DOWNTON ABBEY is certainly a runaway success but you were writing music for film a long while before this show, when did you start to compose music for film and TV ?

I’ve been writing music for Film & TV for about 25 years. Previously I had been composing and performing music for various modern dance companies in London so it was a fairly natural step

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You have worked on a number of TV series have you ever re-cycled music from for example episode 1 and utilized in in episode 4 or at least adapted the music to suit it etc?

I hardly ever use exactly the the same cue twice, there seems to be much more dialogue in TV Drama now and my music tends to be fairly choreographed around it so it would be unusual for the same cue to work twice. Anyway one of the beauties of working on large episodic TV series is the potential to fully explore your material so I like to take advantage of that.

When scoring an episodic TV series what is the scheduling like, do you work in chronological order of episode or do you sometimes jump from episode to episode depending on the way in which the series is filmed?

I usually do work in chronological order, mainly because that’s also the episodes are edited and presented to me, however, I will have read the scripts so I will be aware of how a storyline might develop and I will be very aware of how a particular strand of thematic material might need to be used in later episodes. There is a certain amount of “thinking ahead” required.

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What size of orchestra did you utilize on DOWNTON ABBEY

I use a string orchestra of usually 33-35 musicians plus French Horn, Soprano Saxophone or Cor Anglais, Vibraphone and I play the Piano myself.

DOWNTON had various directors, did this prove more difficult rather than working with just one director and did any of the directors on the series have a hands on approach when it came to the music in the series?

On the first series I had more involvement with the directors but not now, sometimes I don’t even meet them. I work exclusively with the Producer Liz Truebridge and the executive producer Gareth Neame. Each of us has been involved from the very start and the feeling is that we know how the music works in Downton better than anyone else. Occasionally a director may make a suggestion but I always feel I have power of veto!

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What musical education did you receive and what areas of music did you focus upon and also what instrument or instruments did you concentrate upon when studying?

I studied Music at Glasgow University which was rigorously academic but did involve an enormous amount of practical music making. It was an extremely valuable experience which made me what I am. I also did a Postgraduate course at MIT in the use of computers and music which again was very valuable and a real eye opener.

Do you like to conduct your own music or do you at times use the services of a conductor so that you can monitor proceedings at the scoring sessions?

I started out conducting but now I find it more valuable to listen to the final result in the control room. I need to be able to shape the dynamics so I need to concentrate on the picture as much as the sound.

In 2007 you scored FRANKENSTEIN, which was a different take on the classic story, how did you become involved on this project ?

I had worked with the director and writer on a previous project.

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When you are working on a project, how many times do you like to see it before starting to get any ideas about what style of music and how much music you will write also at what stage of the production is better for you to become involved, do you prefer to see a script or maybe wait until the rough cut stage of the proceedings?

I like to read a script and maybe see some rough edits but really my work doesn’t start until the film has been locked i.e. completely edited. The pace of the editing is crucial to the type of music I write, it’s a large part of the storytelling so it tends to be very specific to the picture. In fact I always compose to picture, I never switch the dialogue off as I tend to overcomplicate the music when composing in isolation.

A number of the projects that you have worked on are period pieces, i.e.; DOWNTON, LORNA DOONE, THE WHITE QUEEN etc, do you carry out any research into the music of the particular period that the story is set in?

Because of my musical education I’m already very aware of the type of music which would have existed in each period. I would say that I don’t particularly pay much attention to it, but neither do I ignore it all together.

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You have a credit as music researcher on FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, what did this involve?

I wrote and edited a temp score to help with the editing and for test screenings

You have written the music for a number of shorts including the documentary BUGS, do you think it is more difficult to write for a film with a short running time as opposed to scoring a series or a feature length project?

Bugs was an IMAX movie and, I’m not sure why, but they tend to have a lot of music. I don’t think the music actually stopped in Bugs, there was as much of it as you would get in a normal feature film. I must say I do like the opportunity to explore my material over time so the longer the better for me.

When recording scores do you have a preference as to what recording studio that you use?

There are really only 3 studios left in London where you can record an orchestra properly, Abbey Road, Air or Angel, I will use one of those, recently I’ve been tending to use Angel studios more than the other 2.

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Do you orchestrate all of your music for film or due to the time factor have you at times used an orchestrator?

I started out orchestrating it all myself but I just can’t do that now, I used to stay up all night. I have a very good orchestrator now, Alastair King, and we have developed a very good way of working together. I will have realised a fairly good mock up of the cue using samples so Alastair will have a fairly good idea of the final intention. Also schedules have become much tighter so there’s a good chance I will be writing right up till the last moment so I just wouldn’t have time anyway.

What composers either contemporary or classical would you say may have influenced you in your approach to either scoring films or maybe have had some influence in the way you actually write music ?

I have a highly eclectic taste in music so the influences tend to vary between projects. I’m a great fan of Maurice Jarre, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith but I’m not sure they have been massive influences on me. Philip Glass, I suppose, I have a great deal of admiration for, particularly his film and operatic work.

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Were any of the projects you were asked to score temp tracked, and
do you think that this is a practise that is a help or hindrance ?

Downton is only temped with my own music so that’s very helpful. I never find temp music a problem, it gives me a good insight into what the expectations are and the direction that a director is taking. Sometimes those expectations have to tempered by the budget but usually I find a way.

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At the moment in British television I am of the opinion that the musical scores are of a high standard, although at times they do tend to lack the presence of a stand out theme as in vintage television programmes. What is your opinion of the state of British television and film music at this moment in time ?

I think British TV music is in a very good state at the moment, it is very competitive and there’s always a feeling that you’re only as good as your last project. Recently however there is a tendency to think that music is done by one person in a spare room in their house. It’s not, it’s a department in it’s own right that requires a certain amount of staff in order to function properly. That’s probably been exacerbated by scheduling, in that there is now very little time, if any, allotted to directors or producers to attend music sessions so they tend to only see the final product and be totally unaware of the complexities of producing it. I can think of no other dept of filming which is expected to make such a large contribution with such a low budget.

You have worked on many differing genres, is there any genre of film that you have not worked that maybe you would like to ?

I haven’t done a political thriller for a while, that would be nice, or maybe even something like True Detective which I thought was fantastic film making. I hate being pigeon holed which unfortunately Downton Abbey has in a way, but I can’t really complain too much.

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When working on a score, how do you bring your ideas to fruition, by this I mean do you use piano, keyboards, or a more technical approach?

I tend to improvise to the picture with a Midi piano which I will record and then play around with various sounds on top and maybe end up not using the piano at all. I tend to find that each project requires it’s own unique harmonic or chordal entity and I usually find it on the piano.

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How much music have you written thus far for DOWNTON ABBEY and hopefully you will return for another series soon?

Well I’ve just finished series 5 so that’s, I think, 52 hours of drama, a lot in other words and series 6 has just been announced, long may it continue!




Based upon the novel by author Markus Zusak, the Book Thief is the latest directorial assignment for Liverpool born Brian Percival who has worked steadily mostly on television projects and has become more prominent because of his involvement with DOWNTON ABBEY. In fact I did at one point think that maybe composer John Lunn would have been the director’s choice for this movie his style probably would have been suited to the project, so it was somewhat surprising when Williams was announced as the composer. But anything that Williams is involved with always seems to have quality stamped all over it and this score is certainly no exception. Of course in the content of this latest work one will notice certain similarities to a handful of other works by the composer, most notably some of the style and sound that he achieved within the soundtrack to JANE EYRE is abundantly present, and also there are little quirks of orchestration that shine through within the work that echo his haunting tone poems from SCHINDLERS LIST and it also at times has a wistfulness to it that again evokes Williams scores from past assignments, such as the melancholia from ANGELAS ASHES and even some of the more intimate  musical moments of his DRACULA soundtrack. The score for THE BOOK THIEF relies predominantly upon the use of piano and also the string section of the orchestra with little nuances and fleeting enhancement from woodwind, harp and horns, with other sections of the orchestra adding feint underlying support, which although obviously present is in no way overpowering or intruding, the central instrumentation always remaining uppermost in the equation. It is however the piano that for the majority of the time becomes the heart of the score, the instrument creating a subdued and delicate sound that at times can be likened to a flower that is gently unfolding in the warmth of the summer sun, beginning slowly and in an unassuming fashion, but then beautifully blossoming into touching and heartfelt melodies which soon become more pronounced and in their own fragile and tantalizing way are affecting and dominant. This practise mesmerises the listener and totally engrosses them. Set in WWll, THE BOOK THIEF tells the story of a young German girl who is sent to stay with foster parents as the Nazi’s gain a powerful hold on the country and war becomes inevitable. It is via the perspective of the young girl that we see the beginnings of the tragedy that will become what we all know now as the Holocaust. It is her and her foster parent’s understanding and their love of the written word and also her friendship with a Jewish man that assists her to cope with the terrible things that are starting to happen and that she is witnessing. John Williams creates a somewhat frail and uneasy sounding poignancy with his sparing and understated approach but at the same time he manages to purvey a mood that that is hopeful if not tinged with a degree of uncertainty.

John Williams at the Boston Symphony Hall afte...
John Williams at the Boston Symphony Hall after he conducted the Boston Pops. May 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The compact disc opens with ONE SMALL FACT, in this we hear piano opening the proceedings as it picks out the central theme from the score, this effective introduction is short lived as strings enter the arena and take on the theme briefly before things slow and finally come to rest with a sprinkling from the piano.  Track number two, THE JOURNEY TO HIMMEL STREET is a more solemn sounding piece, with woodwind opening the cue and then passing the duties to piano, the theme which rises throughout the work and will become an accompaniment for the young girl begins to establish itself here even if only briefly. It re-occurs throughout the score at times being underlined by subtle strings or mirrored by plaintive woods and harp. There are a few slightly more up beat moments within the score, track number five, THE SNOW FIGHT for example; this did for me personally evoke memories of TOURISTS ON THE MENU from JAWS, but a less vigorous version of that particular composition. Track number seven, BOOK BURNING is full of tense and dramatic strings, which ooze an anxious and broodingly fearful ambience, this tension can also be heard in track number seventeen, RESCUEING THE BOOK, but the mood soon alters and melts into a more relaxed and melodious affair midway through this piece. THE BOOK THIEF is a score that maybe one will listen to and think yes this is John Williams, is there anything that is new or original here? Well possibly not, but it is a score that tugs at the heart strings and also one that just reaffirms this musical masters talent and his obvious gift for creating eloquent and melodious music that will live forever in the hearts and the minds of his many followers and also will stay with numerous movie goers long after they have left the cinema.