The Enigma Machine!
Welcome to the second part of our interview with film composer James Bernard. Here, he just lobbed a fascinating bit of trivia – he was involved in the famous Enigma machine incident of World War II.
You were involved with the Enigma machine?
Yes, I was a very humble cog in that great wheel of breaking codes and translating them and finding out what was happening overseas.
Now was that MI5 or MI6?
Neither, really. I was in the Air Force, and it was a whole branch of its own. It's all been written about, so I can talk about it now. It was in a little town near Manchester. After my initial training, I was on the Japanese side, I had to do a six month course at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London to learn a basic amount of Japanese. I was sent, then, for a course of cryptography, so I could make codes. I never really understood it, and I wonder how I got through! Then I ended up working with that brilliant chap Alan Turing, who eventually ended up breaking the Enigma codes. He was a wonderful character who later, alas, killed himself. But that is a whole other story, which you may know. There was a wonderful play about him in London a few years ago...
Breaking the Code.
You know it, yes. So I was involved in all of that, but really in a very humble way. But all during this time I kept in touch with Ben Britten, and at that stage I really figured that I was going to be a concert pianist. I used to see him, and listen to his concerts in London, and he told me that when I was in London, I could go on-stage at concerts with him and turn the pages for him. So I sat by him and turned the pages, usually for some new piece he was doing, or had just written, and hadn't committed to memory. But all this time, I was wondering what it was I really wanted to do. I had also thought of being an actor, and you see, which is part of how I came into films because I was always stage struck.
It was during this period that I got to know my great friend, Paul Dehn. He was a Major by then, and in MI6. We met in 1944, and we then remained friends for more than 30 years, when he died in 1976.
So coming forward in time, after I finished with the Air Force, I went to Ben Britten for advice. I had decided by this time that composing was my thing, and he said what I had to do was go and get a proper grounding in all the techniques of music, all the basics. You've got to learn all the rules, before you can break them! He told me to get to one of the top colleges or academies of music, and of course at that time, 1947, because I had been in the armed forces, I was able to get a government grant to pay my way. So after the entrance exam, I went to the Royal College of Music in London. The government put me through for two years, through '47 to '49, and I studied under a wonderful composer named Herbert Howells. He taught me discipline.
If you come across his music, it's wonderful. He's having a great resurgence of popularity here in England. He had been a brilliant young composer who had a terrible time because he had a little son whom he had adored, and this son was killed when he was about 9 or 10. Howells was never the same since.
I was also studying concert piano, but there were so many brilliant artists at the time I knew it wasn't for me. So I stuck with composing, because I thought I did have a little bit of talent there.
When my time at the Royal College came to an end, and I was sharing an apartment and later a house with Paul Dehn. He was a little older than I, about 13 years or so, and was a well known film critic and poet. He was writing plays for the radio, that's going back to the days when radio was infinitely more important than TV! They started something called The Third Program, it's still on BBC radio, and they specialized in classical music and production of radio plays. The play was The Death of Hector by Patrick Pickinson, a rather good poet who's unfortunately dead now, but only recently after a very great age, and he asked me if I would do the music for it. It was directed by Val Gielgud, older brother of John Gielgud, who later on became a great friend of ours in later years. So Val directed this play, and in those days we didn't even pre-record the music. The play was taken from an episode of The Iliad by Homer, regarding the death of Hector, Trojan Wars, and all that. I wrote it for a small group consisting of a harp, flute and percussion. I think that was about it. It was played in the studio, live, while the play was being broadcast. And that was my first introduction to any kind of dramatic music! It was conducted by John Hollingsworth, who later became music director for Hammer Films. He was also a good friend of mine and Paul's.
After that, the BBC began to employ me a lot to score radio plays. I was longing to get into movies, but film producers couldn't care less that you have written lots of music for radio plays! So you have to wait until somebody comes along, and is willing to try you out.
I did the music for a wonderful play by Webster, who came a little after Shakespeare, and wrote a wonderful sort of horror play called The Duchess of Malfi. It was an all star radio production of the play, with Peggy Ashcroft, unfortunately gone now, and Paul Scofield. I did the score for strings and percussion, which seemed suited to it. It all seemed to work well. Just after that, John Hollingsworth had become music director at Hammer Films. Anthony Hinds, who was one of their great producers, who retired quite early, mostly because he likes his privacy, was producing The Quatermass Experiment. In America it's called The Creeping Unknown. He rang up John Hollingsworth and said, "What am I to do? The film is nearly ready, it's time to do the score, and John Hotchkiss, who we had lined up to do the score, is ill!" So John, very sweetly, went to Tony Hinds with a tape of The Duchess of Malfi, and got me the job! I'll tell you what the fee was, it was 100 pounds, which, of course, in those days, seemed quite large and was fine for me! Thank heaven I took it, for they liked the score, and the whole thing went off from there.
So, that's how I got into films. Hammer went on asking me to do scores for them, for which I have been eternally grateful.
Could you tell me a little about your life with Paul Dehn at this time?
Well, we were very happy together! We mentally clicked, just clicked in every way, so we settled down together. He came out of the Army a Major with a very good war record -- he trained spies, you know, that was his sort of thing. He was brilliant linguist, particularly in French, so he was working for MI6. Of course, I didn't know all of that at the time, we were all discreet about that. But as soon as we could, we started sharing an apartment together, and that was during my last year in the Air Force, in 1946. Paul had gone into civilian life already, and I was posted to the Air Ministry in London, where I was helping to write the history of the Air Force. We had a very nice apartment up Kings Road. He was already working for the BBC writing radio plays, and writing as a film critic for The News Chronicle.
Was Paul a writer before the military?
Yes, he was trained as a journalist, but he put it off as he was called into the Army. His godfather was a brilliant dramatic critic named James Agate, who was drama critic for the Sunday Times. He gave Paul a lot of extremely good advice, and Paul followed his example. Paul was also a poet, and he wrote three or four books of just lovely poetry, the first one of which, The Day's Alarm, he dedicated to me. He was a brilliant lyric writer. We actually worked together on one musical. I would've loved to have written more tunes, but, of course, I became known as the fellow who wrote for Dracula!
So we lived together from 1946, till 1976, when Paul died of cancer. He smoked like a chimney. I'll always remember, in our early days together, he said, "By the way, I know I'm not going to live to a great age. I just know it, so don't expect me to!"
What did he think of your work in Hammer Films?
Paul was a very respected film critic. Because he was creative himself, film people always respected his criticisms tremendously. He would go into a film wanting to enjoy it, he had a great enthusiasm. He always wanted things to be good. Well, he was one of the only critics in the early days of Hammer Films, when they became internationally famous, that was not shocked or horrified at Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula. Critics thought they were too gruesome, too terrible, while of course, they are nothing compared to what is seen today. It wasn't only because I was his friend -- very often, he never mentioned the music!
As the years went by, Paul wrote a movie, Orders To Kill, later directed by Anthony Asquith, who was the son of a former Prime Minister. Paul was a contemporary of Terence Rattigan, the playwright, who was one of his greatest friends. So, as the years went by I knew the most wonderful people through Paul! But with Orders To Kill, Paul crafted a stark, grim spy story.
After Paul started writing films, he was working as a critic, too, until one day he decided that he could not continue doing both. He felt as if he was in two camps at the same time. He decided to take the plunge, and wrote screenplays exclusively. I encouraged him, saying, "C'mon, Paul, you don't want to be a critic any longer -- be completely creative!"
The two films that really got him through into the big time were Goldfinger, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Two very different types of films.
Very! Goldfinger he did because people thought he knew all about the spy business! Of course, both films were about spies, but they were two very different films. Later, Paul did the screenplay for Le Carre's The Deadly Affair. I still have inscribed books from Le Carre with lovely inscriptions to Paul.
So, while I worked with Hammer, Paul worked on very big films.
Wasn't Murder on the Orient Express one of them?
Yes, that was his last movie, and he was nominated for an Oscar for that. It was the same year as Chinatown, and Robert Towne won. Just when Paul finished writing it, he discovered that he had lung cancer. Paul and Sidney Lumet worked well together, Lumet also directed The Deadly Affair, so they hit if off from the word go.
And Paul, of course, also wrote several of the Planet of the Apes films! They are so inventive. There's a funny story behind them. Paul got to do the first sequel, which was Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with Maurice Evans. When he did it, the producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, who had a very hard bitten exterior, but inside was a soft, bleeding heart, told him that there was only going to be one sequel, and he could blow up the whole world if he felt like it. So Paul went right ahead, and blew up the world.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes was such a success, Jacobs called and told Paul that somehow he had to undo what he had done! Paul and I started talking it around, we always discussed our projects, and soon he came up with a time warp story that became Escape From the Planet of the Apes, which started the whole series over again from whatever the present year was.
It was a very clever way of working around it.
Thank you. We thought of that together. I must take that little bit of credit. Did you know that Paul and I each won an Oscar in 1951?
That's a very peculiar story, for it has nothing to do with my music. It was before Paul had really become a film writer, and we had both thought of an original story for a movie. We sold it, just as a story, to two brothers, the Bolting Brothers, who made some very good films in those days. They turned it into a film called Seven Days Till Noon. It was about an atomic expert who has a religious conversion, and steals an Atomic Bomb. This was right after the war, when there were still a lot of ruins in London, and he hid it somewhere among the ruined buildings. He tells the government that Atomic Bombs are a great evil, and unless they dismantle their arsenals in seven days, he will detonate the bomb and destroy London. He vanishes, and they can't find him. Soon, they start evacuating the whole of London, and in the end he is found holed-up at the alter of a ruined church. The bomb is de-fused literally about two seconds before it is due to go off.
We sold the story outright for peanuts. And to our amazement, an Oscar for Best Original Screen Story was awarded to the both of us. No one told us! We didn't know anything about it! One morning, we were reading the news of the Oscars, and found out we had won! No ceremony, no flying to Los Angeles, nothing. It was very quiet. Somebody from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telephoned us and said he had our Oscars, and would we like him to bring them round? We had a little house off Kings Road, and soon this charming American man came over for a drink with a cardboard box, had a gin and tonic, and handed us Oscars. He finished his drink, and away he went! I still have both of them.
Is Seven Days Till Noon on tape?
No, I don't think it is. It's very good. Black and white, very exciting.
Tomorrow we conclude our interview!