Born in Nottinghamshire in 1886, Eric Coates had been scribbling down melodies since he was six years old. By the time he was 19, his dearest wish was to go and study at The Royal Academy of Music in London. But his father, a country doctor, was determined that his fifth and youngest child should join a local bank. ‘I was in despair,’ Eric records in his autobiography, Suite in Four Movements. Eventually Coates senior relented, and Eric was enrolled at the RAM as a student of viola and composition.

People standing in a pub.
Sue Blundell (centre) with the cast of ‘The Man from the Sleepy Lagoon’ which will be performed on Sunday 11 June 2017 as part of FitzFest. Also pictured: David Acton who plays Coates (front right) and the FitzFest musicians led by Daniel Bates (rear centre).

This marked the beginning of Coates’ long association with Fitzrovia. Now on Marylebone Road, the RAM in those days was on Tenterden Street, Hanover Square, just south of Oxford Street, and its students used to socialise in the cheap cafes in the area.

Later, when Eric found work as a viola player in the orchestra of the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, he joined the ranks of the scores of musicians who ate at Pagani’s restaurant at 40-48 Great Portland Street, and, rather more frequently, drank at The George pub on the corner with Mortimer Street. This was known among exasperated musical directors as The Gluepot, because of the difficulty they had in extracting players from its depths at the end of rehearsal breaks.

Coates seems to have been blessed with a keen awareness of his own abilities, and how far they extended. When Frederick Corder, his composition tutor at the RAM, asked him to sketch out an idea for a symphony, Coates replied, ‘Oh I can’t do symphonies.’ Light music was what he was good at, and so the two of them spent the rest of the tutorial discussing Arthur Sullivan’s comic operas.

On the other hand, Coates could be doggedly protective of his own music. Years later when he overheard one of the assistants at Chappell’s on Bond Street telling a customer that Coates’ work wasn’t up to much, he protested to the director. The assistant was sacked and sales of Coates’ sheet music began to climb.

And though he loved hearing his tunes being banged out on a pub piano, listening to them being mauled by a bishop was quite another matter. One day in the gents at Oxford Circus tube station he saw an elderly cleric in purple disappear into one of the stalls. Then a sound emerged which Coates eventually recognised as his own Knightsbridge march. ‘Excuse me, but this is how it should go,’ he announced when the bishop resurfaced. And he proceeded to hum the tune.

Though his compositions were beginning to be popular, Coates continued playing viola at the Queen’s Hall. Built in 1893, this was Britain’s premier concert venue, home to the promenade concerts since 1895. In 1912 Coates was promoted to principal violist, and in this role he eventually clashed with Sir Henry Wood, the QHO’s conductor. Wood, incidentally, was another musician who knew Fitzrovia well. He was born at 413a Oxford Street (now 59), grew up in rooms over his father’s jewellery and pawnbroking business at 355 (now 185) Oxford Street, and later lived in a flat at 1 Langham Place.

One of Henry Wood’s pet hates was the deputy system. Players would find someone to take their place if they got an engagement which clashed with one of their orchestra’s rehearsals. When Wood banned the system, 40 members of the QHO walked out in protest and set up their own orchestra, which they named the London Symphony Orchestra.

QHO players still used deputies if they thought they could get away with it. Coates once accepted an invitation to conduct one of his own compositions at the London Palladium, and found a substitute viola player to rehearse a tricky piece by Richard Strauss with the QHO. But Wood chose this occasion to look over at the violas, and later that evening he gave Eric a sound ticking off. Coates would dearly have loved to give up the viola at this point, but he was married by now and didn’t think he could afford it.

‘Old Timber’ may also have been jealous of Coates. Eric’s son tells a story about a prom concert where the orchestra was playing his father’s ‘Wood Nymphs’, with Coates as usual on the viola. ‘Encore! Encore!’ the audience roared. Wood wasn’t conducting that day, but as he disapproved of encores someone was sent off to ask his permission. Meanwhile the orchestra played ‘Wood Nymphs’ again. Wood couldn’t be found anywhere. When there were more calls for an encore Coates himself went off with the conductor to pound on Wood’s office door. There was definitely someone moving about inside, but no reply came. So they went back and played ‘Wood Nymphs’ for the third and last time.

The following summer, in 1919, Coates received a letter from the manager of the QHO. ‘Sir Henry Wood regrets to inform you that your services will not be required for the forthcoming Promenade season.’ This was a disaster for Coates. He and his wife Phyl were forced to leave their home at Flat 3, Berners Mansions, 34-36 Berners Street, close to the corner of Mortimer Street, and move to a cheap bedsitting room in Hampstead; and Phyl went back to her former work as an actress.

Things slowly improved. In the 1920s and 30s Coates’ work became increasingly successful, especially after he brought some American-style syncopation into his pieces.

When the BBC transmitted his ‘Knightsbridge’ march, the last movement of his London Suite, at the beginning of the radio programme In Town Tonight, they received 20,000 letters in one week asking for the composer’s name. More signature tunes followed. ‘Calling All Workers’  was used to introduce Music While You Work, and ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’, adopted in 1942 with added sea-gulls, still signals the start of Desert Island Discs.

This last piece was famously inspired by a distant view of Bognor one balmy summer’s evening. One of Coates’ last works, the ‘Dam Busters March’, formed the overture for the film The Dam Busters, released in 1955.

Much of Eric’s music reflects the bustle and sounds of London, and ‘Langham Place’ and ‘Oxford Street’, from his London Again Suite, testify to his great love of the West End. The countryside is wonderful for dreaming, he tells us, but London is the place for work.

One day in the 1930s Eric and Phyl bumped into Sir Henry Wood and his wife at the Bournemouth Festival, and they shook hands. ‘Are you still playing the viola, Mr.Coates?’ Lady Wood asked. Coates replied that he hadn’t touched the instrument since the day Sir Henry did him the very great favour of giving him the sack. ‘I would never have had the courage to become a full-time composer without his “help …”, Lady Wood.’

Throughout his career Coates was supported by his much loved wife Phyllis. They had met in 1910 when Eric agreed to join a friend at a concert at the RAM. Hilarious, they thought, when they saw in the programme that Miss Phyllis Black was going to recite a couple of poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson. But as soon as she walked onto the stage Eric knew that she was the one. For the next few days he haunted the Academy, and at long last got an introduction to Phyllis. He took her out to tea, and after a week he proposed. He was 25, while she was only 17. Naturally her parents objected, and they banned the couple from meeting. Overcoming all opposition, Eric and Phyl finally married in 1913. After that they were hardly ever apart, until Eric’s death in 1957.

In 1941 the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb, and after the War the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall. The site of the old Hall, bounded by Langham Place, Great Portland Street and Riding House Street (see a 1916 map below). It is now occupied by the St.George’s Hotel and Henry Wood House (where there is a plaque to it at its Langham Place entrance). Unlike Henry Wood, Coates may not have mourned its passing. He was never able to forget the humiliation of his dismissal from its orchestra. ‘Every time I walked past the place’, he tells us, ‘I used to feel slightly sick.’

Sue Blundell’s play, The Man from the Sleepy Lagoon, a celebration of the life and music of Fitzrovia composer Eric Coates, will be performed at 7pm Sunday 11 June 2017 as part of FitzFest at the King and Queen Public House, 1 Foley Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 6DL. Tickets: £10 plus £1.21 booking fee.

This article was first published in the autumn 2016 printed edition of Fitzrovia News FN142.