Interview: Monty Norman is still happy to be known for the James Bond theme

AFTER a lifetime of making music, Monty Norman is still happy to be known as the man who wrote “dum-di-di-dum-dum”, he tells Ruth Walker

AFTER a lifetime of making music, Monty Norman is still happy to be known as the man who wrote “dum-di-di-dum-dum”, he tells Ruth Walker

Fifty years ago, a beautiful but unknown Swiss actress walked out of the Caribbean sea into history. Dressed in a now-legendary bikini, you might not remember much else about that unforgettably sexy scene from Dr No. But Ursula Andress was singing a happy little ditty at the time that went by the name of Under The Mango Tree.

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That particular song – and the rest of the film’s score, including the theme tune that has played a part in every Bond outing since – was written and composed by Monty Norman, who might never even have been involved in the project had he not been offered a freebie holiday.

Now “a very young 84”, he says: “Cubby Broccoli rang me and said he and his new partner Harry Saltzman had just acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and were going to turn them into films. Would I like to do the first one?

“I was very busy at that time with two stage musicals and a theme for a film. I was just about to say, ‘Give me some time to think about it,’ then Harry said, ‘Why don’t you come to Jamaica with us? We’re going to do all the location work there. You can get the feel of the Caribbean, write some of the Caribbean songs and get the whole essence of the place. Bring your wife, all expenses paid.’ And that was the clincher.

“At the time I thought, ‘Even if Dr No’s a flop, we’ll still have a sun, sea and sand holiday.’”

Walking out of Broccoli’s offices, he remembers, one of the producer’s assistants took him aside and said: “See if you can do a good theme because I reckon we’re going to get two films and a television series out of it.”

“That sounded like a lot,” laughs the composer now. “It’s impossible. It’s amazing the franchise has gone on for 50 years. And it’s amazing that I’m still here.”

At the time – this was 1962, remember, the days before accessible long-haul travel – Jamaica was an exotic, faraway paradise. It took 20 hours for the chartered flight to get there, with a stop-off in New York. “All the technicians and everybody from the British side who were working on the film were on this plane,” says Norman. “It was like a showbiz party. By the time we got there we were practically under the floor.”

He spent three weeks soaking up the atmosphere, getting to know the stars and crew and writing a score that would become globally recognised – and occasionally fought over in the courts. “The whole feeling was one of camaraderie,” he says. “Connery was totally unknown, a very nice guy. He was quite diffident at the time and pretty silent because I think he realised this was an important moment for him.

“I had to teach Sean and Ursula Andress the song for when she comes out of the water – that iconic scene. She was a very beautiful woman. And I remember she had a very strong accent.”

The Bond theme, which has now been recorded 500 times and sold more than 30 million copies, just happened to be a little number he’d had stashed away – one that had been written for another musical that never happened. “It was set in the Indian community in Trinidad,” says Norman, “and so had a very Asian quality. But after the first draft we realised it would be impossible, in the late 1950s, early 1960s, to get a full Asian/West Indian cast in London.”

However, by splitting the notes and removing what he calls the “Asian sweep”, what started out as “a little Indian-type song” became the music we all recognise today. “From the moment I did that I knew I had the James Bond theme. I wanted the character, the mystery, the atmosphere and it was all there.”

However, he has had to defend his authorship twice as others have tried to claim the credit. “There’s an old saying in showbiz: nobody argues over a flop. And that’s pretty true. The first time was hilarious. One of those little music papers said Monty Norman hadn’t written the Bond theme tune but had bought it from a Jamaican for $100. I said, ‘If you can find that Jamaican I’d like to buy some more from him.’

“And there was a big case that went on and on for over two years [with the musical arranger John Barry] and it could have been easily sorted out but wasn’t. We finished in the High Court and, to cut a long story short, the judge, jury, all unanimously said I’d written the James Bond theme and that was the end of it.”

Having seen all the films in the franchise, he still, unsurprisingly, has a soft spot for Dr No. “They now have a digitalised version of it because, of course, we did it in mono originally, and I felt a bit of trepidation before watching it, wondering, ‘Is this going to stand up?’ And it really did. It was all absolutely fresh. Sean is so good in it. I remember going to the rushes in Jamaica and thinking, ‘This guy is going to be a star, without question.’ He had that quality.”

Since Bond, Norman has worked mainly in theatre, has received the coveted Gold Badge of Merit for services to British music, and has been nominated for awards including the Ivor Novello, Laurence Olivier, Tony and Golden Globes. I wonder, then, if he is a little resentful that he is still best known for a piece of music he composed 50 years ago on a beach in Jamaica.

“You can’t possibly be resentful of it,” he says. “People in the business who know me know what I do. For everyone else, that’s the way it works. And that’s OK.”

• To watch a short film in which Monty Norman explains how he composed the James Bond theme tune, go to swts.oldsite.jpimedia.uk/artsblog