Doctor Who's music comes of age

ALISTAIR HUGHES
Last updated 09:00 21/11/2013
dr who
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE/BBC WORLDWIDE, PHOTOGRAPHER DANIEL BOUD

EXTRATERRESTRIAL ENTERTAINERS: Several aliens from Doctor Who appear during the performance of the New Festival's Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, including the Daleks, Cybermen and the Silence.

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Murray Gold is a hugely prolific television music composer, producing memorable scores to British programmes including Vanity Fair, Clocking Off and Shameless.

It was his work on producer Russell T Davies' previous shows, Queer as Folk and Casanova, which lead to his long association with Doctor Who.

He recalls his enlisting was somewhat rushed: "It must have been four weeks before they needed to finish the first episode, I got an email through from Russell and it just said: 'I should have asked this a long time ago ... ' So I said 'yes'. There was no conversation anywhere else, nothing between agents or anything like that. And now nine years later ... "

Gold might have liked a longer lead-in time, but it transpires that working very quickly is one of his greatest assets: "It can be five days to a week to get through an episode, so that kind of knocked out about half the candidates for the job, I think. You have to get to know exactly how long something's going to take and get into the rhythm of it. It's very hard."

Surprisingly, one of the greatest problems for Gold actually proved to be the Doctor Who theme music – composed 50 years ago and instantly recognisable to millions. "That was really difficult, because it's not my piece. I think the original version provokes feelings of haunting, mystery and fear, and when the first [new series] episode ended this girl had effectively been seduced to go through time and space with a tall dark stranger. It was exciting and warm ... and this lonely, scary theme didn't punch home the message that we'd been left with."

Quite a dilemma, as, along with the Tardis, the theme music is the one constant of the series' five-decade history. Fortunately, he had the solution: "It's fairly simple chords, so just beef up the rhythm and the orchestration a little bit, and in the end it sounded a bit more of a grand adventure theme than a horror theme. More 'galloping horses'."

For the episode music itself, Gold once again became aware of a new direction for the revitalised show. In its later years, the original series used almost exclusively synthesised music, and Gold produced a lengthy demo track for the new producers, assuming they wanted the same kind of sound. "I prepared for that, and then they said: 'We loved the last 20 seconds.' So I went back and it was just strings. I said 'Oh, so you want orchestral kind of music?' I think they wanted to lead me to that conclusion."

THE services of the National Orchestra of Wales were put at Gold's disposal and an altogether richer, grander sound emerged which eventually the BBC realised would also lend itself to a live performance. In 1996, their annual charity appeal, Children in Need, featured the first live Doctor Who concert, which raised over £52,000 (NZ$100,160) and set the template for the Symphonic Spectacular which is opening the New Zealand Festival in February. Actors from the programme front the event on stage beneath enormous screens showing relevant episode clips, while actual creatures from the programme stalk the audience.

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"I thought it would be a one-off," says Murray of that 1996 concert. "It felt successful, to the extent that everyone seemed to enjoy it, and I suppose somehow it must have been because they keep coming back. And it's been to the Proms three times now, it's fantastic, and when you see that it's a big family event it's really heartwarming, actually."

So will Gold be present for his first New Zealand concert?

"I would love to, actually. I just hear what an amazingly beautiful country New Zealand is, all the time."

Gold's themes for various main characters have become concert favourites, particularly those for specific Doctors. Perhaps it's a little too early to be thinking about recently cast Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor, then?

"Sometimes there is the idea that you want to influence and stand in contrast to what's come before. That's happened with [current companion] Clara, I slightly initiated that theme before I knew much about her, and I just sent it to [current producer] Steven Moffat. And he kept playing it ... I think a little bit of cross fertilisation went on over that."

He admits his remarkable theme for Billie Piper's character, Rose (who will be returning for this year's anniversary special episode), was essentially a "love letter" to the actress. "I'd met Billie Piper few times and she's just such a lovely person. It's really easy to write affectionate pieces of music for people who you actually think are lovely."

When composing his music, Gold's preference is not to work from the filmed episode, but the script: "You see it from an almost directorial point of view, playing out in front of you. And if there's a vein of humour in there that I can lock on to, then so much the better. Then it gets to feel right by playing the music and not holding back. You have to definitely allow your instincts to guide you a little bit."

But given the huge investment in what is essentially the BBC's flagship series, is there a degree of "unwanted input" from other quarters before Gold's music finally makes it to the screen?

Having come across as almost excessively modest so far, this question gives a glimpse into the method of someone who is immensely talented, and, by necessity, is aware of it.

"Now, I just present the work, really. I actually feel that endless chat and conversation about what I might do is really counter-productive because you end up talking the music, and you lose the appetite to go and discover what it might be.

"But if they say: 'Can you make these characters come to life, can you make this more dramatic, can you make this feel like they're going on a great journey?' I think, 'Yeah – I can do that. Sure'."

THE DETAILS

Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular is performed at the TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, February 21-22, as part of the New Zealand Festival.

- The Dominion Post

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