I was cross once and made her cry. I didn’t intend to, and I regretted it immediately — the second she gripped the edge of the kitchenette and her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears. But I had been filled with fury for a while, vented my anger about her to friends, unable to contain this rage inside of me, like an alien body that had taken possession and simply wouldn’t let go until I had confronted her — she, the object of my anger. It was an outburst that was inevitable. In truth, many of her actions exasperated me, made me want to run away screaming, grind my teeth until they were blunt stumps.
But I was also terribly fond of her, this somewhat eccentric elderly lady whose story needs to be told. In hindsight, I think my confrontation cemented the trust she put in me. I never told her what I knew she wanted to hear. It was conversations like these – angry ones, enervating ones, charming and heartfelt but always honest – that eventually made her open up, entrust me with her story. “Promise me you won’t tell anybody, Stephan. When I’m dead you can do whatever you want.”
The Bittersweet Story of Roy and Sylvia Budd
by Stephan Eicke
In 2014, I met a person who – unbeknownst to me then – had led a thoroughly complicated, messy and at times even disturbing life. She was somebody who had suffered repeatedly, while at times she was her own worst enemy, the person who struck the most forceful blows against herself. It was only shortly before her passing that I began to understand her — the reasons for her behaviour that at times left me incredulous, agitated and angry. I began to see the enemy that lived inside her. I even began to admire her. Considering the events she had lived through, she was to me, perplexingly stoic. None of her statements were more surprising than the one she delivered while lying in bed in a care home, her blood sick with cancer, her face puffy from medication: “Life is beautiful, Stephan.” Actions that had previously led me to judge her unfavourably began to hold less significance, to fade into the darkness that was her background. I saw how a vicious circle had developed, a maelstrom of past events that informed her recent decisions, which in turn worsened her situation by isolating her further.
In the spring of 2014, having recently overcome a crippling depression that had lasted for more than a year, I travelled from a small town in Germany to London. Eager to compile a definitive article on composer Roy Budd for a music magazine I was editing at the time, I had arranged an interview with the composer’s widow, Sylvia. Like many widows, she hated that word. As I grew to know her better, I made it a habit to use ‘wife’ as opposed to the other w-word, the bad one.
What had attracted me to Roy Budd’s music was its freshness, its elegance and perplexingly catchy melodies. Although he toured the world as a jazz pianist, and infused his music with South American influences as well as with homages to his hero, the American pianist Oscar Peterson, Roy’s music always struck me as particularly British. There was no better accompaniment for walking around Hyde Park than the witty and colourfully arranged I Think I’m Being Followed. In its transparent orchestration it was effortless music. Some forty years after it was written, his music still appeared fresh — timeless. Sylvia’s homepage on Roy, which she had put online only shortly before I met her, proved a good starting point for my research. Although Sylvia’s biography of her late husband was sketchy, it was an invaluable resource.
A Piano Prodigy from the age of three, Jazz was Roy Budd’s first love. From that age, when he was already tapping Knees Up Mother Brown with one finger, the piano effortlessly remained his favourite instrument.
“I have no idea of how the music comes. When I hear a tune I just sit down at the piano and the music flows from my fingers.” Roy, aged 10 (1957)
Self-taught, Roy had already won several contests. In 1952 he met one of his favourite pianists, Winifred Atwell, who was staggered as she listened to him playing on one of her own pianos in her own inimitable style. She said, “I’ve never seen anything like it, his sense of rhythm is superb. There’s a real genius here all right”. […]
A few months later in 1953 he made his official debut, performing at the renowned London Coliseum, on the same bill as Bernard Braden & Barbara Kelly, Elaine Delmar and Roy Castle. In the early 50s, the great entertainer Liberace came to hear of a young piano player in London, who, according to Winnie Atwell, was playing the piano in his distinctive style. Winnie was of course talking about Roy, and Liberace decided that he had to meet him, so [he] sent tickets to Roy and his parents so they could meet after his next show in the UK.
Sylvia had also restored and produced both a CD and a DVD of Roy’s last work, The Phantom of the Opera. Barely advertised, I had one day stumbled across it on Amazon. I had thought I knew a fair bit about Roy’s life, the essential data. Born in 1947 to working-class parents in Croydon, the freckled, curly-haired boy was a child prodigy who had composed, arranged and conducted his first film score – Soldier Blue – at the age of only 22. Years before he had already formed a jazz trio that would endure until his passing. I had watched Roy’s biggest commercial success, Mike Hodges’ film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, a gritty adaptation of Ted Lewis’ noirish gangster story. I also suspected that his music seemed to have fallen out of fashion with film producers in the early 80s, when his filmography thinned out noticeably. Was his the typical child prodigy’s life story? In The Queen’s Gambit, chess teacher Mr. Shaibel explains to Elizabeth Harmon, the young girl who will turn out to be an unparalleled genius at the game: “People like you have a hard time; two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift… and you’ve got what it costs. Hard to say for you what that will be.”
Prior to our meeting, Sylvia Budd insisted on receiving a list of questions. Those being interviewed like to pretend they need them for preparation. In truth, they are often curious to see which direction you want to go in, and whether they will sanction your ideas or, under a pretence, withdraw from the interview agreement. Sending questions beforehand often takes the life out of the eventual conversation —everything is planned, nothing is spontaneous.
Weary of such requests, I sent some questions anyway, eager to learn more about this man’s life. Much to my surprise, Sylvia sent back some answers a few days later, only a few of which successfully masked her irritation. Now, seven years later, I can see how upset she must have been about some of my questions. (When I asked about whether it was true Roy had paid for the performance of his symphonic work The Phantom of the Opera himself, her curt reply was “I don’t wish to comment further on this.”) I had invaded her privacy and stuck my nose into things that were none of my business. I can picture her, staring at her screen, then turning to her assistant, her voice rising: “Why does he want to know that?”
“On his website you write: “Roy had already been through emotions that are normally only experienced in adult life especially when, aged 6½, he was spending most of his weekends playing the piano for all kinds of charities so had no choice but to mature rapidly.” Did it ever seem that Roy Budd was trying to catch up with his lost childhood in later life? For example, was he especially playful as a person?”
No, it is not that at all, but in consequence he did develop a very sensitive personality.
“Roy Budd is most famous for his jazz-music yet he did write a few symphonic works as well – did Mr Budd feel underrated as a “classical” composer of symphonic music and was that one of the reasons he was so passionate about PHANTOM OF THE OPERA?”
As far as I know, Roy never felt underrated either as a classical composer or as a young jazz musician. What he enjoyed most was the romanticism and mystery of The Phantom of the Opera and this particular interest had started when he was very young, at about the age of eleven.
We were to meet at the Hilton Plaza in Victoria, close to her home. Previous experiences had taught me that composers’ widows are reluctant to volunteer information about their husbands, whose work it was now their mission to protect. They become gatekeepers. Sylvia Budd was no exception. An elegant, refined lady of indeterminable age, carrying with her a noblesse oblige and speaking with a heavy French accent, she was kind and charming, but at first selective in her answers, while she was trying to determine whether I was someone she could trust.
Gradually, she loosened up, telling me at first about her late husband’s approach to his compositions, his childhood as a prodigy at the piano and his first successes in film and television — before she veered into darker territory, telling about his anxiety disorder, his drinking and financial problems towards the end of his life.
Sylvia Budd was distant at first, but never cold. She wanted to be in command, and used my advance questions to guide the interview. Her looks were deceiving — shoulder-length blonde hair, mild blue eyes, high cheekbones, a slim figure. She seemed innocent, even fragile at first glance, but her shell nevertheless was hard. She was full of contradictions.
Wisely, I had decided to omit any questions about Roy Budd’s previous marriage, a high-profile relationship with the singer Caterina Valente, a superstar in the Germany of the 60s and 70s. Some months later, as Sylvia and I got closer, she confessed that she had cut the paragraph about Roy’s first marriage in my profile of him in the magazine Cinema Musica before sending the article to friends and acquaintances. When I made the mistake again, mentioning his first marriage in a booklet I wrote a few years later, she sat me down and sternly told me how disappointed she was about my lapse of judgement, which doubtlessly she considered disrespectful towards herself. Of course, I had meant no harm, but I also have little patience for censorship. I consciously did not apologise but appeared insecure and understanding enough to calm her down so that she forgave me. Later, when we prepared an inventory for Roy’s unreleased recordings that were in her possession, Sylvia found some tapes of Valente’s playing with her then husband. “Ugh, this is ‘Madame’,” Sylvia would exclaim, tossing the tapes into a corner, refusing to include them in our catalogue.
That particular competitiveness, a harsh judgement, had shown itself already in our interview. Between white and black there existed very little grey. Only few people, long dead and mere shadows in her life, did she after careful consideration describe in a way that included their flaws and strengths, and yet did so in a tone that suggested she had spoken of them many times like that for several years to everybody who asked.
Stephan Eicke: Roy taught himself the piano by ear. His parents weren’t musical. I am wondering what his relationship with them was.
S.B.: They were wonderful people. In his childhood they did not realise that it was too much for a little boy to do that. His father was writing down all the names of the places where Roy played, weekend after weekend, sometimes twice a week. This little boy was playing in jails, in mental health institutes. We said everything to each other which is so important for a couple. We talked about our childhoods and our regrets and the pain you can have along your life. He was saying, ‘I would not say this to my parents but sometimes I was terrified.’ He was only six, seven years old. He was playing and they were just in front of his piano. Come on, you have to know what a little kid he was. Not good.
S.E.: Roy then got his first agent, Douglas Stanley, when he was still a teenager. In 1967, he produced Roy’s first LP, Roy Budd at Newport. What was their relationship like?
S.B.: They were good friends. This gentleman was so correct with Roy on every level. Roy was extremely young at the time and got some notes saying, ‘You have an important appointment tomorrow. Don’t forget to shine your shoes.’ He was like a father to Roy. He was very sweet, a lovely man.
Listening back to the recording, I notice how eager I was to prove myself to her as a knowledgeable aficionado of her husband’s work. Finishing sentences for her, I constantly interrupt her like a guest on a game show who already knows the answer before he has heard the whole question. Getting to know each other better changed the dynamic slightly. Sometimes it would be Sylvia then who would indulge me against her better instincts. When an email popped into her digital folder, a stranger requesting material she never wished to share, she would carefully draft an elaborate response in her head about how busy she was, what her current projects were and where said material was stored. Like a dog owner pulling on a leash, I would suggest she should make herself as small a target as possible by replying with only the barest essentials. “Yes. You are so mature,” she would sigh, and for a fleeting moment give me an incredulous look. Viewing any request from concert organisers, CD labels or even her late husband’s fans as an intrusion, her natural instinct was to roll a heavy stone in front of her door like the Cyclops did in The Odyssey and simply to block everything. She would rather let tapes and manuscripts rot than share them with the world. It would lead to several arguments over the years, eventually to her grabbing the edge of the kitchenette, her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.
At the end of that first meeting, after about an hour, we bid each other farewell. I left for Germany to write my profile of her late husband, which I had promised to send her as soon as it was published. While compiling this short biography, sifting through various previous published articles, studying liner notes and listening to Roy’s music again, I sent Sylvia a few follow-up questions in the middle of that July. She answered them patiently.
The article was finally published in the autumn of 2014, spanning eight pages, dense with text, including photographs kindly provided by Sylvia and her assistant. Dutifully I fulfilled my promise and sent Sylvia a few copies of the magazine, which included a colourful, loving cartoon of her husband which our sketch artist had drawn up and which Sylvia loved so much she instantly ordered a copy to have framed and hung on one of her walls. A few weeks later she proudly announced she had had my profile on her husband translated into English and sent it to all her friends and acquaintances, so delighted was she to finally hold in her hands what she considered the “definitive” work about Roy Budd’s life and career. It was a manic response, and she would praise my article nearly every time I would see her in the following years. As I would find out, you only want to be lauded so much for any one of your works.
Get the Wunderkind – excerpt
by Stephan Eicke
Still barely a teenager, Budd came across Chris Karan and Pete Morgan who were playing in Dudley Moore’s trio. He quickly became friends with the group’s founder. This friendship with the actor and musician Moore, with whom he often played music in his free time at home, and also his collaboration with the drummer Karan and bassist Morgan, lasted till the end of his life. Certainly his career would have taken a different path without the two jazz musicians; it was Karan and Morgan who gave Budd’s compositions their catchy sound. The trio, which carried on performing for over 40 years, welded together by reciprocal respect and close friendship, can be heard in film music and on many discs. The three musicians appeared in clubs, hotels and even in army camps five days a week. At the same time Budd became resident pianist at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, often accompanied by Pete Morgan on bass. The busy pianist soon caught the attention of the composer Jack Fishman, who provided a contact to the British record label Pye Records; it brought out his first single Birth of the Budd, his own composition, in 1965. [Roy was 17 years old.]
Sylvia and I stayed in touch after she had read my article. Unsure about what to do with myself, and seeing no future for myself in Germany, I moved to London in early 2015. One of the first people I reconnected with was Sylvia. I wasn’t being entirely altruistic. Only a few years prior I had started my own CD label, Caldera Records, and I was eager to put out a few scores by Roy Budd. As Sylvia had claimed in our interview, she held all of Roy’s tape recordings: “Nothing is lost!”. If anybody wanted to get their hands on this treasure trove, there was no way around Sylvia.
We met again at the Hilton Plaza, where I was treated to a hot chocolate. Sylvia, fashionably dressed in black trousers, a light shirt and a conspicuously worn but still expensive looking Chanel cardigan, seemed open to collaborating with me on a premier CD release of one of her husband’s works, the score for the film Wild Geese II. I had proven myself to her both as a writer and genuine admirer of her husband’s work. Perhaps more importantly, a French label had recently released a score of Roy’s without Sylvia’s involvement – much to her chagrin. I realised she preferred being involved in CD productions rather than being passed over, only to then become aware of a project by stumbling upon it via Google.
Working with Sylvia proved to be an uphill battle. Although she seemed to trust me enough to meet with me and discuss a preliminary concept for a possible CD, it would take years to release the physical product. Sylvia was cagey. I needed more biographical information about Roy, his involvement on Wild Geese II, wanted photographs and proof that it was indeed Sylvia who owned the master rights to the score, and not a third party. Everything took a very long time.
Until I handed her the finished product, I was never sure whether she really trusted me. When I started working as her personal assistant in 2016, I immediately understood I wasn’t the only one with such doubts. Sylvia didn’t trust anybody, especially not when it came to CD releases. One of the reasons why she had refused to speak with journalists, catalogue Roy’s tapes, or promote any work other than The Phantom of the Opera, was that both Roy and herself had been betrayed for decades; driven to financial ruin and threatened with countless lawsuits. As she eventually confided, cautiously, because “I could get in real danger,” it all had to do with the “cancer in Roy’s life”: his agent Jack Fishman, Douglas Stanley’s successor.
Fishman was not a father-figure.
They Fly Again – excerpt
Liner notes for the CD release of Roy Budd’s Wild Geese II
by Stephan Eicke
In 1966, Budd’s manager Douglas Stanley arranged for the Roy Budd trio to appear at the “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” on the return of the pianist to London; this was to be the definitive breakthrough for the three musicians. Tony Hatch, at that time producer of the popular singer Petula Clark, was so taken by the jazz musicians’ playing that he offered them a fixed contract on his Pye Records label which went on to issue the first album with Budd, Karan and Morgan.
Towards the end of the 1960s Roy Budd’s manager and close confidant Douglas Stanley decided to emigrate to Australia. His decision proved fatal for his client, for Budd not only lost a father figure he could trust but also a reliable agent whose successor had yet to be found. In contrast to his predecessor Douglas Stanley, his new manager mercilessly exploited Budd’s inexperience in legal matters and got him to sign contracts which guaranteed him 75% of the musician’s earnings. The film music writer earned only a small fraction of what was actually due to him. Roy Budd’s good nature had led him into a trap from which he was only able to free himself by separating from his manager in the early 1980s.
I was astonished when Sylvia allowed me to enter her ‘lair’, a small, dingy, one bedroom basement flat in London Victoria. Surely, the wife of a successful composer and pianist who had produced many bestselling jazz albums and scored around 20 major feature film productions in the 70s could lead a luxurious life by living on royalties alone. The truth of the matter was, Sylvia barely had any money, living frugally on porridge in the mornings, a modest lunch prepared in her tiny kitchen, and possibly a sandwich for dinner. She never bought any new clothes, didn’t throw lavish parties, hardly went out. How was this possible?
In early 2016, she had asked me whether I knew somebody who could work as her personal assistant, her second, since she was already working with a young woman who helped draft emails and reply to urgent correspondence. Since Sylvia was now preparing a concert devoted to her husband’s music for The Phantom of the Opera she needed some additional help. But, as she said without missing a beat, she could not pay much. How was this possible?
A few weeks after her request, which I spent by thinking of various people who could qualify, I quit my first job in London and decided to work part time for a news agency. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could assist Sylvia. We knew each other, and the fact that she had raised the issue indicated she might have thought of me in the first place but hadn’t dared to ask outright. We arranged another meeting at the Hilton Plaza, and I offered her my services. After a brief pause, she agreed to “give it a try,” sounding much less enthusiastic than I had expected.
Thus I became one of the few people she let into her flat. By now I knew she was notoriously private. When I stepped into her living room, it seemed as if the clocks had stopped in 1993, the year her Roy died. The place was so cluttered that there was hardly anywhere to sit. On a beige sofa-bed, Mishka, a small, tattered, ailing teddy bear Roy had given her, kept guard. The living room table was occupied by troves of folders and boxes, bursting with documents. Underneath, more folders and boxes. To the right, behind the couch, paperboard containers with hundreds of Phantom of the Opera CDs and DVDs, stock from the release she had issued on her own Mishka label. To the left, along the narrow hallway between entrance and living room, more containers of DVDs and CDs. Next to the couch, inside what looked like a table but was just an old wooden box covered with a beige blanket, more papers, folders, files. Inside the drawers beneath the television set, whole rows of red, green and yellow boxes containing Roy’s contracts, correspondence, clippings. There were also several audio tapes, recordings of radio interviews Roy had given over the years, in which he talked with a boyish mischievousness in his voice about his work in film.
Composer of the Week
Interview with Roy Budd, broadcast on BBC Radio 2
Question: Moving on to Soldier Blue. I think you look back favourably that one as well.
Roy Budd: That was a piece of luck, sheer skulduggery how I got that done. Ralph Nelson who had directed it, was finishing the picture. It was about Americans wiping out some existing Indians. […] [Ralph] wanted to do another picture called Flight of the Doves in Ireland. So he brought the film back here, to Britain, to score, to write the music for. He wanted an English composer. He wanted to back away from any political flag. I had never scored a film before but I was such a fan of films and was convinced I could do it by sheer instinct. I sent him a tape compilation of all the things I had written. The only slight lie was I hadn’t written any of them. I taped some pieces of Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, Henry Mancini – all of the great ones. I was careful. I didn’t tape any of the well known bits of music so anybody could tie them in.
When I saw the film I was very impressed. I was sitting with him. I was nervous of course. At the end there is a camera that goes round the graves of the Indians and he said, ‘What kind of music would you put on that?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t put any music on that. Silence speaks much louder.’ I got the job. Of course if I hadn’t got the job he would have turned down Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini. (laughs) He doesn’t know the story.
Sylvia had brought me onboard particularly to help set up the first of what would be two Phantom of the Opera concerts. An orchestra had already been contracted, a sponsor secured, a venue decided upon. Since Sylvia and her team of co-producers still needed a technical adviser for the concert, they had arranged a meeting with a concert promoter and host from London. Before he had left the meeting he had winked at Sylvia’s young assistant, a shy and insecure woman, one of those people who would blush if you did only so much as ask them for the time. All was clear to Sylvia: her assistant had conspired with the promoter to take the Phantom away from her to enrich themselves. Similarly, after the first concert performance, some months after I was hired, Roy’s brother sent Sylvia an email, inquiring about her well-being following the event. To her his only motivation could be that he wanted “a piece of the pie” and had closed a secret backhand deal with Sylvia’s concert producer to wrestle the Phantom from her control. Another time, when Sylvia left her flat in broad daylight only to return ten minutes later she found her door slightly ajar. “I was burgled,” she exclaimed to me later. Nothing had been taken. That the lock might not have closed fully or that she had simply forgotten to turn the key never occurred to her. “I was burgled!”
It would take months to gain Sylvia’s trust, and she could turn on you in the blink of an eye. Roy’s second agent Jack Fishman had indubitably contributed to a sense of paranoia that appeared to have deep roots in Sylvia’s soul. Later, I would learn that this paranoia – often reminding me of Gene Hackman’s troubling visions in Coppola’s The Conversation – had many terrifying sources. It also had terrifying consequences: she fired her assistant, whom she was convinced was about to betray her — if she hadn’t already. All of Sylvia’s demons were at play: paranoia and insecurity that pulled her in all directions. She was appalled yet unsure about what course of action to take until I urged her to speak with her assistant directly, as opposed to complaining about her to me. She was just as hesitant with other matters. Each time she would receive a royalty cheque from Sony in the States, or a money transfer from PRS, the British music copyright collective – as a mere pittance of no more than a few hundred pounds – I urged her to finally clear up the mess that was Roy’s royalty payments. Among her memories of Roy was a revealing testament to Jack Fishman’s tortuous business practices that made sense of her reluctance to trust anybody ever again, and that partly explained why Roy never employed an agent again. As a result, his career was essentially over by the early 80s.
Roy Budd – Testimony by Don Gallacher
I was first introduced to Roy Budd in 1985 by a mutual colleague in the film industry. At that time I was running a copyright and business affairs consultancy for the music and film industries. […] In July of 1986, Roy asked me to start looking into the registrations of his music at the Performing Right Society (“PRS”). On many occasions – indeed on every occasion – that Roy and I met he talked of his disappointment and deep unhappiness at his dealings with Jack Fishman (“JF”). […] Roy told me that, although JF had never composed a note of any of the film music that Roy had been commissioned to write, JF appeared to be collecting royalties as if JF had indeed co-written with Roy. […] I was able to determine that in the case of many of these [music] cue sheets [that were registered with PRS], the original typed information had been amended in writing. Prior to the amendments all the music had been 100% written by Roy Budd. Subsequent to the amendments Jack Fishman was credited with various shares of music cues. […] When I questioned PRS staff about these changes, they said that they had simply taken the word of JF. […] I asked Roy if he wanted me to pursue a counterclaim for his music works to be registered to their original 100% in Roy’s favour. He asked me how much of my time it would take and how much it would cost. […] I hope at this stage that I am not revealing a confidence, but Roy had serious financial problems at the time which came as a shock to me as – having studied his PRS works catalogue – he should have been receiving substantial PRS and MCPS income as well as record royalties. […]
Don Gallacher, 30th June 2003
While Sylvia had spent a fortune on restoring her husband’s score and print for The Phantom of the Opera, she had never been willing to invest in a copyright lawyer to clear up the issues Don Gallacher spoke about in his testimony in 2003. It would be expensive, but the result could enable her to live more comfortably. “I know,” she said, and changed the subject with that particular French smile of hers. It was too intimidating to consider, no matter how often I encouraged her while sharing coffee with her.
Each time before we set to work, usually once a week for three hours, Sylvia served me coffee and cake. When I arrived, two spoons of ground coffee would already be in the French Press, the water boiled. “Tell me, how are you?” And then we would talk, for 15 minutes, half an hour, before she would smile impatiently and suddenly clap her hands. “Now: work!” but not before I had finished the slice of fruitcake she religiously would serve me. It was an especially sticky delicacy Sylvia bought from a secret store in Westminster — she would soon entrust me with the traumatic secrets of her hidden life, but the one secret she took to her grave was where she bought my favourite cake.
From: Mishka Productions
Re: Next Meeting?
To: Stephan Eicke
Hoping that everything is alright and that you are fine. I think we have cakes problem. I suppose I gave you last time the wrong one, I mean not your favourite one…
Other transactions were handled with much less care. I had become suspicious when she had promised me the complete recording session tapes for Roy Budd’s Wild Geese II, only then to turn up at the Hilton Plaza and proclaim they had been destroyed in a flood the previous week. At the beginning of our relationship she didn’t dare to confess that she had never had them in the first place — she had given the only surviving tapes of another score to an engineer, only to notice one evening – years later – that she had never received them back. Lost to the ages.
There were degrees of preciousness. A novel by Frank Conroy, Body & Soul, which she always kept by her bedside like an irreplaceable treasure, was invaluable to her comfort: because it told the story of a child prodigy at the piano who fights his loneliness by plucking out melodies — before he is thrown into the adult world with which he can’t cope. It was Roy’s story. Once she asked me to read it. “You know why this book is so important to me, Stephan.”
One afternoon we must have talked about French literature. Camus, Simenon, Proust. By that time, I knew that Sylvia was not only obviously French but also kept a small apartment in Paris which she would visit three or four times a year even though she despised her home country.
“I am going to tell you something. Promise me you won’t tell anybody, Stephan. When I’m dead you can do whatever you want.”
Dimly-lit kitchen in Sylvia’s flat. Afternoon.
Sylvia is standing next to the kettle, facing Stephan who is sitting on a tall stool at the kitchenette, eating cake, sipping coffee.
Sylvia: “The French treated me terribly. I told you I grew up in Madagascar. My father was an engineer. I was born in France but then we moved to Dakar. I came to Madagascar when I was five. It was a dream. My parents didn’t care about me. The people there were like my family. They were wonderful. I was often alone, but I would go out and collect stones and shells.”
“Like the ones you have on your bookshelf?”
“They are the ones. We then moved to the Ivory Coast when I was 15 before we returned to France when I was 16. I wanted out as soon as possible. I couldn’t wait. My father was very aggressive, he used to beat me. A terrible thing to do to a child.” Her voice is breaking. “Sometimes he would take the belt.”
“I’m sorry, that’s awful.”
“They didn’t want me. I was an unwanted child. I then decided to become an actress. I told my parents. They showed me the door and threw me out. I was no longer their daughter.”
Still a young woman, Sylvia moved out, rented a tiny room, applied for jobs. She was driven by hunger, desperate to be on stage. Eventually she found work in television. It was a small role in a series, but a decisive one. Here, she met her first husband, Bernard Noel, a popular actor in France at the time, in the 60s. He was 37, she was 18 (as she herself claimed). Sylvia fell in love immediately.
All this was news to me. I had googled Sylvia Budd prior to our first meeting in 2014, but information was hard to come by, especially since she obviously still carried Roy’s last name. Her past prior to her second marriage was obscure. It was her choice, as she confirmed. “My first marriage was not good. I was very much in love, but I was too young.” Bernard soon lost interest in her, going off to stay the night at other places, barely disguising that he was cheating on Sylvia.
When Bernard Noel died, Sylvia’s friends turned on her, few would pick up the phone. Letters remained unanswered. “One of the few people who stayed in touch with me and tried to help me was Louis de Funés. He was such a kind gentleman. He sent me letters. He said, ‘This is a hard time, but it will get better. Let me know if you need anything.’ I had worked with him.” As soon as I was back home, I googled her name again. This time, I had enough information to dive deeper. How much was fact, how much fiction? With Sylvia, it was often hard to differentiate between the two, as it would later become clear: Sylvia Budd had been Sylvia Noel due to her marriage with Bernard, though her stage name was Sylvia Saurel. A few clicks confirmed she had indeed worked with Louis de Funés – on one of the favourite films of my childhood. Oscar, a delightful farcical romp, one of the first DVDs I had ever bought back when it was still a new, exciting medium. It was one of my most-watched films. I could hardly contain my excitement about this coincidence. Moreover, she had been in Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, a film I had seen a few years prior on a German film festival. Still, there was precious little information to be found. Roy’s successes were naturally carefully preserved in magazine articles and reports, neatly clipped by her into scrap books that also served as his portfolio when he was still alive, trying to score gigs in film and television. But even when he was floundering, his career dried up in the 80s, he continued compiling lyrics to imaginary songs as if he was about to take up the baton or sit down at his piano in the studio and start the recording. Some of these unused lyrics read as if Roy was writing about himself.
Pressure & stress, pressure & stress
there’s no point in going for a medical test.
Pressure & stress, pressure & stress
we just don’t deserve it cos’ we’re doing our best.
Pressure & stress, pressure & stress
the Twentieth century is taking its toll.
Pressure & stress, pressure & stress
we’d better be careful cos’ it’s killing us all.
My Monday morning starts at seven a.m.
Alarm bells ringing in my head.
I’m always sleeping like a baby till then.
Oh how I’d like to stay in bed.
I make an effort to unscramble my brain,
through bleary eyes I strain to see.
I know I have to move or we’re down the drain
for we need money, you and me.
Although by the time I was working with Sylvia, Roy Budd was no longer the big name in show business that he had been, films he worked on were still regularly shown on British television. Sylvia would rarely touch his CDs – produced by his “cancer” of an agent, Jack Fishman who, unusually for an agent, had retained the master rights – but kept them in a closed plastic bag. But she made it a habit to carefully inspect television broadcasts, circling films Roy had worked on with a red pen. It didn’t matter if a film was shown at 2pm or 2am: Sylvia would religiously set her alarm clock, tune in and listen to the music.
Sometimes she would talk to Roy, 25 years after his passing, and reflect on their marriage, the happiest years of her life. Random words would suddenly trigger associations. Phrases kick-started her memory. When I made a joke, she would quickly lean sideways, turning away from me while putting her hand in front of her mouth and letting out a petite French laugh. “Ah, you make me laugh. When Roy called people on the phone, he would never say his name but start with, ‘Two men walk into a bar …’” And so Roy was always there with us, hovering behind us at the small desk where we were sitting at the computer, Sylvia dictating, me typing.
In this way, as we grew more confident and comfortable around each other, Sylvia and I started to form a private Lonely Hearts club with only us as the members. Every few months she would treat me to lunch or dinner. From inside our favourite Turkish restaurant we would watch couples walk by, young people holding hands, smiling at each other, deep in conversation, looking into each other’s eyes. It was painful, and we both understood that pain. When another one of my dates hadn’t worked out, I would sigh across the dinner table.
“I know. It is tough. You will find somebody. You are so mature. You are too mature for your age. It is difficult to find somebody your age.”
Regularly she would suddenly take out a photograph, or a newspaper clipping about her husband. “Look what I found in my drawer,” she would announce with great delight, and show me whatever she had dug up, as if she was an archaeologist who had just returned from the depths of Antarctica and found, buried deep beneath thick ice, an important lost manuscript, the existence of which had previously been unfamiliar to everyone. I often wondered how much time she still spent archiving, sorting and clipping proof of her husband’s talent and wit.
But while her flat was a treasure trove, an Ali Baba’s cave, dedicated to Roy’s work – with memorabilia hidden in drawers, behind furniture, underneath shelves – Sylvia didn’t keep any records of her past life in France except for two brief magazine articles.
After she travelled to Paris when she was 18 to study at the Institute of Political Studies, she soon found herself in Denis d’Ines acting class and was immediately offered a major role in the television series Deux doux dingues. [In fact, when Sylvia starred in the series, she was 25 – seven years after she had travelled to Paris.] She found she preferred an acting career to one in diplomacy, especially as she fell in love with Bernard Noel, who played her father in the series. Soon enough, Sylvia was married to this unforgettable TV-actor, known from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Gaspard de montages, and led a happy life until the day her husband died from a terrible illness – a day which now lies five years behind us. […] Afterwards she summoned all her strength to pursue her career further, but both television and cinema had forgotten her. Three years ago she played the role of the duchess of Montpensier in La Dame de Monsoreau. It was her last role. To make ends meet, she turned to local radio stations and lent her talent to recording advertisements, which she herself developed and wrote – which is a rare occurrence.
It must have been a rare laudatory article. To me, she complained how colleagues had slandered her in the French press, most notably those among Bernard Noel’s close friends.
Her work in radio led to an engagement as personal assistant to Yves Mourousi, a popular television host and news reporter, who was at the peak of his career in the late 70s and early 80s. For Sylvia, it was a chance to catch her breath. “He was a wonderful man,” she would say to me. “I loved working with him. He was very, very famous in France, a very bright man. What we did together was fascinating, creating the news. It’s where I met all these people I then knew very well. Jacques Chirac for example I met when he was mayor of Paris. Mourousi was so charming, but he was so depressed. He was so gay, but he couldn’t come out. He was married and had a daughter. He was so depressed that sometimes I was afraid to leave him alone after work. I was afraid he would kill himself.” The only two people for whom Sylvia never lost a bad word were Mourousi and Louis de Funés. Sooner or later, everybody met her scorn, some derision or at least a snarky remark.
Her behaviour wasn’t driven by malevolence. Despite the gossip about close friends, she was sweet and caring. When, just a day before a date I had scheduled, I complained about an outbreak of acne, Sylvia turned me to the light of the small, faux chandelier, took a good look at my skin, retreated to her back room, rummaged through a drawer and returned with a small concealer. “Take this. It should be your colour” (meaning nearly white). Then she sent me off, wishing me good luck.
One of the projects she toyed with when I joined her as her PA was a documentary about her and Roy’s story. It was the idea of her concert producer to further promote the impending Phantom of the Opera premiere, a documentary that was supposed to be assembled and sold to the BBC. Through personal connections, the concert producer had involved a once-popular DJ, who in turn knew somebody who owned a camera.
We were unsettled when we watched the edited footage. A video of Sylvia’s garden had been put against a YouTube clip of Roy playing piano. Slides in Times New Roman included: ‘Child Prodigy’ and ‘How Have You Never Heard of Roy Budd?’. An interview with Sylvia was shown, shot with surprising zoom effects.
After nearly two years of promotion work it became clear that no television station was interested. A missed chance, especially since Sylvia gave a rare candid, private insight into her life with Roy — which began in 1980.
Interviewer: Tell us how you met Roy.
Sylvia: One day I went to a party in Paris and Roy was there. We met just by luck. Nothing was planned, nothing was arranged. I thought he was a very special man. I had no idea about him. He didn’t want anyone to know he was an artist. I thought he was a banker. Some weeks later, my partner Yves Mourousi was away, and he was coming back by helicopter to a very special presentation of a film premiere for The Final Countdown with Kirk Douglas. The phone rang. It was five o’clock in the afternoon and it was Roy. I said, ‘Roy I can’t stay, I have to go to the premiere. Princess Grace of Monaco will be there and Kirk Douglas and Mourousi.’ He said, ‘Where are you going to be at midnight?’ ‘Well, I will be there, at this function at the American embassy. […] I can’t stay on the phone. I have things to do.’ He said, ‘Could you collect me at midnight at this club?’ I said, ‘You must be joking. You are in London right now.’ At midnight I took the liberty to use the taxi of Yves Mourousi and I just had a peek at the club. Roy was there. He had rented a private jet to come to Paris and he was there. He proposed that night. It was difficult to say no. (laughs)
We hardly knew each other. We had known each other for two months. I thought he was an extravagant man. We were very much in love. I was still thinking he was involved in the banking business. He said, ‘Not exactly. I have to tell you, I’m a film composer and a pianist.’ I was furious. I had started to fall in love with a certain man who was for me a hero, who was flying back to ask me if I wanted to marry him. I was so impressed with him. Suddenly I was sitting at a table with a film composer. I was furious! All our life together he used to say, ‘Hm, you were not very pleased to know I was an artist when I told you that.’ It’s true. I was shocked.
While the documentary was never finished, the director decided to post the demo footage to his Facebook page, while blaming Sylvia and her producing partner for the project’s failure. The ‘politics behind it’ made this project ‘self-destruct from the start.’ Had Sylvia been right to trust nobody? As we then found out when we asked the director to remove the footage from social media, he was homeless, had lived in his car for several years.
Other people used Sylvia in different ways. Sylvia’s trusted lawyer had had to pay a quarter of a million pounds as compensation for failing to supervise a fraudulent consultant and was now retired. Still, she slipped him 300 pounds after an hour’s meeting that yielded his answer, “I don’t know, I would have to look into it,” to Sylvia’s question about how she could set up a foundation or an estate devoted to her husband’s work. The lawyer was never heard from again, while Sylvia grew increasingly frustrated, disappointed in the people she had confidently surrounded herself with for years.
Roy’s estate was one of many projects Sylvia was toying with, few of which would ever come to fruition. Briefly, she would get enthused about a particular idea of hers. Although she never abandoned any of her plans, her motivation would eventually fizzle out when she discovered that the path to success was not as straightforward as she had envisioned it when she had furiously scribbled her ideas on a tattered note pad. It was a particular form of procrastination: “Can we write to Sony Classical and ask them if they want to release Roy’s Phantom of the Opera CD?”
“Well, we could,” I would concede, “but you already released the CD three years ago on your own label and sold about 100 copies of it. I doubt that Sony Classical would be interested in such a low seller that is already commercially available.”
She also had plans for a CD release of Roy’s early jazz recordings, a concert of various film music suites, a blue plaque honouring Roy, a written biography, a television documentary, a ballet with Roy’s music, and a realization of one of Roy’s film scripts.
Sylvia’s husband had essentially abandoned music in the early 80s. Happily in a relationship with her but disillusioned by his experiences with his agent, he refused to play the piano for four years. Between 1980 and 1987, he scored only five feature films, acting as his own agent. Instead, he had discovered a new passion: writing scripts and short stories. One of which, The Price of Love, Sylvia wanted to produce as a television film for the BBC. Written in 1987, she considered this adaptation of Washington Square by Henry James timeless. Of four copies, she handed me one, saying, “Tell me what you think.”
CAMERA discovers a YOUNG WOMAN in her mid-twenties sitting at a desk studying a sculpture which she holds in her hands with the utmost care. A gold plaque sits on her desk telling us her name … OLIVIA CONWAY.
OLIVIA’S general appearance is that of a person far more interested in portraying efficiency than either glamour or sexuality. She is obviously in love with her job, and although not basically unattractive, she seems somehow to be lacking in personality, as if she is far more confident of her work than she is of herself. She carefully studies the sculpture with genuine and loving admiration.
She is suddenly interrupted by the ringing of the bell under the front door doormat. She looks up, smiles, puts the sculpture down and stands up.
AUNT ELIZABETH enters.
AUNT ELIZABETH is a MIDDLE-AGED LADY who’s [sic] obvious zest for life is seemingly inexhaustible. Her personality is at is [sic] now; full of beans.
Elizabeth. Well what brings you into this area today?
Not another pair. You’ve already got enough to open your own shop.
I know, don’t tell me. I collect shoes like your father collects art. The big difference is that everything he buys is an investment, and nobody’s quite figured out yet how to buy clothes, wear them out, and then sell them for more money than they cost in the first place.
It’s a bit difficult to wear out a painting.
Oh I don’t know. The way some people look at paintings you’d think they were trying to stare them to death.
Despite the witty dialogue, The Prize of Love is, in 2021, an unsurprisingly anachronistic piece of work. With words uttered such as ‘ravishing’ and phrases such as ‘confident gait’, it might already have been so in 1987. The story of a grey mouse who finds herself charmed by a conman (or is he?) has charm in spades, but is also plodding, suffering from too much expository dialogue and gooey sentimentality.
The script would always lie on Sylvia’s pile of things to do. Apparently, or so she proudly told me, Roy had already enticed Charlton Heston to play the role of Elizabeth’s father. A quarter of a million dollars would go toward Heston’s salary, or so Roy had scribbled on his note pad while roughly planning the budget for the film he had written and, by all means intended to compose the music for. He envisioned Diana Rigg in the role of Aunt Elizabeth, Jenny Seagrove as Olivia, Nigel Havers of Chariots of Fire fame as the male romantic lead, and Roy’s friend Ernest Borgnine as the father’s confidante. However, plans for a production never went anywhere. Instead, Roy kept churning out new scripts, one of which – a western called The Last of the Heroes – he sent to Toshiro Mifune, who had starred in one of Roy’s favourite films among those he had scored, Paper Tiger. He offered Mifune $200,000, but money to produce the project could never be raised.
Half a dozen scripts written by Roy Budd sat on top of Sylvia’s wardrobe. They had collected dust for decades by then, mould had set in, the ink had faded. As it turned out, recording tapes were in an even worse condition.
Since the start of our working-relationship I had urged Sylvia to prepare an inventory of tapes in her possession. One afternoon she had shown me the tapes for Roy’s last film score, The Big Bang. We agreed to digitize and master them for a release on CD. As it soon became apparent, the tapes were irreparably damaged. Having been stored in a damp place for 30 years, underneath a shelf in a secret compartment, they had fallen victim to vinegar syndrome. They had deteriorated and stank to high heaven. I became cross then and made her cry. I didn’t intend to, and I regretted it immediately — the second she gripped the edge of the kitchenette and her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears. But I had been filled with fury for a while, vented my anger about her to friends, unable to contain this rage inside of me, like an alien body that had taken possession and simply wouldn’t let go until I had confronted her — she, the object of my anger. It was an outburst that was inevitable. In truth, many of her actions exasperated me, made me want to run away screaming, grind my teeth until they were blunt stumps.
That day, she agreed to prepare an inventory.
While she carried mountains of tapes into the living room, I hammered the relevant information into my laptop. Despite the number of tapes – a lot of them blank – “almost everything was lost” as opposed to “nothing is lost,” as Sylvia had assured me in 2014.
Among the surviving tapes – most of which she had never touched – was the complete recording of Roy Budd’s Playathon, a jazz marathon which had taken place in 1989. Entitled Pizza in the Park, its goal had been to raise funds for Roy Budd’s own Anti Drug Association (ADA), one of countless projects he toyed with in the 80s to keep himself busy while waiting for phone calls from film producers. The Roy Budd Trio – Roy himself, Chris Karan and Dave Holland – had played for 24 hours in the Pizza Express in Knightsbridge. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 2.
The Roy Budd Trio are having the 24 hour playathon at the pizza on the park in Knightsbridge. You can hear them tingling away the ivories in the background. It’s all to raise funds for the ADA, which is Anti Drug Abuse Foundation which was formed by Roy himself, and with a bit of luck I am going to talk to Roy while he is playing. You are actually speaking while you are playing, Roy?
Roy Budd: “I am trying. The audience is lovely and we are crashing away here. What can I say? The response has been absolutely wonderful.”
Can you tell us about ADA?
“I formed it because nobody was doing anything about it. For some peculiar reason there is no sense of urgency about the crack problem. If you ask any taxi driver or policeman they have to deal with this problem at two in the morning. Nobody is doing anything. The taxi drivers and the police are at the end of it. There is hundreds of millions of dollars being made out of it but … We need all the support we can get. It’s a non-political cause. The reason I’m playing is to announce it to the world that it does exist because I had a lot of problems. Even the press said this is not an event. Nothing is news about crack. I don’t know if they want anyone dead in the street. I’m playing here for 24 hours to say it does exist. It’s a parent’s nightmare to have a kid who is on crack.”
What kind of support have you had for this so far, Roy?
“From public companies, absolutely nil. I wrote to public companies, and nobody has got any money for drug abuse. They just bury it. It doesn’t exist. […] So, I’m staying here for 24 hours. There is also a doctor who is head of the Medical Francaise and he is making sure we keep going. I don’t know if that means he is going to hit me on the head which means I’ll stop. (laughs) I am trying not to drink too much liquid. Luckily, Pete Morgan has the constitution of a giant. If he goes into a bass solo I can tell you where I’m running. It’s a room in the corner and it says ‘Gents’.”
While the ADA was disbanded with Roy’s death, Sylvia had made it her mission to finish her husband’s other projects. Following his death, she seemed to live solely for him, as an ambassador with a mission. She also wanted to be acknowledged as such. Half of the emails she dictated to me started the same way: “Dear, I am so busy.” The other half said: “Dear, I am overbusy.”
I still wonder how she spent her days. Each time I entered her flat, we picked up where we had left off a few days before. She rarely appeared to use the computer on her own. The stacks of paper in every corner of her flat seemed untouched. Living like a hermit, Sylvia rarely went out, avoided public gatherings. When she was invited to lunch or dinner, to a private function or a friend’s house-warming, she refused to go alone, asking me to come with her — even to a dance organised by the Rotary Club. She was terrified to turn up without somebody at her side. Still, I politely refused this latter request, having only recently returned with her from a lunch at the Rotary, a remarkably snobbish and privileged affair ornamented by rituals that reminded me of Freemasonry. Afterwards, Sylvia and I had stuck our heads together and laughed about the gathering of nonagenarians who didn’t even pretend to be interested in anybody but themselves.
We were a good couple. Timid, insecure and shy, we would stick together when invited to parties. That way we didn’t have to gather our courage to strike up conversations with strangers. If nobody approached us, we still had each other.
Increasingly, conversations between Sylvia and others could become awkward. After a 25 year struggle to get Roy’s final work, The Phantom of the Opera, put on stage, she often heard what she wanted to. When she summarised to me conversations with potential business partners, the enthusiasm she described rarely matched with reality.
Sylvia endeavoured to donate a collection of her LPs to a library. “They were over the moon about it, they said they would love to have them.”
A few days later, we carried a stack of them across the street, only to be met with an irritated librarian’s glance. “Well, as I told you last time, we don’t really have any space for them. We don’t know what to do with LPs. We would just give them away.”
Similarly: “The Coliseum said they want to put on a concert of Roy’s music, with themes from all of his films, Stephan.”
A few weeks later, the assistant director of the Coliseum invited me to a pre-concert drink. Suspicious of what I had heard from Sylvia, I carefully raised the subject. “No,” I was told, “I said to Sylvia what might work for a small concert hall is a programme of film music from the 70s, with a piece of Roy’s as part of it. I certainly wouldn’t do it. The performance of The Phantom of the Opera was a financial flop.” But, after Sylvia had found a letter Roy had left to her, nothing would deter her from promoting her husband’s work any way she could.
Sylvia my dearest Sweetheart, I wish we had met years ago. You give me so much inspiration for my music.
I am writing this letter because I almost got run over the other day and I want you to know that if anything ever happens to me and I am not around personally to oversee things, I want you to take complete control of all my business affairs, particularly where music copyrights and performances are concerned.
As you know, Jack Fishman no longer represents me and with hindsight I wish I had asked Derek Boulton to be my manager as I have been very impressed with the way he and Bob Farnon work together.
I am hoping that I will be around for a long time yet but if anything should happen to me, it will give me peace of mind to know that you will take charge and look after everything.
With all my love and a big thank you for all the happiness you brought into my life, and looking for many many more years together.
Nine months later Roy Budd was dead. Sylvia had heard something strange, a gurgling sound, then nothing more. When she ran into the room, her husband was lying half on the floor, half propped on bed. “I realised it was very serious. It was a brain haemorrhage. I promised to him to take care of the Phantom. I had the feeling he could hear me.”
Roy Budd died at the age of 46, five weeks before the premiere of his magnum opus, a new score for the silent film, The Phantom of the Opera, which was to have been staged at the Barbican in London. Roy had paid for everything out of his own pocket despite the fact that he had been close to bankruptcy for years, often calling on friends to lend him money, having twice re-mortgaged his house. His income from royalties was insubstantial, his work in film had dried up. Still, he bled money, spent it on passion projects: writing Phantom of the Opera; an opera; developing scripts; setting up a film company, Windmill, which became inactive essentially at its inception; recording a series of film themes before a label on which to release them had been found; planning a ‘Concert of the Century’ to raise funds for ADA, a gargantuan televised spectacle at the Hollywood Bowl for which Roy even had a storyboard developed, but for which he could attract no support. Having sold his piano, he was taking tranquillisers and turning to drink more often, when he was spotted by a friend while riding the Tube — three years prior to his passing, Roy Budd was unshaven, wearing a tattered coat, the collar turned up to his nose. He wasn’t even being booked for television appearances anymore, he complained.
25 years later, Sylvia would succeed in premiering her late husband’s score for The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to her restoration efforts and her dedicated team of producers, the film with Roy’s score eventually saw the light of day at the London Coliseum — her husband’s work would see a renaissance after all.
A few days after the performance, I went round to her flat. Rang the bell. The door opened. Just a crack. A tired smile.
“How are you,” the accent on the ‘you’ before I had a chance to ask the same. Unlocked the gate. Opened the door fully. I entered.
“So, how do you feel,” I asked.
The plan she had worked on for 25 years had finally come to fruition. We giddily inspected the photographs taken on the night, one of which showed me in front of the concert hall, as fashionably dressed as my budget allowed.
“Can I say something, Stephan?” Sylvia leaned over to me in front of the computer screen.
“I know, Sylvia. The trousers don’t match my blazer.”
“Well, next time …”
A second concert would take place at the Barbican, about a year later. This time she didn’t have to speak to journalists for publicity, to beat the drum in front of a sweaty, coughing, nervous reporter from the Daily Mail.
Had Sylvia been secretly pleased to be in the spotlight? Had she, the hermit who only left her flat to buy groceries, enjoyed the company? After filming a conversation with the BBC for the first performance, I asked her: “How was your interview yesterday, Sylvia?”
“Oh, it was a very nice journalist woman, she was very sweet. Very insecure but charming. I should give your her email address. She is very attractive. I think she is also very lonely. I could see that.”
BBC London, Post-Concert report
Sylvia: “It was all in [Roy’s] head, each instrument. The full orchestra. He was so involved in his writing. He was at the peak of his life then, and he was going to perform at the Barbican. He was terribly happy.”
Voice-over: But Roy died suddenly a few weeks before he was to conduct the piece. For 25 years, his wife Sylvia has tried to get it heard.
Sylvia: “It’s my promise to Roy, and in a very strange way it has given me such a meaning to my life. Can I say the Phantom has been my toyboy ever since Roy passed away?” (laughs)
And then finally it got its world premiere at the Coliseum.
Sylvia: “I was looking at the crowd clapping and screaming. I was with the director Mike Hodges and we were both absolutely amazed.”
And so the career of that curly-haired boy from Croydon ended where it had begun, because it was at the Coliseum he made his debut as a pianist at the age of just six.
Sylvia: “When they asked him what is your ambition in life, Roy, he said, ‘To reach the pedals.’ He had just such short little legs.”
Shortly before the second performance of The Phantom of the Opera I had grown concerned — one afternoon, Sylvia had confided in me that she had discovered a spot inside her mouth, a small mole that she wanted a dentist to look at. She also claimed to have fallen off a step on her ladder, suffering a bruise on her arm.
While working on her computer she started to have difficulties focusing, forgetting names of people she by then had worked with for years. It appeared that, having reached her goal to premiere The Phantom of the Opera, her health was failing her. Two separate dentists examined her, prescribed antibiotics and sent her on her way.
When I arrived for the performance at the Barbican, Sylvia was distraught. “I put on the wrong shoes. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s the pain.”
A week later, Sylvia travelled to Paris. When she returned, she gave me a call. Seeing her number on my mobile, I greeted her cheerily with my best Italo-American Sopranos impression: “Hey Sylvia, how ya doin’?”
There was a brief silence at the other end. Then her voice, quiet, shaking: “Terrible. I’m in such pain. Can you come?”
By then, Sylvia was too weak to even lift the kettle. We made appointments, booked a cab, drove to the dentist, who had already closed. It was the last time I would see her in her flat. A day later, she received medication, some painkillers, more antibiotics.
“Sylvia, if this goes on, I beg you, go and see a doctor. Just go to the hospital. Promise me.” A weary half-smile. “Okay.” She closed the door, we said goodbye.
A few days later, my phone rang. Sylvia’s neighbour. “Stephan, Sylvia is in hospital. Last night she broke her arm when she tried to close her curtains. She asked for you immediately but I didn’t have your number then.”
When I went to see her, she was sitting up in a chair in a hospital room, tubes going into her nose, patches on her skin, her body suddenly swollen, heavy. She could barely open her eyes.
“It’s terrible news, Stephan,” she croaked. “Bone marrow cancer.”
The way she looked, I doubted she would last another week.
Treatment was started immediately, aggressively. Sylvia panicked, distressed about the unfinished business she would leave behind.
“I need to prepare my will, Stephan. Please call my solicitor.”
But plans were again postponed. When in high spirits, responding well to treatment, she replied angrily to the subject of a will. When feeling low, she cursed her solicitor for taking too long. She was eager to put Roy Budd’s estate in hands she could trust. There weren’t many people left. When she asked me to take over the estate with a friend of hers, though overcome with dread, I didn’t have the heart to say no. I knew what a mess everything was: shelves of unsorted papers, stacks of mouldy scripts, rows of analogue tapes, and – worst of all – mountains of unnumbered manuscripts for Roy Budd’s last, unfinished work: the opera Britannicus, including a 1985 proposal concerning a film production for possible investors.
“BRITANNICVS” is a full length feature film of the highest artistic and prestigious calibre based on the famous play of the same name which was written by one of France’s most revered classical playrights [sic], Racine. It is set in and around the court of Nero’s Rome in 55 AD.
The film will last approximately 105 minutes, making it a perfect length for both television screening and video cassettes after theatrical distribution has taken place.
The film will be shot in cinemascope and dubbed in dolby stereo to achieve the maximum quality. […] Actual filming will take approximately eight weeks and is presently scheduled for either late 86 or early 87. Two principal locations are currently being examined; Rome itself, and Israel. […] The production is estimated at approximately $3,000,000. Film Finance Ldt. will be invited to completion bond the entire production. […] Strictly from an artistic point of view, which finally is the most important ingredient in such a project, the following persons have already voiced their enthusiasm to participate. Rene Kollo to portray Nero; Peter Hoffmann to portray Britannicus; Karan Armstrong to portray Albina; Professor Götz Friedrich: Operatic Adviser; Ralph Winters: Technical Adviser. Charlton Heston has also offered his much valued support.
Seeing Sylvia lying in a hospital bed – her limbs swollen, her shoulder in a cast, hands shaking, voice weak – made me reflect on all plans she had harboured. She understood, even if close friends didn’t, that her time was running out. Her illness and the corresponding treatment had up and downs, much like her mood. Her impatience increased — when I fumbled with opening one of the letters I brought to her bedside she would suddenly look away and hiss: “Oh, come on, Stephan.” Next time I brought a letter opener.
The replies she dictated were all the same, deviating from each other so rarely that I conceived a particular kind of shorthand. “Dear friend, thank you so much for your kind letter. Unfortunately I have had an accident,” became on my notepad: “DF, TYSMFYKL. UIHHAA.” When I later entered it into my laptop at home, I knew what to type.
The ‘accident’ which led to her breaking ‘both arms’ and a ‘fracture in my shoulder’ later became ‘a case of osteoporosis’, when her stay in hospital exceeded two weeks. When it exceeded two months, it became ‘a severe case of osteoporosis’. She simply didn’t want anybody to know. If any of her friends suspected anything, they didn’t let on in their replies — even after one-and-a-half years of letters sent from a care home.
When I first visited her in hospital, it was not fruit, chocolate, a newspaper or magazine she wanted. It was a photograph of Roy, framed and put on her bedside table. When she asked for it, she broke down in tears, unable to finish the sentence. I brought the photograph a few days later.
As the months went by, she grew ever more frustrated. She was not making progress, and she noticed. When she was eventually transferred into a care home she blocked most visitors. Only a small circle was allowed to see her.
Worried about her future and the condition of her estate, I called up a friend of hers one evening. He answered. “It’s a mess, Stephan. Then there is her life in France. I mean, it’s a complete mess. She doesn’t want anybody to know about it. Only a few of us even know about it. Who is going to sort that out? And what about the son?”
It was true, when I had googled Sylvia’s French name, an article about Bernard Noel had mentioned a son, but information was scarce. One French newspaper alleged briefly, hidden in the middle of a sentence, that said son had been adopted by actor Claude Rich, who Sylvia had appeared with in Oscar. Previously, Sylvia had made vile comments about her colleague. Suddenly, they made sense.
“I thought her son was adopted,” I replied to Sylvia’s friend. A shot in the dark.
“That’s news to me, no. Well, he is old now. He is in care because he is drug addicted and a schizophrenic. Sylvia bought a flat for him and she would visit him a few times a year, give him money. Then he attacked her twice and she fled. She told me about it and then decided to have nothing more to do with him.”
“When was this?”
“Oh, a few years ago, I should think.”
And true, when Sylvia asked me to go through her French files and destroy them before her solicitor could go through her belongings, I stumbled over an old newspaper article. Published in 1967, it detailed Sylvia’s relationship with Bernard Noel.
He is known for vengeful misogyny which leads him to conquer women, only to abandon them shortly afterwards. He is irresponsible, refusing to make himself dependent, to bind himself to another person. Even in his work he doesn’t take himself seriously. At 4 o’clock in the morning, when his destructive demons haunt him, he writes poems, sliding into a Dostoyevskyian desperation. […] And yet he decides to marry Sylvia. Or he doesn’t decide, he demands. And he wants a child — immediately. […] Then, the nine months of pregnancy frighten her. Since she is still very young and she thinks that a pregnancy is going to ruin her career, that all her roles would be given to others when she tries to return to acting. […] Rémy is conceived at Christmas in St.-Rémy-de Provence, and pretty soon everything spirals downwards. […]
In Sylvia’s words: “I didn’t see him anymore. He returned home later and later. I complained. I was alone for days on end, in the evenings, while my body was changing. I had all the problems a pregnant woman has, and I shared my fears with him. It enraged him; he became furious. Obviously, I didn’t match his fantasy anymore. I had the feeling he was ashamed of me and the child I was carrying. He started to loath having lunch together every Sunday, having to return to the same house every night. He found it unbearable. It was the beginning of a hell between us.” […]
Yet with great understanding, she resolved her husband’s contradictions: “His arrogance, his life as a playboy … it was all hot air. He, on the other hand, expected a lot from others. We talked and understood that neither of us had grown up. We wanted the same thing, we dreamed of a childlike love. Together we had to learn to grow up — but just a little. Today, we succeed as a couple.”
The most touching moments in Edward Yang’s film Yi Yi deal with a grandmother and her family. The grandmother, having fallen into a coma, lies secluded on her bed in the family’s apartment. Her grandchild and son regularly sneak in, sit down next to the bed where grandmother lies, unresponsive. They then tell her of their sorrows, use her as a bottomless well into which they can drop their painful experiences and memories.
When Sylvia was eventually transferred into a care home for continued support, I was often reminded of Yi Yi. Although Sylvia was conscious, her mind spinning while her body was failing her, I often unburdened myself to her. She who couldn’t flee.
Her son she never mentioned once. I thought back to unflattering remarks she had made about Roy’s son, whom he had fathered with his first wife, Caterina Valente. Roy was a reluctant parent, he himself still a child, overwhelmed by the responsibility.
She was, of course, worried about very different things: her secret life in France needed to be kept from her solicitor. The Phantom of the Opera should see more performances, protected from the greedy hands of concert promoters.
Rare pictures of father and son show Roy hesitating to touch his child, a forced smile on his lips as if he had just been shown how humans raise the ends of their mouths to show delight and affection. The only remaining connection between Roy and his son following the divorce from Caterina Valente were the increasing alimony payments Roy had to make, and which forced him eventually to sell his most prized possession — his piano.
Sylvia’s most urgent wish was to return home, if only for a few weeks, to bring things in order. She would never get that chance.
I wonder which documents she would have destroyed first? When I called up another of her friends, he empathised. “I know it’s a mess. It will take a long time to sort out. I don’t even know how old she is.”
Again, I was dumbstruck. I had always found difficult to determine Sylvia’s age. When I first met her, I judged her to be in her early 60s. When she was admitted to hospital, in severe pain, barely conscious, she gave her birth year as 1949.
“Well, she is 71, isn’t she? She was born in 1949.”
“That’s what she told me for decades, but the internet says she was born in 1939. I have never seen her passport.”
I did see her passport eventually. She was, as the internet had claimed, ten years older than she had always pretended. Did she, at the end, really believe in her own lie?
When I told a friend about it, he laughed. “Why are you even surprised about it? It’s entirely in fashion for her.”
One evening, my phone rang. It was Sylvia’s doctor, calling from the care home. Sylvia had caught a chest infection and was in hospital. A few days later, while Coronavirus was raging, she was back. In the previous six months I had only been able to see her twice. Stacks of letters had collected in the hallway of her flat. Sensing the end was near, I took a long walk one night, then went over her handwritten notes that she had asked me to copy. They were sketches she had put down some years prior. Loose, seemingly unconnected and rambling half-sentences, sketches as memories of the love of her life — Roy.
a man with the heart of a child
He woke up and ran to the phone
lost in time when he played – he was happy when he played
heavy psychological and creative crisis
Our sensitivity was beautiful; it was a real, a true encounter
The loneliness of a child – the difference that helps to differentiate between father, mother and child … his sorrow to fulfil his parents’ tasks, it was a sorrow he could not shake off.
For me, you will sit behind all the great pianos in the world.
In Rio walking together on the beach. “I was looking for the crab” and he was laughing so much. “Yes, you are looking for the crab? How does he walk?”
You were so worried about this Russian astronaut Yuri … who spent 300 and something days in the space
This is just a fraction of what he had in mind and what he would have been able to write
How careful we are to preserve a certain image, and how much work it means to bury painful memories, to hold on to our fantasies in order to get up every morning. Some things Sylvia had imagined: the enthusiasm about further concert at the Coliseum. Some she had simply withheld: her child. Some she had lied about: her age.
It then became clear to me why she had suddenly decided to remove her self-produced CDs and DVDs from Amazon. Under new data regulations, she was asked one afternoon to provide a copy of her ID or passport to the tech giant. Sylvia was furious, lashed out. I was barely able to calm her down. Nobody was to see her ID if she could help it. Sylvia preferred to pass on a revenue stream she so urgently needed.
Truth was often obscured by a heavy veil. Of course, she was under no obligation to tell me everything, or even anything. But, in the course of her illness, I came face to face with written documents that made clear how difficult it was to separate truth from fiction, and how often I had believed what I had been told without questioning.
When I eventually leafed through Roy’s scrap book again, I suddenly noticed a pattern. I found short newspaper articles about the extraordinary work of the child prodigy that deviated from claims made by Sylvia and even journalists for decades. None of it was malicious, but amusing, and hardly surprising if one thought about it. Journalists, Sylvia, and later on even Roy himself had created a myth around Roy Budd as the infallible child prodigy had been so often repeated that was hard to shake off.
Legends were created by jazzing up facts about Roy’s life. In some newspaper articles reporters claimed Roy was 18 months old when he crawled to his parents’ upright piano and tapped out the melody for Knees Up Mother Brown, which he had just heard on the radio. Later, journalists – and Sylvia – were adamant that the child was barely three years old when he started to play the piano. Furthermore, Sylvia Budd and Roy’s fans enjoyed claiming their beloved idol was entirely self-taught. Neither was true, as Roy himself explained in a magazine interview which was published when he was 18 years old. It doesn’t take anything away from his achievements. Nevertheless, it was good publicity, and whoever had come up with it repeated it ad nauseam. Apparently, though, embellishing the truth was a one-way street. When a newspaper article – the name of the paper unknown, the cutting found in the scrap book – claimed 16 year-old Roy Budd hadn’t had his piano tuned for five years, the line was crossed out angrily in thick blue pen. Next to it, in Roy’s handwriting, it says: ‘Paper Talk’ and ‘Trash’.
When I was four and a half we went to a party and I heard my father play the piano there. Stride piano, pub style. A few days later he got his old piano down out of the attic. I played ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ on it with one finger. How’s that, eh? This showed the family they had a musical genius. […] I began having lessons when I was about six. I left off for about eighteen months. Then I started again when I was eight and went on till I was thirteen. Mrs. Sax. Two-and-six for half an hour. She was a good teacher. Then we moved to Croydon and when I was fourteen I began lessons with Mrs. Scull. Went on for two and a half years. I didn’t have any interest in lessons. I didn’t want to know. I never practised. When she gave me a new tune, I’d say: ‘You play it first, to give me an idea.’ I had a good ear, so I was all right for next week. I don’t think I played a scale more than a dozen times. I can sight-read when I need to, but in a trio I’m the leader. Why should I buy music when I can play stuff I’ve heard on the radio?
One morning, only a few days after I had found the article in her scrapbook, my phone rang again. It was a different doctor this time.
“Stephan, could you give me the number of Sylvia’s solicitor, please? She doesn’t have much time left. I thought you should know. You were closest to her.”
“Can I … I know you currently don’t permit visitors because of Covid. But can I see her? Can I say goodbye?”
One day later, I made my way down to the care home. Before, I walked down to her flat I put the letters on her bureau; the letters she would now never open. I stole a glance at Mishka, the ragged teddy bear Roy had given her and which was still sitting on her bed, keeping guard. Below my feet the steady rumble of the Victoria Underground line.
It was late October. The sky was grey, rain pouring down, the streets quiet. When I was admitted, I was given a plastic apron, a mask.
In a darkened room, the curtains closed, Sylvia was lying on her bed, in a hospital gown. The blanket had been tossed aside — when you are sick with cancer, heavy doses of morphine pumping through your veins, you are always hot. You would be hot resting on ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
Unable to move her head, her eyes met mine.
“Hello Sylvia, it’s Stephan. I’m not going to ask how you are. I’ll just sit down.”
A tired chuckle. Her voice barely a whisper. “You can see how I am.”
Not wanting to tire her out by forcing her to say much, I talked for 90 minutes; platitudes about my plans for Christmas, about Sylvia’s neighbour, who was taking delight in dog-sitting for a few days. I read her reviews for a CD of Roy music which I had recently released on my label, Caldera Records, after Sylvia and I had dug up the tapes. Looking up from my phone briefly, I could see her smile.
“I also brought a few pieces of music that I thought you might like to listen to,” I said.
“You are so prepared,” she whispered.
I played a piece from Roy’s The Phantom of the Opera – ‘The ‘Lover’s Waltz’, which had brought her to tears when she had first heard it during a rehearsal for the concert premiere.
With great effort, her arm now slowly moved towards her eyes, wiping away the small droplets she had shed. Having moved her arm, she gave view to large dark blotches where the cancer had eaten through the skin. Then we blew each other a kiss and parted.
She died two weeks later.
“I want to be with Roy,” she had whispered.
“It will be done. I will arrange it,” I assured her.
“Next to … you understand …?”
“Yes. I will take care of it.”
We scattered her ashes where she had scattered Roy’s 27 years before, at the bottom of a giant tree, in a place where she and Roy used to walk, arm in arm.
Later, when I examine her biographical notes again, I spot a hastily scribbled sentence she might not have intended for me to see, buried among happier memories.
At the train station in Brussels and at the train station in Luxembourg you were pulling this giant luggage cart, loaded with a heavy suitcase (150 kg) and with 5 film reels. I pulled the cart. Dave was sitting on top, and Roy was laughing like crazy, happy and strong like an ox. You were beautiful.
I was so happy to have found the solution for our room which never saw the sunlight. Suddenly you lit up everything with your small lamps. As I went to bed and left the small light on, you said “Thank You” so softly, and you were touched and moved by such simple a gesture. And I was surprised I loved you so much. I love you like the sun.
The everyday does not interest me, I want to live in my fiction, in my dream, in our dream because I can’t bear humanity as it is. I have to pretend with my teddy bear Mishka
Mishka was still sitting on top of Sylvia’s bed, waiting for her to come home.