Raymond Agoult and his Players

Raymond Agoult and his Players were a popular ingredient in 'Music While You Work' from the mid-fifties onwards, but little is known about the man behind the music — even to his own musicians! I have to admit that whilst I met Raymond on a number of occasions, I never found out much about him. The fact that he spoke only broken English didn't exactly help.

Although one of his musicians told me that he believed Raymond to have hailed from Alsace, some documentary evidence suggests that he was born in Hungary on the 1st of July 1911. It was in 1954 that Raymond Agoult came to the attention of the BBC, mainly through his work in the theatre; the BBC was seeking a new conductor for their Scottish Variety Orchestra and Raymond Agoult was considered to be 'head and shoulders', musically speaking, above others under consideration. However, it was difficult to entice musicians away from lucrative work in London to work in the provinces, so the job went to Michael Collins. The BBC subsequently invited Agoult to form a light orchestra for use in 'Morning Music' and 'Music While You Work'.

Although initially made up of 20 players, the orchestra was soon reduced to 16 musicians and re-titled Raymond Agoult and his Players. It consisted of strings, woodwind, piano, percussion and a French horn which featured prominently. The Players had a highly distinctive style; most of the arrangements, which were often quirky and full of humour, were penned by the maestro.

For example, if a piece happened to have a French title, such as 'Ca C'est Paris', Raymond Agoult could not resist inserting fragments of 'The Marseillaise' and the 'Can Can'! His arrangement of 'Calling All Workers', the signature tune of 'Music While You Work' had a piccolo and xylophone motif running through it which was apparently made up by using Raymond's initials — R.A. in Morse code. This certainly gave a new meaning to the term 'signature tune'!

Raymond Agoult was a prolific composer, his best-known titles being 'La Canniebiere', 'Honouring the Haggis', 'Madame Guillotine' and 'Betty Dear', which was dedicated to his wife.

Raymond Agoult's Players gave their final broadcast in November 1966, as part of the BBC's policy of removing what were termed 'outside light orchestras' from the airwaves. However, Raymond was destined to broadcast for several more years, conducting the BBC Staff Orchestras. The Raymond Agoult Light Orchestra - in truth, a section of the BBC Radio Orchestra, appeared in 'Breakfast Special' on a number of occasions. He conducted the Radio Orchestra for 'Semprini Serenade' and 'Fanfare', the London Studio Strings for 'Morning Melody' on Radio 4, the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra for 'Sunday Special', 'Accent on Melody', 'The Charlie Chester Show' and 'Breakfast Special', and the Northern Ireland Orchestra for 'The Early Show', 'The John Dunn Show' and Friday Night is Music Night'.

He also formed Raymond Agoult's Master Band - in essence, a military band, for 'Listen to the Band', 'Brass and Strings' and 'Friday Night is Music Night'. It proved to be an effective vehicle for the maestro's rumbustuous and tongue in cheek arrangements. Apparently some of the more conservative -minded musicians who played for Raymond were less than impressed with his imaginative but sometimes disrespectful treatment of well-known pieces, which they deemed 'vulgar'! Well, maybe they were, but they were great fun and ,even today, when I listen to his music, I can imagine his deep, gutteral chuckle as he penned the arrangements. He did an arrangement of a tango in which the French Horn player was required to hold the same note for 15 seconds without taking a breath. No doubt the maestro would have derived some slightly sadistic pleasure at the sight of the musician gradually turning purple. I remember asking Raymond about his arrangement of 'Waltzing Matilda' in which there is a passage which sounds like a tape recorder playing backwards!

He said 'Ah yes! My oboe player - he hates me. I make him tongue the reed. Ha ha ha !'

In 1971, Raymond Agoult had a serious accident, when he fell down some stone steps late at night; he was apparently unconscious for weeks. When he recovered, the BBC were apprehensive as to whether he would still be able to conduct, as his speech was now somewhat slower. He did, however, get a few more broadcasts, his final one being in 1985, conducting The Gentlemen of Brass in 'Listen to the Band'.

I think it was about 1982 when I spotted Raymond Agoult walking in London’s St James's Park. By an extraordinary coincidence (and this really is the truth), I just happened to have with me a cassette player and a tape of one of Raymond's 85 MWYW broadcasts. So, I crept up behind him and switched on the player. He listened in silence for a few minutes before bursting forth "My sound! My sound! I never thought that I would hear it again!" Needless to say, he asked for a copy of the tape because, in common with many musicians, he had never thought to record any of his broadcasts.

Raymond Agoult died on 20th July 1992 aged 81.

Click here!
Listen to 'Music While You Work' played by Raymond Agoult and his Players
as broadcast on The Home Service on 16th December 1961.

played by Raymond Agoult and his Players
at 10.31 a.m. on 16th December 1961

Calling All Workers (sig)
Ad Infinitum
Runaway Romance
Piping Hot
The Laughing Seine
House of Bamboo
Little Shepherd Boy
Page Boy
Boutade Basque
Tulip Chimes
La Cannebiere
Ca C'est Paris
Honouring the Haggis
Calling All Workers (sig)

MELODY ON THE MOVE - 14th August 1959
played by Raymond Agoult and his Players

Sig: Melody on the Move
Highland Laddie
La Cuna
Monty's Double
Swannee Whistler
Highland Scene
Belle of the Ball
Elizabeth of Glamis
Charm Waltz
Gay Guillotine
La Cannebiere
Waltz at Maxim's
Carnival Fairy Czardas
Sig: Melody on the Move
Clive Richardson
E. Waldteufel
Trad: arr. Reg Tilsley
J. Addison
Robert Docker
Leroy Anderson
Eric Coates
R. Aspar
Raymond Agoult
Raymond Agoult
Frederick Loewe
Clive Richardson

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Text by Brian Reynolds : e-mail brian@mastersofmelody.co.uk