Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ronald Erle Grainer (1922–1981)

by Stephen Cronin

This article was published:

Ronald Erle Grainer (1922-1981), composer, was born on 11 August 1922 at Atherton, Queensland, son of Ronald Albert Grainer, storekeeper, and his wife Margaret, née Clark, both born in Queensland. Educated at Mount Mulligan and Cairns state schools and at St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Brisbane, Ron learned to play the violin, achieving success in regional eisteddfods and music examinations. In 1939 while enrolled (for one term) in the faculty of science, University of Queensland, he took piano lessons with Percy Brier. His initial forays into composition began at this time and included a rhapsody written for performance at Brier’s piano master-class.

Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 30 December 1940, Grainer served in Australia as a wireless operator mechanic. He played in unit concerts and with American musicians who exposed him to contemporary trends in jazz and blues. On 3 September 1945 he was discharged from the RAAF as a sergeant.

After the war Grainer studied under Frank Hutchens and (Sir) Eugene Goossens at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, graduating in 1949 with a diploma in performance. As a mature student, Grainer revealed his warm and generous personality as mentor to fellow students, particularly those from North Queensland. Back in Brisbane, he worked as a freelance musician. On 17 September 1952 at the Presbyterian manse, Norman Park, he married 41-year-old Marjorie Boyce Adolphus, née White, a divorced businesswoman.

Moving to London, and again freelancing, Grainer found regular employment in a variety act. Work as a rehearsal pianist for television led to the opportunity to compose the theme for the 1960 series `Maigret’. Cleverly capturing the Gallic flavour of the series through unusual and evocative instrumentation that included banjo, harpsichord and clavichord, the composition won an Ivor Novello award in 1961. A second `Ivor’ next year for his `Steptoe and Son’ theme ensured regular commissions from production houses such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Independent Television and Thames Television. At the BBC radiophonic workshop in 1963 he composed his most striking work, the enduring theme for the series `Dr Who’.

Grainer’s heavy work commitments began to affect his health. A bout of temporary blindness attributed to working in poor light prompted him to move to southern Portugal in 1963 in search of sunlight. In 1964 he won a third `Ivor’, for `outstanding score for a stage musical’, with Robert and Elizabeth. The cast, which included June Bronhill and Keith Michell, gave over nine hundred performances in London’s West End. Later works for theatre were less successful, but Grainer continued to write music for television and for films, including A Kind of Loving (1962), To Sir with Love (1967) and The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976).

Divorced in 1966, on 19 August that year at the Marylebone register office, London, Grainer married 21-year-old Jennifer Marilyn Dodd, a singer. After their divorce in 1976 he settled near Brighton, England. Survived by his son, he died of cancer on 22 February 1981 at Cuckfield Hospital, West Sussex, and was cremated. Despite early recognition and support, he had felt neglected by the Australian music fraternity. Early in the twenty-first century there was renewed interest in his `sci-fi’ music, composed for television series such as `The Prisoner’ (1967) and films such as The Omega Man (1971).

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 20 Dec 1975, p 20
  • Times (London), 23 Feb 1981, p 14
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 24 Feb 1981, p 2
  • private information.

Citation details

Stephen Cronin, 'Grainer, Ronald Erle (1922–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 August, 1922
Atherton, Queensland, Australia


22 February, 1981 (aged 58)
Cuckfield, Sussex, England

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