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Submitted by Roger Mellor

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Brian Easdale

Brian Easdale is an enigma. For a while he seemed to be the house-composer for the imaginative Archers team of Emeric and Pressburger. Their screen dramas were archetypes of the British Golden Age quite apart from being great films in their own right.

Brian was born in Manchester on 10 August 1909 and was educated at Westminster Abbey Choir School and the Royal College of Music (Armstrong Gibbs and Gordon Jacob). He wrote extensively in many formats. A concert of his compositions was put on at the Wigmore Hall by Herbert Murrill, another film composer. His Missa Coventrensis (1962) for choir, congregation and organ was written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral - an event in which it was overshadowed by Tippett's King Priam, Arthur Bliss's The Beatitudes and of course Britten's War Requiem; the two latter composers being active in the film worlds. He died on 30 October 1995.

He wrote film music for the GPO Film Unit from 1936. These included Big Money (1937), Kew Gardens (1937), Men in Danger (1939), Ferry Pilot (1942), Job in a Million (1937), Health in Industry (1938). In 1939 he became musical director of the Group Theatre, working with Britten. His first films were Gone to Earth (based on the Mary Webb novel); Men in Danger (1939) and Spring Offensive (1940).

His war service (1940-42) was with The Royal Artillery but from 1942-45 he was with the Public Relations Film Unit, India. Musical director of Information Films of India (1945-46). It was this Indian connection that brought him a commission for the film The Black Narcissus. On his return to England in 1946 he was appointed musical director of the Archers Film Unit, a position he relinquished in 1949.

His remarkable roster of films includes: Black Narcissus (1947) a masterpiece of melodrama with hyper-dramatic music to match; The Red Shoes (1948); Outcast of the Islands (1952); The Small Back Room (1952); The Wild Heart (1952); The Green Scarf (1955) and Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1957). We desperately need a complete CD of his Archers music.

It was the 1948 Red Shoes which made his name. Moira Shearer, the ballerina, recalled in 1995 the 17 minute fantasy ballet score which was written specifically for the film. The score was the first British score to use the ondes martenot. No less a person than Thomas Beecham conducted the recording. Beecham was impatient of the film making process and simply came to the studio to record the music and left it to the dancers and director to make sure that they danced and filmed to HIS account of the music. None of artists ever met Beecham. The music won the 1948 Hollywood Academy Award - an Oscar. Beecham's approach was repeated for the 1951 film of The Tales of Hoffmann in which Beecham conducted the music FIRST and the film was shot around the soundtrack.

Easdale took Shearer to lunch during the making of the film. This was the one occasion when she got to know him. She recalled that the composer was a very young man - 'quite reserved but charming'. Shearer recalled it as exotic strange music - a quite advanced modernistic score - but good to dance to - and written with great rhythmic feeling.

The operas The Corn King, and The Sleeping Children were produced in 1951 riding on the wave of interest created by the incredible success of his music for The Red Shoes.

Let the story be taken up here in Stan Meares' obituary which appeared in the March 1996 newsletter of the British Music Society:-

"For such vintage films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death The Archers had successfully used the Polish-born composer Allan Gray. But Easdale, while serving in India during the war, had studied Indian music and instruments and because of this they employed him to compose the score for the emotionally highly charged (Rumer Godden based) Black Narcissus set in a kingdom in the Himalayas. The Red Shoes followed. Gray was intended to write the music but it was beyond him and Easdale replaced him. At the centre of this work is an uninterrupted ballet of seventeen minutes. It shows both Easdale's modesty and practicality that he asked that Sir Thomas Beecham should be allowed to give an opinion of the score before it was formally submitted. As a result, not only did Beecham approve of it, he went on to conduct it. Powell has told how after the film's private viewing for the Rank Organisation hierarchy, J. Arthur Rank and his cohorts stalked out without a word and an American expert declared it would not earn a dime in the USA.

"Easdale was next employed for The Small Back Room, a fine drama set amongst boffins in war time, with one extraordinary episode showing Powell at his most eccentric. But war films were not welcomed at the time (1949). Two later films with Easdale scores, The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth cannot really be judged as original works, as Alexander Korda's Hollywood mogul partners grotesquely interfered with the finished product. Indeed The Elusive Pimpernel was originally shot as a near-musical, with an extensive score by Easdale. Whatever the rights and wrongs neither succeeded. After a gap when the Archers filmed an opera brilliantly (in the full, uncut version seldom seen) and an operetta ineptly, Easdale returned to write the score for The Battle of the River Plate. But the Archers were not at their best, though it was commercially very successful. Soon afterwards the partnership broke up, though Easdale worked with each former partner independently on largely poor works, except for Powell's notorious Peeping Tom, reviled at the time and now revered (perhaps too much). More importantly he wrote the music for Carol Reed's The Outcast of the Islands, a work under-rated at the time but which can now be seen on TV to be of a quality approaching Reed's prime (even if some prude has cut the contemplative shot of a naked, native boy, entirely appropriate in context)."

The Red Shoes film is often on television and seems to be on continuous display at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. There is a CD of the ballet on Silva Screen.

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