music inspired by Henry Williamson's Classic novel 'Tarka the Otter"

History of the Tarka Project

Taw and Torrige Estuary



In 1927 my father, Henry Williamson, completed his most famous novel Tarka the Otter, which describes in tremendous detail and with compelling accuracy the life and death of a family of otters living in the land of the two rivers, The Taw and the Torridge, which flow from their sources, Exmoor and Dartmoor respectively into the Estuary and hence to the North Atlantic. This land which has since been recognized as an   Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a stunning coastal region which is nationally protected for the beauty of its landscape. It is at the heart of North Devon's UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and covers 171 km sq of the coastal landscape from Marsland Mouth on the Cornish border to Combe Martin on the boundary of Exmoor National Park.

From our smallholding, Ox's Cross, above Georgeham we could see, on a clear day, both Exmoor and Dartmoor and we spent many days walking the lesser known paths through the woodlands and by the running waters always observing, noting and comparing experiences that have stayed with me ever since.

The sound of everpresent water was a joy to my ear, as was the wind, the waves and the slow change of the seasons. These sounds and rhythms were what Anthony Phillips and I tried to capture in our most adventurous work Tarka, written in 1975-6 with the regular encouragement of David Cobham, director of the film of Tarka the Otter that was being made at the time. My ageing father was unsure whether he should give the rights to his precious book away, as he had withheld it from Disney despite numerous increasingly lucrative offers over the years. The fact that I was to write the music for the film eventually persuaded him, and with great excitement Ant and I managed to gain the substantial investment needed to make our dream a reality.

Simon Heyworth, producer of among other things, Tubular Bells, loved the music, came on board and set us up with his dear friends Susie Alfrey and Dave Thurston to write the orchestral scores at Sandridge Estate, where famously Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice -Davies had brought down the government in the late 60’s  (one of our rooms actually had the implicated one way mirror) and for months we wrote like beavers. . .

My dear father had been moved from his beloved North Devon to a nursing home hear London, and I visited him there regularly. He would often mistake me for one of my half brothers, and though he was increasingly vague and dreamy,  his artistic sensibility was still strong. I saved my meager income and bought him a cassette player, and tapes of some of his favourite music. Antony and I made some demo recordings of the work we were writing and I made a tape of them for him, which I played on one memorable wet afternoon. He listened intently, and for a long moment his spirit returned to the present moment, and tears rolled down his cheeks. The music had his blessing.

The score was complete, and then - my father died, at the same time the film company was filming the death scene of the otter at Instow. I was understandably devastated.

When I recovered, arrangements had been made to complete the recording at Wembley Studio, with  a full Symphony Orchestra. The experience of hearing the work for the very first time being largely sight read by the finest musicians of old England was emotional to say the least. We did a quick rough mix, and I took the recording to the small private theatre in the West End where the rushes of the film were being shown. The tapes were played, and there was, in the silences, the sound of frantic scribbling from the front of the darkened theatre.

Soon afterwards I was told there was never any intention to use the music we had laboured over for so long. The music had been assigned to a close friend of the producer. In place of our symphonic fantasia was a more modest score for harmonica, banjo, harp, and a few other solo instruments. Our project had no home and no prospects. For about 10 years it stayed as a set of really expensive recordings until Amy International, the production company of Susan George and the late Simon MacCorkingdale, bought the rights and financed the completion of the work in London at Strawberry Studios. In1988 Tarka was released to critical acclaim and stayed in various charts for some time, achieving substantial sales in the UK and Europe. Despite this change in fortune the success didn't provide enough profit for the record company, PRT, to stay afloat, and so the project soon sank yet again.

Some years later, Voiceprint released the music on CD with extra parts that had been omitted from the original included. Sadly, Voiceprint has subsequently sank beneath the waves.

But all was not lost. In 2009 the Victorian Women's Trust under the direction of Mary Crooks AO was looking for a theme to promote their extraordinary work 'Water Mark' which examines the history and future prospects for Australia's most vital and scarce resource. My partner Maribel Steel approached Mary Crooks and suggested my company Spring Studio form a partnership with the VWT. Mary immediately recognised a thematic relationship between the projects.

 While Maribel took on the role of project co-ordinator, I undertook a year of work transcribing the four movements into Sibelius. Anthony unearthed the scores he had carefully preserved for so long, and sent them to me by mail, while I dug down through my filing system to find the precious copies of the score that I had retained. I needed to create a complete set of orchestral scores for the world premiere performance as the original scores only covered the second and third movements, and the first movement which was re-recorded in 1987 needed fleshing out for the live performance.

 During this year my family also travelled to the country of the two rivers to film each scene that I could recognize from the book, to make a visual record of the places where Henry had placed each scene, and illustrate the inspiration for the music. The film and the score were appropriately completed as the drought of 13 years broke in Victoria, and indeed some of this storm finds its way into the film. Doug de Vries, a celebrated Australian guitarist who had grown up listening to Genesis was happy to learn the parts that Anthony had played and we rehearsed together for several months.

In late January 2010 the orchestral rehearsals were complete and on one particularly long and beautiful Saturday, Februrary 27th, we performed the four movements from Tarka , twice, with a symphony orchestra, in Melbourne’s grand old Town Hall, to enthusiastic audiences.

The film I made was shown during the performance and it is this film that I have subsequently made into a DVD for you.