Born in Paris, Wilkinson studied composition at Columbia and Princeton Universities; he also took some private lessons with Varèse in New York. For a time he was resident composer and musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, then musical director of the Royal National Theatre (1963–74). One of the first scores he composed in that post was for Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun; the result deeply impressed the playwright, who has described Wilkinson’s work as “perhaps the best score for a play to be written since Grieg embellished Peer Gynt“. Wilkinson subsequently wrote the incidental music to Shaffer’s play Equus (1973).
Through his work at the National Theatre Wilkinson met Piers Haggard, who was working as an assistant director: the two worked together on the National Theatre production The Dutch Courtesan (1964). Having directed several TV dramas, Haggard was about to direct his first feature film and invited Wilkinson to score. The result is one of Wilkinson’s most celebrated film scores, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971),acclaimed by Jonathan Rigby in English Gothic as “easily among the best ever composed for a British horror film”. Wilkinson subsequently gave crucial advice to Paul Giovanni who had been commissioned to score the film The Wicker Man.
Q: Where and when were you born and what musical education did you receive?
I was born in Paris, July 1929… Australian nationality… MA degree Columbia University, NY, USA and MFA degree Princeton University, New Jersey, USA. I also studied independently with Edgard Varese in NY.
Q: When you started your musical career had you decided that you wanted to write music for film, or was this something that developed as your career progressed?
No. I started with concert works first, then theatre, and then films came later.
Q: I think I am correct in saying your first scoring assignment was for director Lindsey Anderson on IF. What was he like to work with; did he have any specific ideas of what type of music he wanted and how did you become involved on the movie?
IF was my first feature film music. I met Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court Theatre in London where I had written scores for many plays including a Julius Caesar directed by Lindsay. He gave me no instructions regarding my score but did want to use the Missa Luba extract.
Q: You worked on a movie during the early 1980s entitled ENIGMA. This was also credited with music by Douglas Gamley. Did you collaborate with Gamley on this score or did each of you contribute various musical cues independently?
Douglas Gamley and I collaborated on the score. But several of the cues were entirely due to me.
Q: Do you always orchestrate all of your own music for films or do you sometimes have an orchestrator?
I sometimes worked with an orchestrator; I liked to stick with people I knew such as Gary Hughes, John Coleman and Nic Rowley.
Q: How many times do you like to watch a movie before you begin to get any fixed ideas on what type/style of music you will utilise and where that music is to be placed?
I do like to look at a movie quite a few times, it really depends on the actual movie, I can’t answer more precisely.
Q: Do you conduct all of your own music?
Yes, I conducted all my film scores.
Q: BLOOD ON SATANS CLAW is now a British movie classic and your score is one of the most requested soundtracks to have a release. Trunk Records in the UK have released this. Were you surprised that collectors were still interested in your score 37 years later?
Yes, I was both surprised and pleased about this. But as you say the movie is a classic horror film and still stands up to the passing of time when viewed now.
Q: Staying with BLOOD ON SATANS CLAW, what size orchestra did you use on this assignment, and how much time did you get to score the movie?
The orchestra was a pretty classical group, the recording was done in four sessions, we had 40 musicians for 2 of the sessions and about 12-15 for the two others, but of course there was also a cimbalom and a Ondes Martenot used on the score.
Q: Are there any composers in particular that you think have influenced you at all?
Many composers have influenced me so I can’t list them all. In the case of the music for Blood on Satan’s Claw it was Berlioz.
Q: THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN was a wonderful movie, but sadly did not really achieve a lot of commercial success. How did you become involved on this project?
I had written the music for Peter Shaffer’s play (of the same name) on which the film was based, for the National Theatre in London. It was due to this that I became the first director of music there. A post that I held for about 10 years. Peter Shaffer insisted that I should write the music for the film. The film music was very different from the music for the play.
Q: Did you ever go on location when scoring a movie?
Only very occasionally.
Q: Have you a favourite score of your own or by another composer?
That depends very much on the day and on my moods!
Q: THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MAN CHU was a send up of the Fu Manchu movies, and was co-directed by Peter Sellers. Did he have any input into what type of music or how much music should be utilised within the movie?
No, it was rather the other way around! I was left total freedom as to the music and styles etc… However whilst in Paris and lunching alone during the filming of the scene in the theatre, the idea came to me for the ROCK A FU song which I proposed to Sellers, which he immediately accepted and therefore rewrote the end of the film in order to incorporate the idea and the song.
Q: When working on a movie score how do you work out your musical ideas. Do you use a piano, synthesiser or write straight to manuscript?
All three, depends whatever is handy and also what time I have to write the music
Q: THE MANGO TREE was a charming little movie made in Australia; did you score the movie in Australia or in the U.K.?
I wrote the music for THE MANGO TREE in Sidney in Australia and also recorded it there as well. The music received the “Best Film Score” award from the AFI.
Q: What would you say is the role of music in film?
It all depends on the film! Sometimes one helps to save the film, other times discretion is all, and so forth.
Q: Have you ever given a concert of your film music?
No, never. I don’t think I have ever been asked.
Q: What do you do musically away from film?
I have written vast amounts of music for the theatre (the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, in London; the Theatre de la Ville in Paris…) and a considerable amount of concert works
Q: Have you ever had a score rejected?
Yes, once. It took a little while before I was taken off the black list.
Q: When working on a movie do you have a set way in which you work, i.e. do you work on larger cues first or maybe start at the main titles and work through to the end titles?
Again this depends on each individual project; I usually start with the main titles then some larger cues and then carry on as the fancy takes me.
Q: Are you working on anything at the moment?
The weather permitting, I’m working hard in my garden. A few years ago, The National Theatre revived THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN in London so I went over to oversee the music and make any useful alterations. I may start writing a book and I give a few individual lessons to people I believe in.