An exclusive Endeavour interview with composer Matthew Slater
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020
DAMIAN: What makes a truly great TV theme?
MATTHEW: Well, that’s the 64 million dollar question. I think it depends on the time of the making of the program as well. Coronation Street has spanned decades without change, even when the style and tone don’t necessarily address a modern audience. The big tunes of Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, Dad’s Army, Tales of the Unexpected and many more of the 70’s classics have such active melodic elements that one almost immediately can remember it. Therein I think that’s where times have changed a little. Strong melodic identity has now become possibly secondary to a robust sonic character.
DAMIAN: What are your top 10 most iconic TV themes from the 60s and what makes them so memorable today?
MATTHEW: That’s a tough one since I wasn’t born until 1974! I’m afraid I’m from a different era, and I would be cribbing if to create a top ten.
DAMIAN: Well, I was born a year later than you and that hasn’t stopped me from having a go! I also asked Russ for his favourite themes (he added that they arne’t by any means definitive – but rather amongst those that mean something to him) and we both came up with Star Trek, The Saint, Doctor Who, Stingray and The Avengers. His other choices were Randall & Hopkirk, The Prisoner, White Horses, Robinson Crusoe and Public Eye while my other picks were Fireball XL5, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Mission: Impossible. I would have also liked to include Batman but we’re limited to ten choices each.
Anyway, to what extent would you agree that the sound of many film and television scores during the 60s owed much to the popularity of the Bond films and the incredibly innovative work by the great John Barry?
MATTHEW: John Barry was an incredible composer beyond doubt. His style has continuously been nodded to throughout film history, and indeed I’ve done it myself in this series of Endeavour. There were so many great film and television composers around during that era. I think it was a real period of experimentation and development in terms of style, harmony and instrumentation. The fall in popularity of orchestral only scores, the use of new electronic instruments, big bands jazz scores etc.
DAMIAN: What about a top 10 from the 70s?
MATTHEW: Ah, now that’s a more straightforward question for me this time. In no particular order, I would have to say; Dallas, The Muppet Show, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Open All Hours, The Good Life, Happy Days, The Wombles, Roobarb and Custard and Battlestar Galactica.
DAMIAN: I’d certainly agree with you on Dallas and Battlestar Galactica. Again Russ and I had some that were the same – Van Der Valk (Eye Level), Tales of the Unexpected and The Persuaders. His other choices were: Rockford Files, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Tinker Tailor (nunc dimittis), I Clavdivs, Thriller, All Creatures Great and Small and Catweazle. My remaining choices were: UFO, Space 1999, The Six Million Dollar Man, Return of the Saint and erm, Charlie’s Angels.
In what ways did the sound of scoring for television change from the 60s into the 70s?
MATTHEW: I guess for television, the increased use of electronic means of making music would have been down to the availability and more affordable means of access to music technology. So technologies out of reach for most TV composers during the early sixties would have become more accessible during the latter part of the seventies and an explosion in the eighties.
DAMIAN: And what are some of the most significant changes in how the music was written and performed back in the 60s and 70s compared with today and the work you do?
MATTHEW: Chalk and cheese, or rather a pencil and CPU. Mocking up a music score for a director or producer to approve consisted of playing a few ideas on the piano and saying ‘this will be the strings, this the brass etc.’ Now, with the level of technology at our fingertips, a composer can render a very close facsimile to what is going to become the final recorded score. Technology has become so unified to what we do now that it’s no longer possible to write purely traditionally as at some point a demo or mock-up will be required from a TV show to big-budget movie. A few composers are lucky enough to still work that way, but you’re really talking Hollywood giants like John Williams.
That doesn’t mean the formation of the initial idea isn’t still a pencil and paper. I do work that way myself a lot, but at some point, it has to hit the computers now. Computers have enabled us all to work quicker, and the demands of television now mean shorter delivery periods.
DAMIAN: I know from our first interview that you often discuss the music in some detail with Russ, the directors and producers. Also, you are sometimes given a guide score by the editors, directors and producers. Given the nature of APOLLO (S6:E2) and the Supermarionation sequences, I was wondering to what extent the music for that was discussed during pre-production and filming rather than post and did the name Barry Gray happen to come up at all?
MATTHEW: To carve a score that nods to Barry Gray would have been obvious and what we do with Endeavour is to perhaps bow to a reference that helps set us in an era, but certainly no intention to reference too heavily. In this case, it was directed by Shaun, and he had an evident sound in mind from a previous episode I had scored for Endeavour, so we developed our ideas from a single tone and melodic element from another of our films.
With the body of work now I’ve established quite a lot of the score is usually temp’d with my own work from previous scores. Occasionally a director will pool from other sources, and every music score I try to add something new, so the library grows each season. With APOLLO, Shaun was very keen that we worked the old fashioned way, spot the film with very little or no guide as we could chat and form ideas rather than be guided too much. Was a great experience.
DAMIAN: Each film has a different director so there’s always a fresh new visual look, do you ever have a disagreement with any of the directors regarding their particular take on how their film should sound and which you feel might not remain faithful within the music universe of Endeavour?
MATTHEW: No, never. It’s a significant team effort, and I think that anyone who comes into the world of Endeavour is always keen to keep that sense of team experience. I will always try to capture what a director, producer or executive producer wants, but the great thing about Endeavour is there’s a palette at the core. However, I’m always amazed by how much the series can take in terms of its musical development. It’s truly a joy to see what we can do next and to have the support and trust of the team makes that job so much easier to be bolder and more experimental while still existing within the Endeavour universe.
DAMIAN: You told me before in another interview that the application of music rather than the specifics of thematic, harmonic and textual content is of equal importance and the genius is in the placement of the music. Surely this is very subjective in nature so might this be a possible contentious issues between a director and a composer?
MATTHEW: It’s not as subjective as you’d think. The placement may shift a few frames here or there, or a music cue dropped or moved entirely, but that’s what the spotting session is for. Of course, things can develop through the writing and review process, but of the many great directors I’ve worked with on the series, there’s never really a contention. A discussion about how either might approach a scene, but you’d be surprised that when it fits, it tends to make everyone feel it’s right.
DAMIAN: I know that Shaun has visited the recording of the music in the past and you’ve mentioned that he already had a sound in mind for APOLLO, does he have lots of notes or just trust you to get on with it?
MATTHEW: As I’m sure you will have seen from many of the interviews with colleagues about Shaun that he knows exactly what he’s looking for but can keep that sense of collaboration between the team. From a composers perspective, it’s always been an excellent experience working with Shaun. He’s keen to allow the space for creativity, so it’s usually a discussion about the general feel we’re looking for the audience to experience, with some details about textures. After that, it’s pretty much over to me.
Rather than detailed notes, Shaun is excellent at focussing on what needs tweaking at the review session in person. So, Shaun will come over to my studio with producers, and we’ll go through the score after I’ve worked in any comments from Damien, Helen or our producer this series Jim. We work through the changes, I make them with everyone in the room, and at the end of the day the score is signed off and ready for the orchestration and music preparation process before getting the music in front of The London Metropolitan Orchestra, who bring it all to life.
DAMIAN: What are some of the most commonly used musical instruments in creating the sound of Endeavour and how might this have evolved to reflect the new decade?
MATTHEW: Endeavour has a very traditional background with Morse, the orchestra being at the heart of each score. Strings, piano and harp are pretty much the staples of the Endeavour sound. Less to do with the period change, I’d say I’ve introduced significantly more sound design and electronic characters to augment the orchestra to create new flavours and textures which are more where we all feel the score should go.
DAMIAN: I have so many favourite composers but high on the list would be Howard Shore so I mean it as a compliment when I say that your scores sometimes have a The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en feel to them during the more tense and thrilling moments. I don’t know if you know what I mean but can you describe the style and what instruments are used?
MATTHEW: That’s incredibly kind of you to say so! Exactly how I’ve spoken about evolving the sound. Through more extended orchestral techniques, the use of synthesisers and electronic sound sources, expanding the orchestra to become something similar in size to films and treating each score more like a film score, than TV. These days I don’t think there’s a distinction as much as there used to be. People digest film and TV in so many similar ways that why can’t TV sound like a film?
DAMIAN: You’re often asked to experiment with themes, songs, cunning musical clues, historical references and, of course, there’s the classical music and opera. What do you consider to be some of your biggest challenges for series six?
MATTHEW: Series six seems such a long time ago now. The time between reading scripts and it hitting screens is six months or more. Bright’s staring moment on the zebra crossing was a new one for me, the childlike mystery moments in APOLLO was a new texture. I never see these as challenges really, it’s rare in a series to get so many opportunities to do something new and different in every film without it feeling out of character of the show overall. I guess that’s the genius of the story writing, acting and production that allows me to do that.
DAMIAN: Tell me a little bit more about creating the music for Bright’s Public Information Film in PYLON (S6:E1), it must have been fun to do the “If the Pelican can – then so can you” song?
MATTHEW: Yes, that was a bit of fun, a quick chat with Russ, a bit of humming and warbling on my part, and there it was.
DAMIAN: And what were some of the biggest musical challenges on series seven?
MATTHEW: There is a big trick we’ve done this year, and a few in Twitter Land and social media have started to twig, but no one has got it spot on, yet so I’d hate to spoil it for all our international friends!
DAMIAN: You’ve used the term ‘score personality’ to me before to describe the sound of an individual story. Which score from series seven would you say has the biggest personality?
MATTHEW: That’s like saying which of your children is your favourite! They are all so different this year, and yet there’s a running theme that we’ve never had before across an entire series and not just La Cura.
DAMIAN: I ask you this every year but are there any updates on when there will be a proper soundtrack of all the Endeavour scores released?
MATTHEW: It’s been lovely to have so many people ask for this, but sadly it’s not my gift to give. A few ideas are banding around, but as yet, nothing firm.
DAMIAN: Since we’re in the 70s now, what are the chances we can get a little bit of Geoff Love on Endeavour?
MATTHEW: Ha! I think you’d need to talk to one Mr R Lewis about that one.
DAMIAN: Matthew, thank you very much indeed.
MATTHEW: It’s always a pleasure and thank you for the always thought-provoking questions.
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020
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