Sidney Torch was a household name from the 1930s, first as a cinema organist and after the war as a composer, arranger and orchestral conductor, especially as the conductor of BBC radio’s Friday Night is Music Night. He spent the last 17 or more years of his life at The Moorings, St John’s Road, Meads, Eastbourne, yet Eastbourne seems not to have known he was there, and his death received little attention. I am now ashamed to confess that I had not heard of him until I moved into The Moorings myself and was told by a resident who remembered him that there had been a famous musician called Sidney Torch living there. Not long afterwards I was at the Royal Albert Hall with the choir I belonged to, singing in a Christmas concert, and the conductor announced with a flourish that the next piece was arranged by ‘the legendary Sidney Torch’. I realised my neighbour had not been exaggerating, and my interest was kindled to do a little research.
He had been born Sidney Torchinsky of Russian-born parents, Morris and Annie Torchinsky, in London in 1908. His father, who was an orchestral trombonist and gave Sidney his early musical education, changed the family name to Torch: Sidney confirmed the change by deed poll much later, in 1946. He studied at the Blackheath Conservatoire, started playing the piano in Lyons restaurant orchestras at 14 and then played with the orchestra at the Regal Cinema at Marble Arch, in London.
But it was as a cinema organist that he became well known. When a Christie organ, the largest at the time outside the United States, was installed at the Regal, Marble Arch, he moved on to that, and his panache and brilliance brought him rapid success, both there and later at the Regal, Edmonton. He joined Union Cinemas in 1936, and opened new organs, including the mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Gaumont State Cinema, Kilburn, now the biggest in England, which he played from 1937 until 1940. He recorded in those cinemas, and broadcast regularly twice a week for several years during the 1930s on the BBC Wurlitzer organ for the World Service, often in the early hours because everything was broadcast live and at the time required in other countries. Sidney Torch had tremendous flair as a musician and as a showman, in his natty suits and with his signature tune (taken from a popular cartoon) ‘I’ve got to sing a torch song’, to which he added his own lyrics making play on his name.
Torch was drafted into the RAF in 1940, initially as an air gunner. He was later commis- sioned and became conductor of the RAF Concert Orchestra, which gave him valuable experience in orchestral scoring. He composed the theme music for the radio comedy series Much Binding in the Marsh (set on an RAF station, and written by and starring two other RAF men, Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch), which ran from 1944 to 1954. After the war he realised that the cinema organ’s heyday was over and with characteristic decisiveness did not try to go back to his earlier success but began to forge a new career in light orchestral conducting, composing and arranging. He married Eva Elizabeth Tyson, a BBC producer, in 1949, which might have had some influence on his decision too, as she didn’t like the organ, according to later reports.
He conducted the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra and the New Century Orchestra, and formed his own orchestra (Sidney Torch and his Orchestra), recording with all of them. He composed music for Chappell. But his greatest fame came from his work with the BBC Concert Orchestra for 20 years from 1952, especially in the radio programme that began the following year. He had already done a great deal of radio work and he responded to the BBC’s brief for a programme ‘to help people relax after the week’s hard work and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend’. He devised and conducted Friday Night is Music Night on the BBC Light Programme, a huge popular success which is still going strong on Radio 2. That jaunty light orchestral music so redolent of the period 1945–65 was often arranged and conducted by Sidney Torch; he recorded brisk, rousing versions of the Dam Busters March, the signature tune for The Archers, ‘Barwick Green’, and the Paul Temple theme, ‘Coronation Scot’. His arrangements are still regularly played in popular concerts and on radio. Some of his work is available on CD and thanks to the generosity of enthusiasts, anyone can easily hear many of his organ and orchestral classics on the internet.
Though many recounted stories of his personal kindness, Torch was a demanding taskmaster and both players and singers were said to fear ‘the glare of the Torch’ and the crackle of his starched shirt-cuffs as he delivered his sharp downbeats. He said in a rare interview after he retired that he had often been cruel to his BBC producers, but he thought most of them benefited from the experience. After a disagreement with the BBC in 1972, however, he left the programme, the orchestra and his life in light music for ever, snapping his baton in half at the end of his last concert.
He and Elizabeth retired soon after- wards to Eastbourne, to a flat which housed a grand piano which he never played. He gave his records away to friends. Music was his business, from which he had retired. He was appointed MBE for services to light music in 1985: it seems a modest recognition for someone with his lifetime of achievement. The couple were appar- ently happy enough with their unmusical retirement, but after his wife died on 1 March 1990, and with his health deteri- orating, Sidney Torch became increas- ingly depressed. He took an overdose less than five months later, on 16 July 1990, leaving warm, apologetic and explanatory notes to two good friends, one of them his doctor, who was on holiday and so out of the way. His death seems all of a piece with the man, for he had never flinched from ending what he thought had no beneficial future: his career as a cinema organist, then his life as a successful conductor and broadcaster, and now, sadly, his life itself.
Nevertheless, as the very appreciative obituary in The Times of 19 July put it, ‘he leaves a legacy to treasure’, and 26 years later it is still true that ‘Friday Night is Music Night is his epitaph’ and ‘his influence, particularly as an arranger, still prevails on the programme’.
References and Acknowledgements
Ades, David. ‘Sidney Torch (1908–1990)’ in Legends of Light Music, on the Robert Farnon Society website.
Bruce, Ken. Programme note for BBC Concert Orchestra’s 60th anniversary, Radio 2, 3 February 2012 (BBC website Media Centre).
Williams, Lew. ‘Sidney Torch recalled by Lew Williams’ in Journal into Melody, June/July 2005, on the Robert Farnon Society website.
Obituary, Sidney Torch, The Times, Thursday 19 July 1990, available from the Times Digital Archive.
Inquest papers from East Sussex County Council Archives and Records Department kindly supplied by HM Coroner for East Sussex.
Eastbourne Gazette, 8 August 1990, ‘Unhappy musician took fatal overdose’ on microfilm in Eastbourne Library.