Ivor Novello-nominated Tom Hodge is one of the leading composers in the UK, on the cutting edge of contemporary sound for drama and beyond, including his score for Kevin Macdonald’s critically-acclaimed drama, ‘The Mauritanian’, starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch.
In 2019 his score for the BBC/PBS historical docu-miniseries, ‘Rise of the Nazis’ earned him an Ivor Novello Nomination, and he has recently completed work on a second series of the show for maker’s 72 films, as well as the recent ‘Royal Bastards: Rise of the Tudors’ for the same team. Other credits include his score for the prestige BBC/AMC eight-part crime drama series, McMafia.
Alongside frequent collaborator Floex, Tom scored Christian Schwochow’s feature, ‘Je Suis Karl’, which premiered at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix. A pianist, clarinettist and recording artist pushing the boundaries of experimental neoclassical, Tom continues to shape the aural landscape of original scores across feature film, documentaries, TV drama, ballet, and multiple award-winning advertising campaigns. (IMDB).
He has just completed the score for a new six-part adaptation of ‘The Ipcress File’ for Altitude Television, starring Joe Cole, Tom Hollander and Lucy Boynton, its first episode airing in March(6th)2022 on ITV in the UK and through AMC in the US. I spoke with the composer about.
SCORING A COLD WAR SPY CLASSIC.
How did you become involved with the new TV series The Ipcress File?
I worked with James Watkins on McMafia. In late 2020 I think it was, he asked me if I wanted to be involved with The Ipcress File. I of course jumped at the chance! So, he sent me the (stellar John Hodge!) scripts and we went from there. The process took around a year all in all.
It is an iconic novel and a classic movie from the 1960’s that probably everyone has seen or at least heard of. When you were invited to compose the music for the TV series were you given any specific instructions by the series producers as to the style and sound that the music should lean towards, or were they happy to allow you to just write the score?
There weren’t really any instructions as such, but of course we had extensive conversation about style in more general terms. James described his plans a little for the production and I felt straight away that the score was going to be a key bridge or gateway to a modern audience (with all our modern sensibilities about score)- it absolutely needed a foot in both camps, namely the 60s and now.
I knew immediately I wanted a little of the jazz (or at least slightly polytonal) idiom- it is not something I’ve had a chance to really explore before in film and TV, but I consider it a core part of my musical voice actually, so I was very excited to work in this space. And I was really keen also to come largely from an acoustic angle. I have mainly operated in the so-called ‘hybrid’ space recently (with The Mauritanian) and even heavily electronic one (with the Rise of the Nazis and Royal Bastards documentaries) and I was keen to explore something more traditional in that respect. Off the back of this, I made the conscious choice to only use sounds that were actually available in the 60s. This broadly ruled out synthesisers! Except for the very first Moog and Buchla. (And we carried this principle through the production and the mix also).
Were you aware of the score that John Barry wrote for the Michael Caine movie in the 1960’s, and did it have any influence upon how you approached the project or was it something that you avoided?
The elephant in the room! I’ve seen a few comments already about John Barry ’nods’ here and there, but really, I focused on finding a language that I felt might bring my own take on the genre. Once I had made choices to go with something broadly acoustic and with a slightly jazz flavour, I guess I was rather inviting comparison. But honestly, we really only got deeply into the JB question once, when returning to the opening sequence (On the OST, ‘An Excellent Teacher’). Crucially this was after the whole of Ep1 was actually pretty settled musically, so I was in the enviable position of kind of summarising my own themes and just adding a little John Barry sprinkle.
So yes, if there is anywhere you might argue there is a little nod, it is perhaps in the string orchestrations and the waltz over the sequence of Harry in the jeep at the beginning. We decided to attach this kind of weltschmerz-meets-opportunity vibe to Harry and his rather more carefree (albeit risky) life very much *before* he becomes a spy. Just like James’ opening black glasses shot, I guess this became my little connection to the film too. If people feel the connection goes deeper than that, then it is simply the unavoidable weight of his musical personality in the film scoring world- not intentional anyway!
Really, I tried to search for a language that I hope offers something fresh. Well… I did put one second of cimbalom in Episode 3 over the international spy playground of Beirut- just couldn’t resist! It’s fascinating the nuance required in a so-called ‘remake’ actually- it’s nice to reference things but also to sidestep and immediately push forward into interesting new ground.
Your score is so atmospheric, and matches the action and the intrigue wonderfully, it’s like a simmering pan of water just about to boil over, and creates a tense and brooding atmosphere, that greatly aids the mood of the action on screen, how long did you have to compose the music and record it?
Thanks very much. The timeline really was ideal for a project like this, and you don’t say that often (maybe ever!?) as a media composer. I did a suite of demos after my conversation with James and reading the scripts. Then a close dialogue with the series editor Stuart Gazzard started up. He was assembling while James was shooting, and he would send little assembly clips for me to digest and experiment with. Soon we were ’temping’ these clips with my own score. Shooting is always out of order of course, so we were exploring sequences throughout all six episodes and over the first few months, this really started to just organically become the thematic score sound without the more typical score-to-episode urgency and inevitable pressure that goes with it.
How many times did you see the series before you began to get ideas regarding where the music would be placed to best serve the storyline?
These assemblies soon became a rough cut and it was starting to become clear from Stuart’s work, how the score should function and drive the narrative. The key time for these choices though is always the spotting session. I was very fortunate to have Gerard McCann on board as music editor. And so we had one session as each episode locked (or almost locked) with director, editor, music editor and composer.
Did you score the series in order of when it would be aired as in episodes 1 through to 6, or did you work on the series as a long feature film and score certain sections from various episodes?
With some of the key themes and the overall sound already starting to surface, this made scoring the episodes a very different proposition. Yes, I worked in order as each of the six films came through. There were between 20-30 cues per episode, so it was as well that we had some serious thematic groundwork laid! It was another fascinating time, because a lot of this was about making the intellectual choices about what the themes and various hooks and leitmotifs really meant, how they should evolve and then arranging and reimagining them to suit the picture.
Did you perform on the score and how much of the score was realized by electronics/synths and samples and what percentage was more conventional instrumentation? And where was the score recorded?
I played the piano (and electric piano) on the score, and it was largely conventional instrumentation actually. Drums and percussion, double bass, lots of electric guitar, string orchestra, trombone section, mixed woodwind section, solo alto and bass flute, solo cello, and then very occasional bits of Buchla (emulation) and Moog (their modern Matriarch but with a great 60s vibe). The whole thing is as live as I could make it! Drums, percussion and guitar was all done by Ollie Howell either at Press Play studios in London or at home. The woodwind and brass sessions were also at Press Play with Andy Ramsay. The strings were the Budapest Art Orchestra- Chris Warner went over and ran the sessions, while I stayed in London. (At this stage, time was getting fairly tight!) All the other sessions were remote (plus piano in my own studio of course).
I noticed that there are a handful of songs on the series soundtrack, was this something that you also had a hand in selecting and is it difficult tailoring your score around songs?
This was music supervisor, Ian Neill’s domain. Sometimes it can be delicate tailoring the score around songs, but in this case, not so much. Most of the time, the songs in The Ipcress File are built into what’s happening on screen, so they are deeply of their time and place, and often helpful geographical, political or even class locators. The score dovetailed nicely with this with its all-important focus on the story and its human emotions.
I understand a soundtrack release is planned; will you be involved in selecting what cues etc will be included to represent the score?
Yes, coming soon, I hope. It has been 100% my choice. There are no commercial tracks, only score and I have chosen and curated the cues that I feel best represent the music experience. There is broad series arc to the running order, but I did tweak it a little to make it play as an album also.
What is next for you if you can tell us that is?
Lots of interesting things in the pipeline but I can’t say I’m afraid! And let’s hope for many more seasons of Harry Palmer!
More Harry Palmer would be great. Thank you for your time and patience.