Obituary - Frank Wagland - 1928-2011

9th September 2011 at 01:00

Frank Wagland was an old-style, post-war lefty, serving as musical director for the theatre company that brought Brecht and Sartre plays to British audiences for the first time.

But the north London music teacher was as committed to his pupils as to his politics, seeing no difference between writing music to accompany a Brecht premiere and writing music to accompany an end-of-year school play.

Mr Wagland was born in north-west London in June 1928. Early on, he showed an inclination towards, and talent for, music. By the end of primary school, he had taught himself how to read and write it. By the age of 15, he had written his first classical piece.

He left school at 17, taking a job with music publisher Boosey and Hawkes. While working there, he was asked to take a bust of renowned conductor Henry Wood to the Royal Albert Hall. In later years, every Wagland family visit to the venue would include a diversion to check that the bust was still exactly where teenage Frank had left it.

After national service in Egypt, he decided to train as a music teacher, taking a job at a school in the north London suburb of Willesden.

A child of the socialist 1930s, he became musical director of the Unity Theatre, a radical left-wing company. Unity staged the British premieres of plays by Sartre, Gorky and Brecht, and Mr Wagland took a key role in such productions. In 1956, for example, he wrote music to accompany a staging of Brecht's The Exception and the Rule.

He also worked closely with a young songwriter called Lionel Bart. Later to find fame as the composer of the musical Oliver!, Bart could not read or write music, and could barely play the piano. Recognising Mr Wagland's talent, he therefore asked him to help him turn his unformed melodies into written scores.

One of the pair's early collaborations was on Peacemeal, a revue show. It was on the set of this show that Mr Wagland met Rita, one of the actresses. They married two years later, and went on to have two sons, Simon and Mark.

In 1965 the family moved to Tottenham, where Mr Wagland had been appointed head of music at Rowland Hill secondary modern. Two years later, the school amalgamated with nearby Tottenham Grammar to form Somerset School.

Reflecting its grammar-school influence, Somerset offered individual tuition in instruments such as flute and violin. But Mr Wagland quickly realised that this would not be enough to interest his self-consciously disaffected, wannabe punk-rocker pupils. And so he went out of his way to acquire two drum kits for the school.

Indeed, there was little he would not do to ensure pupils' interest in his subject. Faced with a choice between music and cross-country running, many musically unmotivated 14-year-olds found themselves sitting in Mr Wagland's class. Rather than accept their apathy, their teacher would do everything he could to inspire musical enthusiasm.

He would regularly track down any equipment - from friends, from colleagues, from other schools - that the teenagers wanted. And he deliberately sought out performance material that he thought they would enjoy. In 1968, he directed towel-headed pupils in one of the first-ever productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

He often stayed for hours after school, composing music for school performances. Together with the headmaster, he wrote several original musicals, one of which was picked up by a professional producer and transferred to a north London theatre. And, in 1973, a single of his St Paul's Cantata was recorded by Somerset singers and sold to raise money for the restoration of St Paul's Cathedral.

He continued to write music outside school. Wagland family events were inevitably filmed by Frank, and then later set to music. He was also commissioned to write music for productions at Rada and for the BBC.

And he retained his involvement with the Unity Theatre. One of his proudest moments was as the director of They Made Me a Present of Mornington Crescent, which had a cast of 40. The show told the story of local music halls - a form of entertainment Mr Wagland particularly enjoyed - and ran for two and a half months.

In the 1980s, after he retired from Somerset, he and Rita travelled extensively, including a holiday among the jazz clubs of Havana. And he set up his own music company, Mr Frank Wagland's Celebrated Music Hall, which had a successful run at the Hackney Empire in 1991.

Frank Wagland died on 2 August.

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