Great Britain

Rude Latin, panic and sexual tension: the art of the TV soundtrack

Right in the middle of the unholiest hook-up ever to hit television; a divine choir sang out.

The culmination of the love story in Fleabag series two was not met with the familiar heavy metal riff. Instead, there was haunting choral chanting, which graduated from young boys’ voices to adults during the series. It climaxed as the protagonist made her fantasy of shagging the Hot Priest a reality.

“One person on Twitter realised and said: ‘Guys, has anyone heard what they’re singing in Latin in Fleabag?’” laughs Isobel Waller-Bridge, sister of Phoebe and the composer for the multi-award winning BBC series. It turns out that Waller-Bridge had stuck in some choice words for male and female body parts in the religious performance – she still won’t reveal exactly what – and played around with some double entendres.

“The phrase: ‘We’re coming’ worked because she [Fleabag] does go on this almighty journey, a coming-of-age story,” she explains. “It feels like there’s redemption; there’s light, we’re coming.” It also presumably gave a niche group of Latin scholars in the audience a little smirk.

Whether it is translating obscure words from a seconds-long piece of music or humming the theme tune to Succession (an infuriatingly perfect earworm), in this golden age of TV, we are all tuned in more than ever to scores of popular series. The surprise success of last year’s HBO/Sky hit, Chernobyl, was underpinned by its eerie and highly disconcerting soundtrack, created by the Icelandic composer, Hildur Gudnadóttir, who won an Emmy and a Grammy for her pitch-perfect work. David Holmes and Unloved’s neo-retro, dark female-fronted tracks for Killing Eve, have become as iconic as the image of Villanelle in her pink dress and biker boots.

At the time of last year’s general election, social media was awash with reworkings of the flash-forward device employed by Russell T Davies’s dystopian family thriller, Years and Years. But it only worked because users could rip off the same music and edit their own end-of-days visions of what life would be like under the leader they didn’t want to the same soundtrack. Similar to Fleabag, the theme of Years and Years was also heavily weighted with religious symbolism.

This urgent, anxiety-inducing music was composed by Murray Gold and performed by a Bulgarian choir. Although he never officially released it, or even titled it, fans uploaded it to YouTube, and gave it their own name: In to the Future. “I just wanted it to sound like a panic,” Gold says. “It was actually just vowels the choir were singing. I think if I had used words, if you could have interpreted it, it would have detracted from it. I like that it ended up sounding like a war chant.”

Given the prescient nature of the series, I can’t be the only person who has this theme running through their head as I tune into breaking news; a simulated reality brought to life by ticking clocks and furious arpeggios of Gold’s making. “Music is insidious,” says Gold, “a magical ingredient you can’t resist, you don’t have a choice. I’m ultimately looking to get people to fall in love with the characters.”

Gold – who also scored the music for Doctor Who for more than a decade (and teases that he has previously “embedded hidden messages” in music for some of The Master scenes), as well as Gentleman Jack and A Very English Scandal – says that the music for the BBC One show came to him quickly upon reading the script. “It was a very immediate thing, so much of that music was written in seconds. Sometimes the creative process needs to be done in one breath, to just get it down. I don’t think the music is actually that dark. There is hope there. I don’t think I could ever write a piece of music that didn’t have hope in it.”

Gold has the privilege of mainly working with long-time collaborators – Davies, Sally Wainwright and most recently Stephen Frears – and Waller-Bridge also had the advantage of already being on close, personal terms to the creator of Fleabag. She was on board for sound direction from the show’s inception as a theatre performance at the Edinburgh festival in 2013, and has helped shape the character of Fleabag through to her transition to TV in 2016 through the use of music.

It was a conscious decision not to have a theme tune for the show, Waller-Bridge says, instead using a short burst of music over the title. The sibling connection definitely helped her translate Phoebe’s vaguest of briefs: “She said: ‘I want it to sound a bit like this …’ and she pulled this facial expression. So I ended up creating the two-and-a-half second jazzy ‘scrunk’ we used.

“Because the rhythm of the writing was so tight in series one, we collectively felt that we didn’t need that much music. A few times I got a few percussive instruments in there, like a triangle that indicates something’s up, or bits of jazz for Harry. When she sees her sister Claire, it represents what the temperature and energy of that relationship is. With the second series, there were various factors – church themes, the priest – we thought would be interesting to reference. For me, the music in the show reflected the character, it’s really connected to Fleabag. At one point, we discussed if Fleabag could hear the score and was controlling it.”

Waller-Bridge also worked as composer for Black Mirror’s Miley Cyrus-starring episode, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, and the BBC’s The ABC Murders. “The job of music for TV is to set up the tone and to support the narrative arc. I worked with a director on The ABC Murders and he said: ‘At this moment, we want them to cry’ which was a really interesting thing; you already know the intention of what he wants from the audience, he wants them to be moved at this point. The character will take you there, but you need to help support it.

“I’m asked all different things for the music, like: ‘Can you give them more chemistry? Can you give the lovers more sexual tension?’ Music can be really effective like that. But when you have music that’s threaded really beautifully into a scene, you can really experience the feeling of loneliness, or love.”

Matthew Herbert, composer for the BBC adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses and Sky’s Temple takes a differing view on the role of a TV composer: “There’s a real trap for music in film and television where it works just emotionally, telling you what to think at any one time or it’s just decoration to help smooth the passage of the drama and actually, I think it’s much more than that.

“In many ways you have to kind of embody the spirit of the story. So many times on TV, you really notice when the music comes in and you feel manipulated and it feels tacky. There’s things like piano everywhere these days and cheap string sounds and it can feel quite complacent and quite lazy, like people haven’t taken it seriously enough.”

For Noughts + Crosses, the music was an integral part of world-building for the viewer, as the novels are set in an alternative reality where Africa is the dominant world leader, and black people are the ruling elite. The soundtrack was two years in the making (“Definitely challenging at times”, he admits) as he worked to create a fitting sound for the show: “It’s really hard with music because it doesn’t just exist in isolation and doesn’t just come from nowhere. It’s surrounded by stories and context and where it comes from.

“With every project, I try to create a unique language that lets you get out of some of the dead ends and the stylistic ends that you can find yourself in if you’re not careful.” For Noughts + Crosses, this included using found sound recorded in buildings in Bristol that were part of the slave trade, and distorting instruments played by Congalese band, Konono No 1, that can all be heard on the soundtrack for the show.

The fact the public are connecting with TV soundtracks in a way unlike before is evident in the streaming figures and downloads of music from recent small screen hits, but there is a commercial aspect to this, according to Dr Dominic McHugh, a musicologist at the University of Sheffield. “People are connecting more with TV soundtracks these days as they’ve become a branding exercise,” says McHugh. “The iTunes and Spotify generation know they can download and stream the soundtrack straight away, something that wasn’t possible a few years years ago. And it’s the music that often draws us in to bingewatch the next episode of a show on streaming sites like Netflix.”

We are also relating to the music psychologically, he adds: “The score often acts as an extra sense, an additional oral sensation; it assaults our ears and brains. The music elevates the emotional impact of the show, or because it can add a third dimension to the show. It can sometimes become a character in its own right; it can tell us things that other characters can’t.”

While music has become intrinsic in helping shape how we watch television today, Herbert says that complaints about it from some viewers don’t bother him: “The BBC is developing a system of delivery for programmes which allows you to turn the music down or even off. That makes me absolutely thrilled. I think that’s actually really exciting.”

Gold is equally equanimous about criticism. “One of my most cherished memories is someone complaining about Doctor Who: ‘I wish I could turn the music off.’ That they don’t like it shows they’ve connected with it on some emotional level. People don’t always know what it’s doing to them, it’s like: ‘I’m feeling this and I don’t know why’ and you hope it’s something to do with your art form, with your knowledge and technique of what you’re trying to achieve.”

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