The Servant

Give Me My Death

In 1960, John Dankworth made a name for himself in the world of film, scoring SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and THE CRIMINAL, his first for director Joseph Losey, an American who had fled to England to escape the Blacklist. But it was Dankworth’s second collaboration with Losey, THE SERVANT (1963), that cemented his reputation as a film composer.

With a screenplay by Harold Pinter, the film stars Dirk Bogarde in a vicious game of cat and mouse that pits manservant against master (James Fox). The film (which also stars Wendy Craig and Sylvia Miles) is structured in patterns of four, accompanying the characters’ descent into madness and degradation. Losey’s biographer, David Caute, wrote that Dankworth’s score displayed “a haunting quality of hedonism and lament.”

Dankworth’s four-note theme alternates between string and saxophone quartets, and evolves from lush to atonal. “I didn’t want [the theme] to be too sweet, but I didn’t want it to sound too sort of po-faced either,” said Dankworth in a 2006 interview.

One of the highlights of the score is the song “All Gone,” sung by Cleo Laine (Dankworth’s wife). In a 1976 interview, Dankworth said, “The idea was that the same song should change imperceptibly to spell out the degeneration of the situation. The first time the song was played, it was quite straightforward, then it crept into the minor key, then it came with interjections from tenor sax and in the last case it was done in almost an atonal way with Cleo singing right through what was in those days a cacophonous background.”

Dankworth said Pinter’s lyrics “directly relate to the film and the tawdry things that happen in it…I asked Harold whether he would consider rewriting the lyric in a way that it could be performed separately from the film…He said, ‘No. For what reason?’ I said, ‘Just so it might get more performances and you might be a more famous lyricist than you are at the moment,’ or something trivial like that. He never came up with anything, but there again I can’t imagine what lyrics a Nobel Literature Prize winner would come up with!”

Bogarde won the BAFTA as Best Actor for his subtle performance. THE SERVANT is a truly disturbing film, and one I find hard to forget.

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