“I committed a lapse of taste last month and I will not be surprised if I am dismissed from my honourable office,” wrote Sir John Betjeman in 1974. The letter’s recipient was Major Sir Rennie Maudslay, keeper of the privy purse. The lapse in taste was Betjeman’s Banana Blush, an album in which the poet laureate recited a dozen of his poems to a series of musical settings by the composer Jim Parker, who has died aged 88.
While the album widened the poet’s fanbase, it was the making of Parker, who would become one of the most prolific composers in television. Among the work he is best known for are the early TV dramas of Victoria Wood, the BBC’s House of Cards trilogy and 121 episodes of Midsomer Murders.
Part of the charm of his Betjeman settings was that they were deliberately dated to match the poet’s word pictures. “Choose your partners for a foxtrot. / Dance until it’s tea o’clock,” Betjeman intoned, and Parker’s wind band supplied the backing with sax-tinged tea-dance swing, jaunty brass chorales and mournful oompah tunes.
Most of Parker’s career had been spent with the Barrow Poets, a performance collective he had joined in 1963. It was when making an album with Doggerel Bank, an offshoot of the group, that he came into the purview of Charisma Records, where the producer Hugh Murphy proposed making a record with the poet laureate to Parker’s accompaniment.
When Parker demonstrated musical ideas for four poems on a portable harmonium, Betjeman was seduced. For the recording Parker hired members of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the London Saxophone Quartet, adding a steel guitar, banjo and some strings. Parker himself sat at a piano and cued Betjeman in and out. “If you listen to the tunes,” he recalled, “the poems could actually be sung with them, because I’ve based the tunes on the lyrics … but not usually at the same time. So the tune goes one way, then they do the lyrics spoken. That was the system I worked out.”
Betjeman was thrilled. “I must write to tell you how entranced I am with your brilliant and sympathetic music to my verses,” he wrote. “They give the poems a new dimension and are as varied as a gala performance at the Palladium, or better still, the Empire or the Alhambra, Leicester Square.” They would sign cards to each other as Gilbert and Sullivan. “He’s Sullivan, I’m Gilbert,” Betjeman said when introducing people to Parker.
Banana Blush was enough of a success to trigger a follow-up that same year. (Late Flowering Love was filmed in 1993 as Late Flowering Lust by the BBC, with Nigel Hawthorne and dancers performing Matthew Bourne’s choreography.) Two further albums followed. For Sir John Betjeman’s Britain, in celebration of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977, Parker recruited members of the New Philharmonia Orchestra “because I thought we wanted to have something a bit posh”. Varsity Rag came three years before the poet’s death in 1984. At his memorial in Westminster Abbey, the congregation filed out to music from Banana Blush.
The album would be championed by Suggs, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker, but the earliest practical benefit to Parker was the appreciation of the comedian Victoria Wood. When Talent, her debut play, was taken up by Granada in 1979, she persuaded the producer, Peter Eckersley, to hire Parker to arrange the songs.
When she visited him at his home in Barnes in south-west London he discovered they had a common musical idiom. “I wasn’t a middle-of-the-road commercial composer and she wasn’t either. We spoke the same language … I thought I’d like to break into this television lark, I’ll learn how to do it on the job. When I got there Peter said: ‘We don’t know anything about this so we’ve got you in to show us how to do it.’”
Parker arranged Wood’s songs for two more Granada dramas – Nearly a Happy Ending (1980) and Happy Since I Met You (1982) – and was cast as the in-vision bandleader of her debut sketch show Wood and Walters. Parker regarded his contribution as a mistake. “I was a professional oboe player. I couldn’t play the piano as well as Vic and I wasn’t very happy with my own performances.”
At the time, he was enjoying his greatest success yet as a recording artist, having set to music poems by Jeremy Lloyd about a group of woodland animals. As with Betjeman, he composed in a popular but un-poplike English vernacular for readings of the poems by Peter Sellers, Keith Michell, Twiggy and Harry Secombe. Captain Beaky & His Band languished unnoticed for two years until Noel Edmonds championed the album on Radio 1 and the title track made it to No 5 in 1980. On the back of it Parker funded an extension to his home.
The elder of two brothers, Parker was born in Hartlepool, County Durham, and had a peripatetic childhood. His father, James Parker, was a linotype operator who during the second world war took the family to Watford, Dumfries and Birmingham. Inheriting an enthusiasm for music from his mother, Margaret (nee Mavin), who sang in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Jim taught himself to read music and play the piano. He led a dance band by the time he left school in Blackburn, aged 16, with four O-levels.
Turning away from his plan to train as an accountant, on a whim he joined the army in the hope of being paid to learn the clarinet. He was given an oboe and told to learn it in time for a broadcast in three months. He even had a solo. “It must have sounded absolutely dire. Normally you’d need 10 years to get to a reasonable standard on the oboe.” By 1953 he was in the 7th Armoured Brigade on the Rhine, where he took every musical opportunity going. After three years he won a place at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he lost out on the school’s gold medal to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, then spent a year in the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
His ambition to compose was realised with the Barrow Poets, so called because at gigs they sold their work from a barrow. Setting their poems as well as poetry by Robert Graves and Ted Hughes to music, Parker wrote for a band that included a kazoo, harps, concertinas, a home-made contraption known as a bass cacofiddle plus Parker on oboe. The arrangement suited him. “I did like not being stuck at the back of the orchestra,” he recalled.
From the London pub circuit they branched out in tours of the UK and then US colleges, recording their first album with music written and arranged by Parker in 1968. (Their only hit was The Pheasant Plucker’s Song, a bawdy bauble released in 1980, which made the Australian charts.) Parker was not a natural fit for the counterculture, composing the music for a poem called Bad Trip without ever having sampled hallucinogenic drugs.
By the mid-1980s he was composing for televised plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Noël Coward. He pastiched English styles in series such as Tales of the Unexpected, Mapp & Lucia and The House of Eliott. Most memorably, having submitted a dozen different ideas to the drama’s makers, he captured parliamentary pomp on three keening trumpets in the theme tune for House of Cards and its two sequels. He won his first Bafta for the sequel, To Play the King; three more came in consecutive years for The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, The History of Tom Jones and A Rather English Marriage. He also branched out into the world of popular factual TV with Changing Rooms and Ground Force.
In 1997 he became in-house composer for Midsomer Murders and went on to provide original scores for more than two decades. The waltzing theme tune included the eerie vibrato of a theremin, which he had heard on the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. His other long-running commission, also from ITV, was for Foyle’s War, for which he immersed himself in dance band music styles as they changed during the second world war.
Away from television, he composed predominantly for wind and brass – A Londoner in New York (1986) was written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. A quartet in tribute to Stephane Grappelli in 2013 was a rare foray into writing for strings. He was made an honorary member of the Guildhall School of Music in 1986.
In 1969 he married Pauline George, a dance student, with whom he had two daughters, Claire and Amy. They survive him, along with a daughter, Louise, from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.
• James Mavin Parker, composer, born 18 December 1934; died 28 July 2023