Barrington Pheloung obituary | Music



In 1987, the Australian composer Barrington Pheloung, who has died aged 65 of respiratory failure, provided the haunting theme and incidental music to the ITV crime drama series Inspector Morse. The combination of the complex, grumpy detective, played by John Thaw, the Oxford setting of the underlying novels by Colin Dexter and the 100-minute length of each episode created scope for a very distinctive approach.

As Bazz (or Barry, or Bazza) recalled: “Morse is a very melancholic character, so the tune had to be melancholic, and he was a lover of classical music, so it should be an orchestral score and not a synthesiser. He has a very cryptic mind, he loves doing crosswords; we came up with the obvious idea – his name is Morse and we use Morse code in the music.” The spelling out of his name fitted into a rhythm that suggested a harmonic structure: “I picked up my guitar and there was the tune.”

Over the course of 13 years, 33 episodes of Morse were broadcast, and Bazz also provided the music for a sequel, Lewis, later Inspector Lewis (2006-15), with Morse’s sergeant (Kevin Whately) moving centre stage. He did the same for a prequel, Endeavour (2012-17), with Shaun Evans as the young Morse.

Bazz’s big break in television had come in 1985 with the series Boon, starring Michael Elphick. The opportunity came through Anthony Minghella, who was one of the show’s writers; the producer was Kenny McBain, who went on to give him the Morse commission.

John Thaw as Morse, the Oxford detective with a cryptic mind who loved crosswords.

John Thaw as Morse, the Oxford detective with a cryptic mind who loved crosswords. Photograph: ITV/Rex

In 1986 Minghella asked Bazz to score the music for his play Made in Bangkok, which led to further stage commissions. TV series and documentaries also followed, and Minghella asked Bazza to contribute to the soundtrack for his film Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman. Bazz appeared on camera playing the double bass as one of the ghostly quartet of friends.

He went on to score and direct the music for Nostradamus (1994), directed by Roger Christian, and Hilary and Jackie (1998), with Emily Watson as the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and Shopgirl (2005), both directed by Anand Tucker. More TV detective drama came with early series of Dalziel and Pascoe (1996-98).

Born in the Sydney beach suburb of Manly, Bazza was the son of John Pheloung, a commercial artist of Irish-English descent, and Adel (nee Reber), a nurse of German-Spanish heritage. His grandfather, Jerry Pheloung, was a trumpeter who had led the Manly Municipal Brass Band to be Australasian Champions in 1911.

Bazz was a drummer in the local army cadets band and, having taken up the guitar at the age of six, began playing in blues bands with his brother Pip during his teens. However, discovering Bach in his late teens led him to take up the guitar, and after leaving St Aloysius’ college he worked as a postman to save for the fare to London to study.

I met him in 1973 on a music foundation course at Chiswick Music Centre, attached to Chiswick Polytechnic, west London. Bazz’s focus was on his guitar under the tutorship of Carlos Bonell and Gilbert Biberian, and the double bass, but gradually an interest in composition and conducting began to emerge. He gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and studied composition under John Lambert and guitar with John Williams and Julian Bream.

Bazz’s first commissions were for dance, and we toured with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre while he was still at the RCM. He met Anita Griffin, a dancer with the company, and they married in 1979, the year that he became its musical director, a post that he held until 1995.

He went on to compose more than 50 pieces for dance. His early works were experimental and avant garde, drawing on such influences as Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Boulez, but also incorporating elements drawn from blues, jazz, electronic music and musique concrète, and employing a wide range of percussion and other instruments.

Bazz was a lifelong socialist, more of the Guinness variety than the champagne, and an avid tackler of the Guardian’s cryptic crossword, which he rarely failed to complete. He insisted on recording his compositions with live musicians rather than rely on technological synthesis, and would regularly dig into his own pocket to record scores, usually at Abbey Road studios, north London, with the London Metropolitan Orchestra.

A brilliant impressionist and after-dinner speaker, he had a great love of cricket. Through his friendship with John Major, he played in many charity games. He was a careful opening batsman, and his proudest cricketing moment came when he was bowled first ball in such a match at Kensington Oval, Barbados, by Curtly Ambrose.

His marriage to Anita ended in divorce; he met his second wife, Heather Lovejoy, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during a Test match in 1994, and took 16 members of his extended family to the final day of the Ashes contest at the Oval, in south London, in 2009. Australia’s loss to England only partially dampened his generous spirit. Family and friends were particularly important to him.

He is survived by Heather, and their children, Adel and Timmy; and by Daniel and Anthony, the sons of his first marriage.

Barrington Somers James Pheloung, composer and conductor, born 10 May 1954; died 1 August 2019