1] Your latest score is for TO KILL A KING, the production was I understand a troubled one, did this effect your working schedule at all?

In direct answer to your question – “No!” I had already worked with Mike Barker on ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ an Ann Bronte BBC period drama starring Rupert Graves and Tara Fitzgerald and a week or two before he started shooting ‘To Kill A King’ , Mike called to ask if I’d be interested in putting some ideas together on spec whilst they were away on location and sent me a script.

There were then indeed the famous money problems as the production attempted to enter the Guiness Book of Records for going bankrupt not once but twice! In the knowledge that I had already spent a great deal of time on a feature film that would possibly not make it to post production, there were actually some positive aspects to the breaks during the shooting schedule , namely that it meant I could spend some time with Mike discussing the creative aspects of the films development at a time when the composer would usually not have much access to the director.

I also used some of the ‘extra time’ experimenting with choral and percussion ideas using the computer in my studio.

2] How much research did you carry out into the music from the period in which the film is set?

I did a lot of research looking for information about the specific styles of unison Psalm singing which I knew Cromwell and his supporters were well documented to have. For example the film opens with the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby & I used the actual text of the Psalms that were actually sung on the way back from that battle as a libretto for the opening to my score. Although I later decided on a perhaps more radical approach, the research definitively gave me the opportunity to get a feel for the period. I also researched other English Puritan music of the 1640s. Initially Mike (the director) and I thought about using a choral score perhaps reinterpreting Puritan music or Scottish Presbyterian Church Music and the like.

mitchell-cd-kill-a-king (1)

I also found that Cromwell’s troops had burnt many church organs in the name of their cause & he believed any music with harmony or counterpoint was florid, – a kind of ‘back to basics’ ethos. However all sorts of interesting contradictions came to light. Cromwell’s favourite composer was in fact Richard Dering who actually wrote Latin Motets – absolutely full of “florid harmony”. The idea of possibly turning the concept on its head and reinventing a movie about Cromwell for a new generation suddenly excited me. I live in Somerset & Wells Cathedral Choir have a great reputation for being wonderful exponents of early music. The idea of using the innocence of a young treble choral component working against some of the darker aspects of conspiracy in the movie appealed to me greatly.

I then discovered that although Cromwell’s supporters had destroyed Church organs whilst removing much of the ornamentation from churches, when he eventually lived at Hampton Court, he restored the Church organ because he liked the sound of it in his house! ‘Eureka’ – not only did the idealistic Puritanical psalm singing general of the battlefield secretly enjoy the outlawed Catholic “florid mass”, he also had a love of church organ music.


I decided to make use of these incongruities in moments when the film suggested that Cromwell had become corrupted by power, using a high church Catholic style to mock him. This became the vehicle from which I also built some of the the emotional aspects of the score. Along side the orchestral work, I initially invented my own simple puritan themes of choral music based on the text of the psalms which were later re-arranged with quite heavy percussion elements. One of Mikes main requirements from the score was that he wanted it to do more than simply give a feel of the period, he wanted as with all the various production elements of the movie to put a contemporary spin on the subject.

Having paved the way at Wells Cathedral with Malcolm Archer, the Choir Master, about the availability of working with them, I also expressed a desire to take a slightly unusual approach to recording, given that with Digital recording you no longer need to record in a linear fashion and can indeed cut and paste whole parts of arrangements into one another if you design your Lego kit with enough foresight. The Choir and orchestra were recorded separately at different venues and I recorded the brass parts in the same room as the strings but at the end of the session on their own, which I feel leaves you a lot more options in the final mix when these days the picture is often still being cut after the session players have all gone home. Also I like to experiment with stuff in isolation later that you may not get the option of trying because of the lack of separation in mic placement if you go for one big session.

3] The last movie I recall that dealt with this subject was CROMWELL, composer Frank Cordell had real problems creating the style or sound that he thought was correct,did you have any real headaches on TO KILL A KING?

After initially trawling through the various musical styles of our country in the 1640’s I must admit to taking a peak at Ken Hughes 1970 Cromwell movie with Alec Guiness & Richard Harris and indeed the Frank Cordell score was built around a very appropriate singing style that was very true to the subject but was in my opinion working so hard at creating a kind of musical document that related specifically to the period, it left you feeling very hung out to dry emotionally. It was obviously an approach that was motivated by very different sensibilities & related to the film makers demands when the movie was made.

That’s what for me is the great challenge of working on classic stories, we continue to reinvent and see new aspects of a story for each successive new generation.

4] You utilised the Japanese bamboo flute within your score, which was very effective, what gave you the idea to use this?

Having been a great admirer of the Shakuhachi, I knew that rather than just being a beautiful romantic sounding instrument it can also be very percussive and angry. It can turn from a sonorus full blown vibrato clarinet type quality into a flute and then a spitting, hissing viper in a matter of seconds. The Shakuhachi in its work a day clothing looks like some sort of plumbing implement, only possessing several holes and yet a skilled player manipulates it through various tones in a way that seems impossible given its limited number of holes.

It’s capable of the most beautiful melodic things but then also all the weird stuff in that I wanted for our movie. I knew that the character of Lady Fairfax in the movie was to have a strength of character as well as beauty & the shak moves effortlessly across those emotions.


5] How much music did you compose for the film?

I was very lucky in that we incorporated all of the main themes that were composed and I produced around one hour five minutes to picture. Having run through the movie in its final dubbed state, we came to the unanimous decision that given the nature of the mix, ie. the music was a very dominant part of the dub level wise, the score would work with a higher emotional impact if we lost around five minutes.

It’s so wonderful to be given the opportunity to score a movie where the music is given such prominence and yet doesn’t start to wash over you like musical polyfilla because there’s too much of it! I think the amount of music was just right on this movie. I remember a film where about eighty five minutes of score ended up in a ninety minute movie – needless to say that production had problems. I know the temptation is to use more and more music but eventually that becomes very counter productive.

6] What size orchestra did you use on the score?

I had around fifty four strings (of which I think we had eighteen celli for the richer cello based theme pieces) a French horn section, a couple of harps, timps, a clarinet and of course the Shakuhachi.


7] Do you have any input into what cues from any of your scores go onto a CD release?

I was given total free rain on this album as I re-mixed and produced whatever I felt made a nice album. The movie publishers simply paid for the pressing, then left it entirely up to me how mixed everything right down to the track order. It was great being given the opportunity to revisit the mix with a different perspective, i.e. dialogue or f/x levels sometimes change the way you mix a score for the 5.1 that might sound unnatural when you later re-work it for a straight forward stereo CD & I think it’s interesting how the mix of the music is affected by the colours on the screen:

Wierd theory of Mitchell Acoustics No 1. – I believe that if you give someone the job of mixing what they perceive to be the same mix and in turn get them to re-mix this whilst watching a huge coloured screen full of firstly yellow, then re-mix whilst watching blue, then red ….. I have an idea that if you play back each of those tracks in a neutral white room later, the mixes will all sound different!

8] Where and when were you born?

Manchester 1956

9] What musical education did you receive?

I had a Grammar School education in Lancashire during the early 1970s where I did all the usual ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels with the intention of becoming an Architect. Apart from an ‘O’ level in music and lessons in piano, violin and classical guitar, I had no formal music training. I was driven by an obsession for music of all sorts but it wasn’t until later that I realised an application. The only respectable career advice at school was that if you had academic potential with some creative leaning, you still had to find some sort of professional purpose in life. I was accepted by London University to do a degree in Architecture but then failed an ‘A’ level – probably because I was spending too much time at home experimenting with synthesizers and tape machines instead of swatting for exams. Also at that time I was playing guitar and keyboards in various local bands.


So as a professional failure at the age of 18, I made a decision to turn away from a traditional academic vocation and try a foundation course at the local Art School in Preston, which changed my whole outlook. I discovered that the arts had been busy moving forwards into all sorts of interesting areas during the 20th century, when at school we’d been told nothing of any serious cultural value had taken place after the start of the century!

I was accepted by St Martins School of Art in London for their Fine Art degree course as a painter and I began to develop relationships with all sorts of wonderful folk there; installation artists, sculptors in multimedia and fine art filmmakers to name but a few. I soon stopped painting and found myself experimenting with soundscapes for other students work. My personal tutors were Malcolm Le Grice and William Raeburn who were two of the main figures of the avant-garde fine art film movement in London at that time. Malcolm had worked with people like Brian Eno. I was introduced to a whole new world, one being the London Filmmakers Co-Op where a diverse range of experimental work and diary films were being produced.


I soon realised that what really excited me was working as a musical collaborator with other filmmakers. I spent much of my time whilst technically a student at St Martins actually moonlighting with students at the National Film School and Royal College Film & Television School, experimenting with music and picture. That was my “eureka” moment.

Bill Foulk another tutor and great mentor at St Martins was making a ‘no’ budget movie with some cheap Kodak film stock he’d been given that was about to go out of date. So a bunch of us spent a summer shooting Beastly Treatment. It starred, amongst others, a great actor called Ronald Lacey (who sadly died recently but was perhaps best known for his fantastic role as the horrible Nazi bad guy in Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark). We then spent on and off about two years in post-production where as well as doing most of the sound editing, I scored my first movie.

10] Do you orchestrate all your own music, or at times do you use orchestrators?

I write and arrange all the parts into separate lines: 1st Violins, 2nd Violins, Violas, Cellos etc on Logic Software and Pete Whitfield, my musical associate takes my midi files and checks the score is all legible. For example a lot of the string work in this score, has weird harmonics and notes with sliding pitches etc & Pete has a genius for interpreting the hieroglyphics and making sure the musicians can actually make sense of what I’m trying to do. My score writing is appalling and Pete and I have worked together for many years, so I trust him implicitly & we’ve never employed orchestrators – although I guess if one day we’re really up against a series of stupid deadlines, there may well no choice; “never say – never”! Pete also enables the transposition of all the parts for violas, brass etc. Although the software available for composers to print out score from MIDI parts is now readily available, I would never allow a note to be output from a score program that Pete hadn’t checked through.


I live in Somerset and Pete lives in Manchester so I send him Midi files with all the tempo changes and notes laid out in Key Edit by e-mail which is fantastic. When we turned up to the session for both the orchestra & choral stuff Pete had everything prepared, printed out and ready to go.

11] What or who would you say are your biggest influences musically?

I love all sorts of styles of music Jazz, Classical, Drum and Bass, etc including Messiaen, Bach, Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarret, Vaughan Williams, King Crimson, Ravi Shankar, Brian Eno, Elgar, Shoenberg, Radiohead, Josquin de Pres, John Tavener, Stravinsky , Elgar, Bjork, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Cream, Hendrix, Ronnie Size, Ennio Morricone, John Barry (to name but a few.)

12] What would you say were the differences between scoring a TV project and a motion picture?

There are many obvious technical differences relating to this question but perhaps I could take issue with an aspect of this question that saddens me. Television music in the UK is in my opinion absolutely abysmal at the moment. Because of the nature of television post-production schedules today, there is never enough time to spend on dubbing compared to movies. So, I think today the composers are too often put in a position of “blanket bombing”. When the post-production sound effects are very often put together during the final day of mixing and dialogue doesn’t get any thing like the attention from post sync that it used to, music has become a kind of polyfilla to seamlessly join together sequences of dialogue.

There are rarely musical scenes left without dialogue in English TV and by the time all the execs have watched an interesting ‘speechless’ scene that perhaps the director intended eventually to work as a musical piece, the scene is cut because it’s “not saying anything”!

Another example of music really suffering these days, is when a piece which has been composed under the premise that it will be a dominant part of the mix is often later mixed too low because there is a problem with a loud atmos sync sound effect track that everyone thought was going to be fixed at the dub and yet an ambient piece that the composer intended to sit quietly as a bit of musical atmos under a scene can suddenly be the only last minute way to save some problematic sound f/x effect track and will get mixed in at ridiculously high volume that sounds like the composer has written something wrong.


So television composer solution number one:- “Blanket Bombing.” Just make sure that you have enough musical polyfilla laid up to seamlessly cover all possible cracks! The television composer’s work has become a kind of fall back secondary atmosphere effects track. The care and attention that television producers now pay to the music is absolutely zilch.

There isn’t even the space at the end of a UK television show for a good theme anymore because broadcasters simply use the credit sequences to advertise other shows . I think we’ve finally reached crisis point here where new television theme compilation albums will become a thing of the past. I’m sorry if this sounds very negative but we have to stand up and shout “enough is enough”!

13] Do you conduct at all?

I don’t conduct because I’m usually worried about how the score’s working with the picture in the control room; ongoing discussions with the director and a million other things to worry about. On this occasion we had Nick Ingman in to conduct who was wonderful. It’s a very personal thing and I know a lot of composers feel they are missing something if they don’t get up on the podium.

Let me give you an example of how I feel about the ‘conducting thing’ – Whilst we were recording the orchestra for one of the pivotal scenes in the movie where Rupert Everett as King Charles I is being executed, Mike suddenly had an issue with some aspect of the piece & we quickly found that there was something about the solo violin part that he didn’t like. By the time we got to the end of the first take, we had it nailed and the wonderful Gavin Wright (orchestra leader) was given a note to slightly change the vibrato style of his playing away from the way I’d suggested it & we were quickly through to the next cue without wasting valuable time. I think that if I’d been conducting that would have been 15 valuable minutes wasted which we didn’t have the time to lose.

Working with English movie music budgets is a real race against the clock & my take on it is that it’s also very useful input – to have an extra pair of hands and ears for some objective perspective. Nick continually made suggestions about things that I’m too close to have considered and is an extra member batting for the home team. By the time you get to the point where you are going to the session, you know every single note so intimately and the way it works up and down with the dialogue and everything. Nick can look at it with fresh eyes & often give you invaluable objective input about dynamics.

Concert wise, I’ve never conducted at Film Music Evenings because I must admit to a slight aversion to the idea of such events! I think that a lot of composers scores may work very well in the context of a movie but many simply come across as cheesy pieces of late 19th century classical music when performed out of context. I’ve always thought we should push the envelope slightly with our approach to use of musical styles in movie scores and am disappointed by most of the film music concert programs.

14] When working on a score, do you have a set routine i.e.: main theme to end titles, larger cues first etc, or does it vary in each case.

I must admit that each case is always different but I will usually start to assemble my jigsaw puzzle with composition of all the main themes. Once you have those approved and in place, you can move forward with great confidence. Also the end credits is almost without exception the last thing to happen!

15] How early do you like to be involved on a project, do you like to see a script, or do you prefer to wait until the film is in its rough cut stage.

I really without exception prefer to be involved at the script stage.

16] What is next for you.

I’m just finishing a movie called Grand Theft Parsons starring Johnny Knoxville (yes he can act & rather well in fact!) directed by David Caffrey and produced by Frank Mannion. It’s a wonderful story about the funeral of Gram Parsons who was a member of The Byrds, and whose body when he died of a drug overdose in 1973, was stolen from LA airport by his road manager, then after the most extraordinary list of events was taken in an old broken down hearse into the desert and burned by in Joshua Tree.

JOHN MANSELL (C) 2009/2016.