Christopher Gunning, British composer who won Baftas for his Poirot theme and the Edith Piaf biopic – obituary

Composer Christopher Gunning conducting an orchestra in 2010 - Alamy
Composer Christopher Gunning conducting an orchestra in 2010 - Alamy

Christopher Gunning, who has died aged 78, won a Bafta award for his evocative score to La Vie en Rose (2007), the Oscar-winning biopic of Edith Piaf, in which he skilfully incorporated some of the French chanteuse’s songs; he also picked up Bafta awards for the music to Porterhouse Blue (1987) with David Jason, Poirot (1989-2004) starring David Suchet, with its memorably sinuous saxophone theme, and the evocative period drama Middlemarch (1994).

Gunning also wrote film scores for the Dick Emery vehicle Ooh… You are Awful (1972), Man About the House (1974) with Richard O’Sullivan and Paula Wilcox, and the harrowing biopic The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981) exploring the Ugandan dictator’s atrocities in the 1970s.

For the small screen his music for The Big Battalions (1992), starring Brian Cox, used different themes to guide the audience around different religions, while his taut and tense score for Dennis Potter’s dystopian drama Cold Lazarus (1996) had viewers on the edge of their seats. For Wild Africa (2001) he visited Tanzania and Morocco to soak up local influences, though much of his music was programmed on a computer rather than recorded with ethnic instruments.

On one occasion he found the film being created for the music rather than the other way round, when he was commissioned by Yorkshire Television to compose Yorkshire Glory (1991), an hour-long portrait of the county with the producers setting images of the region to his sympathetic score.

In Gunning’s telling there was little difference between composing for a work of fiction or a documentary. “The purpose of music is to create mood, drama and atmosphere,” he said. “The task always is to discover the drama in the film and then complement it with music.”

Marion Cotillard as Edith PIaf in the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose - Alamy
Marion Cotillard as Edith PIaf in the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose - Alamy

Christopher Gunning was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on August 5 1944, the son of Alexis Gunning, a South African-born pianist and composer, and his wife Janet (née Bennett), also a pianist; his paternal grandfather, Jan Gunning, founded the Pretoria National Zoo. He was brought up in Hendon, north London, recalling that although money was tight “it was a very lively place with a grand piano, an upright [piano], and reams and reams of music and books”.

By the time he was four he was composing little waltzes, though his interest in film music came from viewing the Disney film Bambi (1942). He studied piano, percussion and composition at the Guildhall School of Music with Brian Trowell, Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, later helping Bennett with the dance and military band music for the film Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).

Before long Gunning was providing backing music for Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black and Mel Tormé, while playing in pubs on the Old Kent Road. Through a friend he met the actor Dudley Moore, who invited him to record a song for his portfolio. “That really was the most generous thing anybody has ever done for me,” Gunning said.

His big break came with the music for Run Away to Sea (1968), a P&O documentary demonstrating the range of activities on a cruise. It was broadcast daily during colour test transmissions for BBC Two, providing a lucrative source of royalties. Meanwhile, he nurtured the London advertising agencies, composing themes for campaigns including Black Magic, Lloyd’s Bank and Martini, which received a Clio Award.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in ITV's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Poirot stories - ITV/Shutterstock
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in ITV's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Poirot stories - ITV/Shutterstock

Gunning’s first feature-film score, for the 1970 psychological horror Goodbye Gemini, starring Michael Redgrave and Judy Geeson, proved stressful, and for several days he struggled over the music for a ritual murder sequence. The Hammer film Hands of the Ripper (1971) was little better, with almost all his music being sent back for changes. He eventually got into his stride, later producing an elegant score for When the Whales Come (1989), based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel Why the Whales Came.

In the early 2000s he made a conscious shift to the concert hall, applying himself to a saxophone concerto, On Hungerford Bridge, for John Harle that was inspired by hearing a busking saxophonist during a summer evening walk to the South Bank. He composed more than a dozen impressively fluent symphonies, a series of deftly crafted concertos and various ensemble works such as The Lobster, which has been recorded by the Mephisto Ensemble.

In 2011 Chandos released a collection of Gunning’s screen music that includes the Scarborough Fair folk-song theme from the gentle crime series Rosemary and Thyme, starring Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris. Also on the disc is his music for the miniseries Rebecca, for which he won an Ivor Novello Award, as he did for the films Under Suspicion (1991) and Firelight (1997).

He lived with a Bechstein piano and his Border Collie, Sasha, in an old railway house with a large garden in Hertfordshire. Being long and narrow, it was the ideal home for a musician. “I can make as much noise as I want and I don’t need to worry about bothering anyone,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

Christopher Gunning married Annie (née Farrow) in 1974. That was dissolved, and in 2004 he married Svitlana Turtchyna. She survives him with four daughters from his first marriage, including the oboist Verity, for whom he wrote a piquant concerto as a Christmas gift.

Christopher Gunning, born August 5 1944, died March 25 2023