music. Memories such as that can sustain a person through weeks of lockdown.
Davis was witty and fun and – this is important – always gave the impression that he thought it was a marvellous stroke of luck to be talking about music and film, to have devoted his life to art and to take such pleasure in it. He was always a friend to this site (he wrote a beautiful guest post on Buster Keaton as recently as 2021, to mark his 85th birthday), a delightful person to interview, and he and his family were always very charming and welcoming. You don’t have to be from my neck of the woods to find it quite a thrill to chat to the lovely Jean Boht over canapés. My condolences to all his friends and relatives.
Carl Davis was a lovely man, and I was lucky to know him, and his music.
Carl Davis, 28 October, 1936 – 3 August 2023