The British composer Christopher Gunning’s career in addition to films contains quite a few high profile television productions and this 2003 TV adaptation of the well loved children’s novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter features some of his loveliest music. The story involves a young orphan sent to her rather serious and severe aunt in a small New England village where the girl succeeds in turning the puritan atmosphere of the place around with her positive and sunny personality and winning attitude. The only major changes to story in this new version are the switch of the location to Edwardian England and retaining of the serious tones of the original novel intact. This Carlton Television production was directed by Sarah Harding and starred a new comer Georgina Terry with Amanda Burton, Kenneth Cranham and Pam Ferris to name the most prestigious thespians among the cast.
The composer Christopher Gunning is one of those often unsung heroes of the British film and television music arena, who has produced beautiful and evocative scores for countless films and series over his decades spanning career but has been left to relative obscurity in the larger film music community due to the fact that a lot of his assignments have been confined to the British Isles and are often on a smaller scale. Most people might remember him as the guy who penned the catchy theme for Agatha Christie’s Poirot or for his BAFTA winning La vie en rose Edit Piaf biopic score or have seen his name on the recent Grace of Monaco billing but much of his music has not been readily available on disc until in the last few years. This is a shame as the man is a world class composer and dramatist whose music always supports the film it is composed for but also has the added artistry to stand on its own on purely musical terms.
Gunning has in the recent times focused more on his concert hall output which is steadily growing and includes several symphonies and concertos for various instruments. These are also perhaps his most readily available music on disc at the moment as some of his old fan favourites like Firelight or When the Whales Came are long out of print and fetch huge sums in the collector’s market. But luckily the Caldera Records seems to have set its sights on rectifying the Gunning soundtrack drought and in 2014 brought to us this release of his lovely little score for Pollyanna and has in 2015 continued the streak by producing the premiere soundtrack release of another one of Gunning’s works, the score for the television adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s popular novel Rebecca.
Pollyanna’s score is a delightful little pastoral miniature, which the composer considers perhaps the most enjoyable one has ever worked on as all seemed to fall in place during the writing and recording of the music as well as with the director and the producers. It was as if the whole production was blessed with some of that irrepressible optimism of the novel’s main character and the composer’s efforts certainly show this. His music is brimming with innocent joie-de-vivre, plucky humour and gentle lyricism. It is a relatively simple score with focus on heart felt but never twee melodies scored for a chamber sized orchestra with many soloist parts, most notably flute and piano, and since it is all written as very much a theme-and-variations style of composition, the 26 minute album drawn from the 45 minute score presents a thoroughly enjoyable programme on disc. And despite its brevity Gunning still manages to juggle three major themes in his score and gives them all several interesting variations along the way.
The main theme succeeds in capturing the indomitable innocence of child’s world view and Pollyanna’s special spirit and innate goodness with which she embraces life. Initially the theme is presented by a heart melting solo flute in the ‘Opening Titles’ after which it travels through the woodwind and string sections in lovely warm and bucolic orchestrations capturing as much the English countryside as the main protagonist and is heard on almost every track of the album in various guises after this. Here Gunning’s orchestrational skills shine through as he always manages to add something new to the theme with each new variant, a mood or emotional underpinning, and succeeds in making an immediate impact with each piece having an inner logic of its own even when the running time of most tracks clocks under 2 minutes. The closest comparison that comes to mind in style and elegance is the great late George Delerue, who wrote similar scores that had with such apparent ease a way of finding their way into the heart of the listener as much as finding the heart of the films they accompanied. Highlight variations of the this main theme include ‘Pollyanna Has a Dog’ with a chipper rolling piano accompaniment for the woodwinds, the slightly more serious and suspenseful ‘Pollyanna Running to Fetch the Doctor’, the in turn haunting and soaring ‘Nocturne’, the nearly music box-like reading in the middle of “Preparing for the Wedding” and the playfully energetic ‘Closing Title’.
Alternating with Pollyanna’s innocent and sprightly music are the themes for aunt Polly, first heard in ‘Pollyanna Goes Visiting’ and Polly’s romance with Dr. Chilton, which makes its first appearance in ‘A New Hairdo for Aunt Polly’ and these are very much of the same cloth as the main theme, tender, lyrical and with very open harmonies that further enhance their emotional quality without making them too sentimental. There is really a very positive and absolutely charming warmth running through the entire work
With its direct emotional appeal the soundtrack for Pollyanna is easy to recommend. The sunny atmosphere of this little score is heart warming and the melodies Gunning spins never overstay their welcome on the short album. It is a rather old fashioned score in its approach but that is where much of its charm lies. Caldera Record’s premiere release of the score is further enhanced by beautiful art direction, Gergely Hubai’s classy liner notes with the composer’s own thoughts on the music and most unusually and significantly a 25-minute audio commentary by Gunning as a bonus track where he not only gives his thoughts on the score, the film and the production but also extensively talks about his life, his beginnings, career and past projects. For the fans of the composer this is a must but I would suggest this as a fine way to introduce yourself to the music and career of Christopher Gunning as it carries many of his trademark qualities,a fine ear for melody, fantastic orchestrations and mastery of the orchestra and a keen sense of drama. Thus Pollyanna receives a warm recommendation.
Pollyanna is now out from Caldera Records