Composer James Bernard
In going through my files this weekend, I found an unpublished interview I conducted with film composer James Bernard (1925-2001). Though primarily a film composer – writing mostly scores for a series of British horror pictures made by Hammer Films – he was also a screenwriter of note. There were many surprises in store for me, as Bernard’s life was a rich and varied one. So, onto the first part of our interview with James Bernard, conducted for a now defunct film magazine in April 1996…
After a career that included working with composer Benjamin Britten, helping the Allies break Axis codes during World War II, winning an Oscar for a story idea conceived with longtime companion Paul Dehn, and friendships with such film and theater notables as Sir John Gielgud, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that James Bernard is best known as the composer who scored Hammer's horror films.
But write the scores for these films he did. A delightful man with a warm and gregarious manner, Mr. Bernard tells stories with all the fun and enthusiasm of a much loved uncle. He graciously shared his memories with us, seemingly the least of which was his involvement with the Hammer House of Horror...
Could you give us some of your background?
I was born in a rather romantic place, really. My mother and father were English -- I'm going back, of course, in 1925, the days of what was known as the British Raj, when India was part of the British Empire -- and there was a whole section of the army out in India. My father was a career soldier, a very distinguished soldier. He was forced to retire just after he had been made what was then called a Brigadier General, because he had high blood pressure, which today, of course, they would've been able to cope with. In the end, it was what killed him. I was born, I think, before the partition of India into India and Pakistan. I think I was born in Pakistan, in a little hill station in the Himalayan Mountains. It was a rather romantic background!
How long were you there?
Well, one went rather to and fro. My father used to get leave, because when you were in a far flung corner of the Empire, you were in one place for about six months, and then went home for about six. Of course, one went by ocean liner, so it took two or three weeks to get home! So, I think I was back twice to Delhi, which was where my father was sort of ADC to the Commander and Chief. But I think I came back in 1930-31 or so, when I was about five.
And where was home then?
We lived a lot of the time with my mother's parents, who had, at the time, what you would've called "A Stately Home." That's English terms for this sort of great, big country mansion. It was in Gloucestershire, which is in the West Country of England. And they had a great big house called Puckrup Hall, and it was a stately home where my brother and I were brought up. This was in the days where these homes had a big staff: house maids, parlor maids, a chauffeur, a cook, and a nanny who looked after us.
It sounds like a dream.
It was wonderful! We had these lovely grandparents, my mother's mom and dad, and we were brought up near rolling fields and meadows. And there was a farm run by tenants who grew apples to be used for cider. We used to go down to the big orchid to see the apples trampled for cider. The horses pulled it round and round. That's the background.
Now when you were a child, were you interested in music?
Yes. I started playing the piano, we had a lovely upright piano in the nursery, when I was about six or seven. I was just attracted to this piano, it was quite a famous make, called a Broadwood, and I'm sure there's still a Broadwood in London somewhere upon which Chopin played. It was a celebrated English make of piano. And so I used to go to this piano and play around, and do whatever I felt, so my parents said I had better have music lessons. So I had lessons from the time I was seven.
Were you interested in composing early on, or did you see yourself simply as a performer?
At that stage, I thought I was going to be a performer. But I loved playing around, so I suppose I was composing in a totally disorganized way! Soon, I was sent to what we called a Prep School, which is quite different from what you in the states call a Prep School. One went to a Prep School, which means a Preparatory School, where one went from about seven or eight years old till about 14. I went on from there onto a school -- well, it's all very peculiar, because in England we have what are called public schools which are really private schools. So I went to a one called Wellington College, which was very well known and still going strong, and was founded by Prince Albert. You know, Queen Victoria's husband. It was supposed to be for sons of military people -- Navy, Army and like that. My father, being a regular soldier, sent me there. It's funny, for while the training was like a military academy, they had a very strong artistic side. And it's always been my theory that the sons -- it was all boys, you know -- that the sons of soldiers rebelled against their background and wanted to do something different. So we had a very strong artistic side. I was greatly encouraged with my playing and composing. I should also add that I'm directly descended on my mother's side from Dr. Thomas Arne, who was a 17th Century composer, who wrote Rule Britannia. He wrote a lot of operas, too, and stage music. And I've always thought that if he were alive today, he would be a very busy and very popular film composer!
How did you get from a career of straight composing and into films?
Well, let me go back. During my last term at Wellington, the composer Benjamin Britten was just writing his first great opera, Peter Grimes. Britten came to the school at the time, about 1943, because our Art Master was a man named Kenneth Greene, a celebrated theater designer. He wasn't in the armed forces, so he was teaching art at Wellington College. And Ben Britten, who I later worked for and became very friendly with, had written Grimes and wanted Greene to design sets for the first production of the opera.
I saw Grimes at the Met last year.
It's a wonderful opera, isn't it?
It is, but I prefer Billy Budd.
Well, I've just seen that again in London, and it's the one that I actually, personally worked on. So, when Ben Britten came to the school, he wanted to meet any boy who was considered musically bright. And I had already started composing little snippets, and such, so we met. I had shown him some bits I had written for an inter-house music competition, and he took a great interest in my work. He always used to call me Jim, instead of James or Jimmy, and he said just before I was going into the RAF in September 1943, "Jim, here's my address, keep in touch with me."
So I went to visit him in London, where he was living with Peter Pears, who was his great, life-long friend, and a celebrated singer. I became very friendly with them. At the time I was in Military Intelligence, which was all highly secret, but now has all been written about. A lot of that was covered in a recent book, which just came out to very good reviews, called Enigma, which is all about breaking of German and Japanese codes, and translating them.