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Unlocking the Secret of the Black Magic Box

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For many years John Barry fans had been misled into thinking he had composed the theme that accompanied the Black Magic series of commercials - ‘Who Knows the Secret of the Black Magic Box’. These had a theme, which most people remember – maybe because it ran the longest or because it was possibly the last specially composed theme for these commercials - shown when people actually watched them rather than fast-forwarded or muted them!

There’s no question that the theme, actually composed by Christopher Gunning, is very reminiscent of Barry’s style and, therefore, one would naturally assume – in the knowledge that he did write a commercial for this Rowntree’s (of York) product – that this was his music.

When I contacted Gunning in 2011 he confirmed ‘the music for the Black Magic commercial was indeed composed by me, back when I was 20 something’. This was just after he had re-recorded a full-length version for his ‘Skylines’ CD stating ‘it was always one of my favourite efforts’. There are actually brief moments in his score for the feature film ‘Man About the House’ (1973) which sounded very similar to this theme.

Those who were fortunate enough to have acquired this very rare vinyl album issued by CBS Special Products in 1974 would have known that is was Gunning who had composed this piece of music. I recall seeing this LP (only once mind you!) at a record fair many moons ago but at the time it wouldn’t have been of interest to me – especially as the other 11 tracks were all pop songs from the CBS who were obviously trying to cash in on the popularity of the commercials:

For those interested this theme, clocking in at 3 minutes 11 seconds, has now been loaded on You Tube by a devoted Barry fan:

But where was the theme that Barry had written, and why is it so elusive? Did he actually compose a theme? In my mind there was no doubt that he did because it had always been cited in a ‘checklist’ published in an early 70s issue of ‘Films & Filming’ or ‘Films’ (I forget which now) compiled with the assistance of the Performing Rights Society and Barry himself. After various searches on You Tube over the last few years, and because other Barry-scored commercials were turning up on this platform more often, I became even more frustrated in not being able to find ANY information on Barry’s theme. After all, everyone remembers the Black Magic series of commercials – they ran for years. In fact, they began in the early days of TV advertising in the 1950s and are possibly still running today.

Very recently I contacted the Yorkshire Film Archive and got an instant reply. Their website provides a list of all the commercials throughout the years, but only the title and dates are given. This week I visited the archive and viewed 30 Black Magic commercials from 1963-1980 in an effort to trace Barry’s theme and to ascertain when Gunning’s theme was first used. Pleasingly, I had 100% success in both cases!

The first commercial I viewed, from 1963, was purely and simply a classical-sounding theme played on violin and the following two were just 5-second commercial spots. The music within the next advert was instantly recognisable as Barry’s from the first few seconds. There was no doubt in my mind that this was his music but I continued to wade through the other commercials just in case there were more. In short, most of them used the simple violin theme, which continued in later adverts – and from 1967 was played on flute, double bass with strings. In fact, this later version could quite easily have been a Barry arrangement, but why would he arrange somebody else’s theme when he had already written his own theme since the former was first used? Unless, of course, he had been specifically asked to by the producers. Only the production details from the advertising agency would be able to thread any further light on who actually composed this theme, originally used since at least 1963.

Richard Lester did not direct a Black Magic commercial as first thought but he did the After Eight commercials for which Barry wrote the music. Ken Russell did, however, but although this was an extremely well made commercial, the music – consisting of organ and female choir – didn’t do anything for me. This was ‘Castle: Black Magic Because She Is’ (1966). It was one of two of the Black Magic commercials cited by the archive as being of interest because they used different directors to the other adverts. The second was the one with Barry’s music. It was directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1964 (not ‘66/’67 as previously thought) and titled ‘Taxi: And I’m Glad He Remembers Black Magic’. At first hearing the music instantly reminded me of Barry’s music for ‘Sophia Loren in Rome’. It began on flute with harp; and strings were later added. You could hear an organ in the background underneath the voiceover so it’s likely he used Alan Haven on this. The theme ended beautifully with strings and harp.

This was a one-off commercial, but even more interesting was the fact that it ran for 45-50 seconds – significantly more than the usual 30 seconds time slot for a TV commercial in those days. Maybe it wasn’t screened too often, which is why nobody remembers it or maybe it ran in cinemas only?

To finalise my research I carried on watching the remaining adverts. The very first colour one appeared in 1970, another with the aforementioned flute theme. Different variations of this theme lasted until 1972, which is the first time Gunning’s theme was used – in a commercial called ‘Assignation’ the first in the ‘who knows the secret of the Black Magic box’ series. Variations of the theme were used through later years and well into the mid 80s - including one in 1973, which had an added harpsichord. Two or three of these are on You Tube. Maybe Barry’s commercial will appear there one day. Here’s hoping.

© Gareth Bramley – September 2018

Read 21396 times Last modified on Friday, 04 December 2020 11:42