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Last Updated: Friday, 10 August 2007, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Chaplin gets a musical makeover

By Emma Saunders
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Carl Davis
Davis has been writing music for silent films since 1980

Versatile is a word you could easily apply to Bafta-winning composer Carl Davis.

Since he began his musical career in his native New York in the late 1950s, he has written scores for TV, ballet, opera, theatre and film.

Davis's current hectic schedule includes writing the music for BBC period drama The Cranford Chronicles, starring Dame Judi Dench, and conducting London's Proms in the Park in September.

But his next project, which he describes as "very personal", is closer to home.

He is composing the score for his daughter Hannah's second feature film, The Understudy. Davis will also make a brief on-screen appearance, as will his wife, actress Jean Boht.

Record-breaking fee

He is also continuing his passion for penning scores to accompany silent movies - this time for 12 newly restored Charlie Chaplin films.

Jean Boht
Davis's wife, Jean Boht, is still best known for her role in sitcom Bread

In 1916, Chaplin became the highest paid entertainer in the world when he signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for a salary of $670,000 (330,326).

His 12 short Mutual films, including classics such as The Immigrant, The Pawn Shop and The Adventurer, will be screened at Cadogan Hall in London later this month.

Davis will conduct an 18-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as it performs his music for the films in front of a cinema screen over four nights on 15, 16, 17 and 18 August.

Life story

"Chaplin enthusiasts regard the Mutual films as the peak of his career... there is something very special about them," Davis says.

"It was the first time that he had artistic control over his work... these are really the films where he found his own voice, and they were highly successful in his day."

Statuette by John W Mills
A statuette by artist John W Mills will be auctioned at the concert in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital

Davis, 70, discovered recurring themes as he began writing the individual scores.

"There's a unity about the whole thing, some of it is very autobiographical. I wondered if I could put together a story if I wasn't locked into doing them in the order in which he made them."

The result is that the films will not be performed in chronological order but in an order "suggestive of Chaplin's own life, like a miniature biography".

For example, the first screening is actually the 10th Chaplin made in the series.

"Easy Street is a portrait of life in a terrible slum, which I think was like Lambeth in the 1880s, referring to his early childhood," says Davis.

Comedy timing

But of all the mediums he writes for, which is the most difficult?

"Comedies are really hard, just how synchronised do you have to be? Charlie wrote his own music from 1930 on, so we have the examples of films like City Lights and Modern Times.

"You have to break it down into sections, you have to structure your score to the structure of the film," he says.

And rehearsals can be painstaking.

Carl Davis and Chaplin film
Davis faces the screen while the orchestra faces the audience

"We rehearse in a way that you can start and stop - initially one used video, now with DVD it can be more sophisticated," says Davis.

"With comedy, I have a trick - there's lots of falling over and crashes that happen - it's hard to conduct.

"So the percussion section have the picture in front of them on a monitor as well, so I say: 'Don't watch me, go with the picture'."

Davis began writing for silent films in 1980 - his credits include Napoleon and Phantom of the Opera. He has also written many feature film scores, including The French Lieutenant's Woman and Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvey.

Appointed an honorary CBE in 2005, Davis says he loves all the outlets he writes for but performing the silents is "an incredible experience".

"The comedies in particular, you get the laughter, Charlie's very funny - you get this kick-back from the audience. Musicians can't get over it, they're not used to that!

But comedy is also the hardest because of the precision."

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