Musician and conductor Carl Davis: My favourite photograph

This photo goes back to 1971, when Jean [Boht] and I first came together. We had met at Stratford East Theatre at Joan Littlewood’s company.

Jean had been in a musical that I composed and wrote with John Wells called The Projector. It was really a theatre marriage: I was the composer and Jean was the leading lady, and we fell in love during the run of that show.

When we first met we were in throws of delirium. We played games, we dressed up, I grew a moustache – it was a crazy period.

I knew that Jean adored dogs and I had gone to Harrods, again mad extravagance, and bought a thoroughbred female basset hound, called Charlie.

Jean was expecting our first daughter and said, ‘I’m going to call her Charlotte.’ And I thought, ‘No, I’m going to sabotage that.

We’re going to call the dog Charlie.’ We decided we’d have our own special Christmas card for our first Christmas together. The piano was set up in our flat in Battersea, our first home. And we had this wreck of a grand piano that in its day had been very grand, and this insane, untrainable dog, who was very sweet.

And I just knew if Jean wore that shawl Charlie would not be able to resist making a grab for the fringe tassels.

You have to sing something while the photo’s being taken, to look as if you are actually doing it, so I think we were singing Noel Coward’s I’ll See You Again.

I’ve no idea why: that just came out of my fingers and she sang away. And I’ve kept the original photograph, through all our different moves, all the different children, and all the different dogs since Charlie. 

At this period Jean was beginning to get a fairly strong television career, which 10 years later erupted into Bread.

Over the years she did the hospital shows Casualty and Holby City. I think she has done more appearances in those than anybody else.

Every few years you get a second chance at another character or another story. For myself, I was weeks away from composing The World At War theme.

It’s amazing the longevity of the series, it’s still around on the Yesterday channel. Jeremy Isaacs heard it for the first time on that piano, with me playing it in that room.

Composing for television dramas and films and documentaries are all different. And different from them all is silent film because that is very specialised.

Writing for a contemporary story, a feature film or television, you always have on the soundtrack dialogue or narration in a documentary, and sound effects, so the music is one of three elements.

But the opportunities with a silent film like Napoleon is that you are the soundtrack: nothing else is coming off the screen. So you have decisions to make about what kinds of music you have to fill the gap. 

There’s nothing more deadly than watching a silent film in silence. It was never meant to be silent, it was always meant to have music.

So a composer in that situation is really given his big chance to take it over and make the film work. I keep going for the five and a half hours of conducting Napoleon by taking it sequence by sequence.

I used to view it as a whole: you stand there quite enthusiastic at the beginning, and then about 40 minutes in I used to get extremely depressed and think, ‘I’m never going to get through it.’ Then I thought, ‘Live in the present, give yourself shorter objectives.

What’s my next objective? OK, we’re going to Corsica. If I can get through Corsica, I can get through to the next big storm.

And the big storm is the first interval. Great!’”

The Napoleon DVD with music by Carl Davis is available from the British Film Institute for £19.99 (

The Birmingham City Ballet is touring a production of Aladdin with music by Carl until November 2.