THE INTERNATIONALLY acclaimed West End composer Cyril Ornadel won fame with a host of popular 1950s theatrical and film musical scores, from the original production of My Fair Lady to the incidental music for the Beatrix Potter stories, with lyrics by David Croft and narrated by Vivien Leigh.
He became the youngest musical director in the West End at the age of 25. Then, as resident musical director of the London Palladium for four years during the 1950s, he conducted ITV’s musical flagship Sunday Night at the London Palladium. His weekly presence, leading the orchestra from the pit, spawned a joke that the back of his head was the most famous on TV. The show was broadcast on ITV from 1955 to 1967, and he conducted three Royal Command Variety performances.
Success as the musical director of many West End shows followed, satisfying the nation’s post-war appetite for light, glamorous entertainment. The actor Ian Carmichael introduced Ornadel to the lyricist and later sitcom writer David Croft and their collaboration produced some 300 songs for BBC Variety shows. In 1956 Ornadel wrote his first score for a musical, with lyrics by Croft, called Starmaker, starring Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, followed two years later by The Pied Piper for Gary Miller.
But although Ornadel knew from an early age that music would be his life, his ambitions were nearly thwarted by his father, a dress manufacturer, who wanted him to join the family business, and tried everything in his power to wean him off his chosen career, even getting him expelled from the Royal College of Music.
Undeterred, Ornadel joined a trio with Dorothy Carless and Sylvia Handel, with whom he performed at the peace-signing celebrations after the Second World War in a field before the top military brass.
After the war he conducted variety shows and played at the London Palladium with Nat King Cole, the Crazy Gang, Mario Lanza, Judy Garland and Noel Coward. His credits include Kiss Me Kate, Call Me Madam, at the London Coliseum: (lyrics by Irving Berlin), Paint Your Wagon, Pal Joey, Wonderful Town and Kismet. In 1961 he married Shoshana Shapiro with whom he had three children, Dan, Sharon and Guy.
It was in the 60s that he first came to notice as a composer. He was Roy Plomley’s castaway on Desert Island Discs in 1963 where his chosen favourites proved his broad musical tastes, from Mozart and Rachmaninov to Frank Sinatra and Gilbert and Sullivan. His book of choice was the Talmud.
In that year he wrote the music for Pickwick, starring Harry Secombe, based on Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Secombe’s rendering of If I Ruled the World became a hit, winning an Ivor Novello Award and reaching the top 20.Twelve years later Ornadel collaborated on another Dickens adaptation: Great Expectations with Hal Shaper, starring Sir John Mills. It earned him another Novello award. This followed his earlier collaboration with Shaper on the musical Treasure Island in 1973, adapted by and starring Bernard Miles.
His film scores included the 1968 thriller, Subterfuge, starring Joan Collins and Gene Barry, and the 1974 TV remake of Brief Encounter, starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton. Turning to TV, he won a BAFTA for Edward the Seventh and he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the Strauss Family Series, for which his musical album won the LSO a Gold Disc. His recorded work includes the music for the Living Shakespeare series and the Living Bible, narrated by Laurence Olivier. His Matt Monro song, Portrait of My Love (lyric by Norman Newell) wonaNovelloAward for the best song of the year and a BMI award for over two million international broadcasts.
Although described as a great character, Ornadel was sometimes considered a martinet to work for. Yet he was modest, acknowledging that he had been lucky. “I never knew what I wanted to do other than make music, “ he said. He was awarded the gold badge of merit by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters for his services to British music. He retired from conducting in 1989 and moved to Israel with his wife, where he wrote his autobiography, Reach for the Moon, and a cantata, Heritage, based on the Jewish Festivals, with a libretto by former JC staff writer and poet, Pamela Melnikoff. Cyril Ornadel is survived by his wife, his three children and two grandchildren.
Ornadel the hit music man