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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Original at Glasgow University

Allan Gray

Allan Gray was, as was the case with so many Archers, a German emigre. Born Josef Zmigrod in Poland in 1902 Gray was a fully fledged participant in the culture of Weimar Berlin. Studying under the modernist Arnold Schoenberg, he paid for his tuition by composing jazz-inflected music for the cabaret. Schoenberg disapproved and Zmigrod took up the name of Oscar Wilde's famous hedonist (Dorian) Gray for his cabaret work. Gray realised his ability was for pastiche and incidental music and abandoned original composotion of 'serious' music. He began to compose for films, at Ufa where he met Emeric Pressburger. Their paths were to cross again, working on the same film The Challenge in the mid-thirties. After the start of the war however, like Alfred Junge and Erwin Hillier as well, he was used for the Powell and Pressburger-produced The Silver Fleet.

The first real use of Gray's talents however, came with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, with its playful use of different periods and moods and Gray's capacity for making music referential and reminiscent of three eras, the eighteen-nineties, the nineteen-teens and the nineteen-forties. On their next film A Canterbury Tale, the film was to begin with the ringing bells of Canterbury Cathedral and Allan Gray selected the notes of the peal which they would ring (although in fact the bells which appear on camera are fibreglass miniatures), and he mixed this peal into the music at the beginning and end of the film.

Gray's ability to create a 'playful referential score' was again needed to evoke the lingering spirit of the medieval pilgrims. Gray's chief task on the film after that was to write the orchestration for an Irish song, 'I know Know Where I'm Going', which gave its name to the film.

Gray's most memorable piece of music, which was also the most apparent to the audience, was written for A Matter of Life and Death. The compostion was 'the hauntingly simple, slightly atonal piano theme which accompanies the staircase to heaven.'

After A Matter of Life and Death the Archers began using Brian Easdale on their films. Initially this was only for Black Narcissus and Gray was recalled for The Red Shoes. However this called for original ballet music and Gray found he was no longer playing to his strengths. Michael Powell wrote: "His main gift was a dramatic one. He had the capacity to enter into the idea of a scene or a situation, but it was still film music in the traditional way, applied on, as it were, mixed into the sound-track and the dialogue of the actors, like glazing on a rich ham..". Robert Helpmann, the choreographer of the ballet declared at the time that the music he was writing was "utterly commonplace" and said he would withdraw from the film if it became any more "to the public taste".

So it was that Gray parted with the Archers with Easdale again replacing him. Gray's music had become synonymous with the Archers at their most playful, but as their concerns with 'Art' became more pronounced, with Powell frequenlty referring to 'Art' as their aspiration post war, Gray's abilities no longer suited the company.

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