David McNiven

musician and composer

born November 4, 1945

died December 18, 2015

David McNiven, who has died after a lengthy illness, was a musician and composer whose work featured in theatre, on radio and on television – he provided the music for Rab C Nesbitt amongst other shows – as well as winning his group Bread Love and Dreams cult status among aficionados of progressive rock and acid folk music.

The group’s three albums, recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sold disappointingly at the time but now fetch three- and four-figure sums among collectors of vintage vinyl.

Born in Dennistoun, McNiven was given his first instrument, a banjo, by his grandmother and used it to write his first song. He also played clarinet and saxophone and when, in his teens, he met and became friends with another Dennistoun boy on holiday in Millport, the actor Bill Paterson, he formed his first performing partnership.

The two would busk on the streets of the resort as strolling players, Paterson reciting scenes from Shakespeare while wearing a white sheet and McNiven singing and accompanying himself. They came to the attention of Duncan Macrae, the actor and comedian, who had a house in Millport and became a mentor and friend, inviting them to his house in Glasgow to watch the ground-breaking satirical television show That Was The Week That Was and sip cider.

At school – after Dennistoun Private School he attended the High School of Glasgow – McNiven hated classical music lessons but he was encouraged by his English teacher, Donald MacCormick, later a broadcaster and Newsnight presenter. MacCormick gave McNiven a room to himself and told him to get on with playing guitar and writing songs.

McNiven went on to study drama and did various jobs, including bingo caller, bus conductor and labourer at an iron works before, in 1967, he formed Bread Love and Dreams with singer-guitarist-keyboards player Angie Rew, who became his wife, and guitarist Carolyn Davis. While appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the group came to the attention of and were subsequently championed by Ray Horricks, a producer and A&R man at Decca Records who had overseen guitar legend Davy Graham’s recordings, and they released their eponymous first album in early 1969.

Despite the group touring the UK extensively with Tyrannosaurus Rex and Magna Carta to promote it, the album sold poorly and Davis left. McNiven kept writing and developed a relationship with the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. One of the pieces intended for the next Bread Love and Dreams album, Mother Earth, was adapted for the theatre group and performed in Edinburgh, then toured to London and Europe.

In 1970, Bread Love and Dreams went back into the studio with session players including The Pentangle’s rhythm section, bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, and recorded enough material for a double album. This eventually appeared as two separate albums, The Strange Tale of Captain Shannon and The Hunchback from Gigha and Amaryllis, after which McNiven decided to pursue theatre projects.

He acted with the Traverse Theatre Workshop then the Young Lyceum and joined the 7.84 Theatre Company, going on to form its music offshoot, Wildcat, with Rew, keyboardist Dave Anderson and singer Terry Neason. Shows for Neason, including Jenny and the Poison Factory, and work on Liz Lochhead’s Dracula followed and as well as leading the backing band for Emma Thompson’s breakthrough Edinburgh Fringe show McNiven composed for BBC Scotland’s Naked Radio, subsequently moving on to television work with A Kick up the Eighties and Naked Video and composing the theme for Ben Elton’s Happy Families, which was played by the Halle Orchestra.

At one point McNiven was commuting daily between Granada Television’s studio in Manchester, where he was working on Alfresco with Robbie Coltrane and Stephen Fry, and Edinburgh, where he had a rock version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera running at the Lyceum. For Rab C Nesbitt he not only wrote the theme tune and all the incidental music, he also played the parts of Marshall Gormley and Clatty McCutcheon. Altogether he composed the themes for more than twenty television series including Atletico Partick.

In more recent times McNiven worked with children and adults with special educational needs notably with Drake Music Scotland. Here he successfully campaigned for the Scottish Qualifications Authority to recognise the Brainfingers system, which allows pupils with cerebral palsy to create music with a laptop and to interact with other musicians, as just as valid as conventional musical instruments.

He is survived by his wife, Angie, daughters Anya and Lucille and son Martin.

Rob Adams