Laurie Johnson, composer of the theme tunes to The Avengers, The Professionals and Animal Magic – obituary

Laurie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1999
Laurie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1999 - Roberta Parkin/Redferns

Laurie Johnson, who has died aged 96, was a prolific composer of classic television themes, including the punchy introduction to The Avengers, the expansive music for This is Your Life and the bouncy number for Animal Magic; he also wrote the catchy tunes for Lionel Bart’s 1959 stage version of Lock Up Your Daughters and the futuristic sounds that heralded the 1970s detective television series The Professionals.

Johnson, a softly spoken and genial figure with an RAF-style moustache, preferred writing for the screen rather than the theatre. “After a musical on the stage has been running a little while it can be quite painful watching. The singers get out of tune, the timpanist can come in halfway through the second act and fall over the gong,” he told the Evening Standard in 1965.

Nevertheless, his stage work included the 1959 Peter Cook revue Pieces of Eight with Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding, and the musical The Four Musketeers starring Harry Secombe, which opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1967.

Lock Up Your Daughters, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Rape Upon Rape, had been the first show when the Mermaid Theatre at Blackfriars opened in May 1959. It won an Ivor Novello Award and was revived in 1962 before transferring to Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. But the 1969 film version, with a screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, jettisoned Johnson’s lively numbers, emerging instead as a straight comedy.

On screen, Johnson’s music for The Avengers was a masterclass in the use of instrumental colour, leitmotifs and specific orchestrations to signify certain characters or moods. He joined the series in 1965, about the same time as Diana Rigg, going on to compose the music for 85 episodes and reworking the theme tune when Linda Thorson joined in 1968.

“I would see the episode on Monday and would have to write the score by Friday,” he told The Daily Telegraph, adding that the wide range of stories afforded him the opportunity to experiment with different musical ideas.

Johnson's 1960 album
Johnson's 1960 album

Johnson was later involved in the company that created the 1970s spin-off The New Avengers, with Joanna Lumley instead of Linda Thorson. During this time his working day started at 6am, tucked away in a small studio at his seven-bedroom, 16th-century Tudor home in Stanmore, Middlesex, which stood on the site of a former priory. At midday he would drive over to Pinewood Studios, where the series was made, working there until late in the day.

One of his most memorable soundtracks was for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) starring Peter Sellers, which includes a memorably ironic arrangement of When Johnny Comes Marching Home that is heard as the bomb is flown in and dropped. The film opens with footage of a bomber refuelling in mid-air to his orchestral arrangement of the smooth instrumental Try a Little Tenderness and closes with his arrangement of Vera Lynn’s wartime standard We’ll Meet Again.

The novelist Barbara Cartland was a great admirer of Johnson’s work, describing him as “a gentleman, which is very rare these days”. His company owned the film rights to her novels and he adapted several of them for the screen, including A Hazard of Hearts (1987). “It was quite daunting to have to tell the world’s bestselling novelist that you were going to have to rewrite one of her stories,” he recalled, adding that she was “100 per cent professional”.

The return of The Avengers to television screens in 1997 provided an opportunity for Johnson to discuss how theme tunes prepare viewers for what they are about to see. “Listen to the best theme tunes around – they’re usually very simple,” he told budding television and film composers. “And remember that different instruments evoke different emotions, in the same way that the colours artists choose convey different moods.”

Laurence Reginald Ward Johnson was born in Hampstead, north London, on February 7 1927 into a family that was musical, though not professionally so. From an early age he had an ear for music, playing both trumpet and piano. “I heard noises in my head from the moment I was born,” he claimed, later calling his memoir Noises in the Head (2003).

By his teens those sounds had crystallised into light orchestral works, several of which were published. At age 14 he met Wladek Gnys, a pilot with the Polish Air Force to whom he later dedicated his 10-minute Battle of Britain 50th-anniversary memorial suite To the Few, which takes the listener through three movements: Scramble, Juke Box and Flypast.

Sucu Sucu, from Top Secret, reached No 9 in 1961
Sucu-Sucu, from Top Secret, reached No 9 in 1961

He was educated at Harrow, studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music, and in 1944 enlisted as a French horn player in the band of the Coldstream Guards. Demobbed in 1948, he worked with band leaders such as Ted Heath, Geraldo and Ambrose, and in 1955 formed his own hand-picked studio orchestra.

Before long he was conducting Bernard Herrmann’s scores for some of Alfred Hitchcock’s later films, including Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). His own early film scores included The Good Companions (1957), Tiger Bay (1959) and First Men in the Moon (1964), as well as the Hammer Horror film Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). In October 1961 his adaptation of the Bolivian song Sucu-Sucu, which had been the theme music for the ITV spy series Top Secret, reached No 9 in the charts.

Beyond film and television Johnson had an eclectic range of musical interests. In 1970 he was experimenting with the music of the Aztecs, arranging for reconstructions to be made of their percussion instruments, but ran into difficulties because some of the instruments included scrapers that were largely made of human bone. “A little difficult to come by these days,” he observed. Meanwhile, his orchestral work Synthesis, which he recorded with the London Philharmonic and the London Jazz Orchestra, proved an effective melding of jazz soloists and symphony orchestra.

He returned to the charts in May 1977 when his theme for The Professionals (1977-83) enjoyed a revival, reaching No 36. The following year it was described in The Daily Telegraph as being “so redolent of Ford Capris and bubble perms” that it “has become a New Lad pub anthem”. By then Johnson and his big band could sell out the Royal Albert Hall for concerts featuring his music.

Laurie Johnson in 1998
Laurie Johnson in 1998 - GAVIN SMITH

At the turn of the century some of his library music was used for the animated children’s series SpongeBob SquarePants. He confessed, however, that he could not remember every work he had written. “It is like having a huge number of children,” he said. “There are some you have to be reminded of.”

Johnson was appointed MBE in 2014. He had a liking for the novels of Charles Dickens, creating a musical called BOZ based on the novelist’s life, but had an avowed dislike of travelling, describing himself as a hermit who preferred to stay at home.

In March 1976 he was the subject of a brief obituary in The Daily Telegraph – followed by an apology the following day; he had been mistaken for Laurie Johnson, nephew of the bandleader Billy Cotton. In 1957 he married Doris “Dot” Morley, who survives him with their daughter, Sarah.

Laurie Johnson, born February 7 1927, died January 16 2024