Spelling It Out…

Rob Lane on Merlin

The face might be new, but the name couldn’t be more familiar and for the last nine weeks Merlin has been enchanting audiences on BBC television. Composing the music for this fresh-faced take on the legendary scenario is British composer Rob Lane, who has a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to winning turns on small screen dramas such as Elizabeth I, The Lost World and John Adams, not to mention the BBC’s recent adaptations of Jane Eyre and Tess Of The Durbevilles. With Merlin Rob Lane treads the well-worn ground of the fantasy genre, delivering suitably stoic and romantic thematic music for the weekly adventures of the young wizard and his master, Arthur. In doing so he continues the fine tradition of composers past and adds his own spirit and melody to create cinematic music for the television screen.

With the release this week of MovieScore Media’s soundtrack album of music from the first three episodes, I caught up with the composer to discuss his work on the popular series.
Just for those who aren’t familiar with the series, could you tell me a bit about it?

Merlin is a thirteen part series produced by the BBC, which sort of basically puts up a modern/updated spin on the Arthurian legend; so Merlin and Arthur are both young men and they live in a kingdom ruled by Arthur’s father, Uther, who for reasons best known to himself – well for reasons revealed gradually in the show – has banned magic. Merlin has come to Camelot from a sort of border village where’s he’s been ostracised for having magical powers, and he basically comes to seek guidance under the court physician, Gaius, and basically he’s thrown fairly quickly into being Arthur’s man-servant and, unbeknownst to him, general sort of protector. So each week there’s a threat that generally involves a threat to Arthur’s life, or to Uther’s life, and Merlin has to sort of save the day while keeping his magical ability secret.

It must have been an inspirational canvas…

Yeah it was great. I was attracted to it because the first director out of the four who’ve been involved was somebody I’d worked with before, a guy called James Hawes, who I really enjoyed working with. Also partly the chance to get into the sort of fantasy, magic, martial, heraldry kind of area, which is not something that comes up that much on TV, let alone on film…

You’ve enjoyed many successes on the small screen; do you find it offers different challenges to film?

I don’t see it as any different, in the sense that you try to write the best, most cinematic music that you can. I think that you probably have to be aware of how it’s heard a little bit more, but essentially a cinematic score for a TV show always uplifts that show. So I certainly never think in terms of writing down to TV; I see them as essentially the same thing; I try to think of it as the best film I’ve ever worked on.

There seems to be something of a trend these days, this scoring ‘cinematically’ – to used your word – small screen drama; Doctor Who is the most obvious example

Yeah, well I suppose Doctor Who has that sound and generally you think of orchestral for this kind of genre, whether it’s Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Gladiator – which are probably key reference points for different elements of the show – you know all those feature orchestral scores. Certainly there’s room for electronics, but it certainly seems to be an expectation that there will be some orchestral stuff and I’m yet to hear a fantasy/period piece does with no orchestra. I’d be intrigued to know how that would work…

Did this series offer any specific challenges?

There was quite a few sort of tonal shifts; I mean even in episode one you can have moments where you’re going from sort of fairly frightening horror as a witch appears – episode one is all about a witch taking revenge on Uther for the murder of her son, for practising magic – and some of it can be quite dark, yet at the same time you have scenes where Merlin is accompanied by almost sort of knock-about elements of slap stick humour or quite jaunty themes. You’ve got to kind of get across a sort of play fighting element between him and Arthur and the certain kind of jokey antagonism between them. So you have elements of comedy, you have elements of romance, you have elements of horror, of martial fighting, tournaments, and you sort of need to be able to make all that work within one score.

That must be tricky, but also a dream situation for a composer in many respects…

That’s right… Some people have criticised the show for having too many variants in tone; but I think that’s part of its charm really. You know, the music has to be able to sort of turn on a dime and deliver that.

This kind of project lends itself to very thematic writing and this appears to be no exception; what themes lie at the heart of your work on Merlin?

The first thing to do was to try and write the main title, the signature, and that took a couple of goes. That theme doesn’t return that much but occasionally features as something that involves Merlin. Generally each week you’re normally scoring the ‘threat’, so for example in episode two there was a theme for Valiant, the dark knight that tried to cheat his way to winning the tournament and kill Arthur. So there’s a theme for each new major character, so whether you’re scoring Lancelot’s heroism, or say the dark knight, or a witch taking revenge, that tends to be where each week has had to have different music. And then there are occasional leitmotifs, like the main title, and a kind of ‘call of destiny’ theme that often features at the end when it’s all over and we’re gonna fight another day next week. There’s a sort of music that accompanies the sense that his journey moves onwards and it’s all part of a destiny. But generally each week I’ve tackled different themes for that particular episode whilst trying to keep it in a broadly similar style. It’s been a lot… overall there’s going to have been seven and a half hours of music.

Themes obviously serve an integral role in the score then; how much of your writing time is spent on finding those thematic markers?

I find that if you work hard at creating memorable themes for each show, a clear signature for the major characters or the major story points, I find that it’s best to try and get that working and then try it out in different places, rather than feeling panicked into writing something to cover the moment, which is often the case. I mean we’ve only had two weeks per show to cover thirty minutes of music; so it’s a lot to get right pretty well first or second time.

And you worked in Prague with an orchestra and chorus…

Yeah, the idea was that we wanted the show to kick off to a good start and the first five shows had quite a lot of orchestral score. Thereafter, unfortunately, we didn’t have the budget to really keep doing that, so the aim was to use elements of what we’d recorded in Prague and then do sort of orchestral mock ups. We’ve found that we’ve done very little of using past material and we’re reliant on the quality of our samples and one or two players playing over the cues…

And what was the experience in Prague like?

It was a bit mixed. I’ve mainly recorded in England before and I’m used to the wonderful standard of playing and discipline and commitment from English players. I found that you don’t get the same standard of attention to detail, enthusiasm and commitment fundamentally, let alone the playing – which at best could be described as okay, or satisfactory – but it takes a lot of work to get the same sound that one would hope from England; and I personally don’t think you ever quite get it.

It takes that bit longer then I suppose…

It takes a lot longer; they do four-hour sessions and you probably can achieve in four hours what you’d achieve with an English band in three, but then you still have to do a lot of editing. To be honest it’s just a different standard; in England it’s such a competitive market, the top session players are not only incredible players who’ve played in or been principles and rank and file members of leading orchestras, they will also be incredibly committed because that’s their job, they have to behave, whereas I didn’t find remotely the same sense of discipline in Prague, which was at times very frustrating. It just seems to be that they’ll go so far and, you know, they’re good players but the whole thing could be so much better if they just gave more of themselves. I think they’re probably over worked and tired, and there’s also not enough competition within that city to make people feel like they really have to give us their very best.

You mentioned references within the drama to films such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc. But would you say that there is musically a conscious reference to those, I mean there are hues of John Williams, Hans Zimmer…

Well there are… It’s difficult to escape the fact that things have been temped and they’ve often been temped with amazing scores by those kinds of composers. It seems completely standard practice now to temp everything; I mean I very rarely – on any show – would ever start without some sense of what the temp is. Sometimes that can be quite instructive because the editor has edited to a particular rhythm, but what is difficult is they’re presenting you with the very very best Oscar winning scores from the genre and they’re just kind of casually putting them against the picture and of course they sound amazing; they’ve been produced over many months, by huge orchestras, by A-List Hollywood composer and obviously it becomes a sort of yard stick that you try and measure up to. I think that sometimes you manage to find your way past the temp and sometimes inevitably, given the time, you don’t, though there are elements of the temp, or the inspiration of the temp remains in the music. Did you feel like that was obvious/too much? Or do you think I found that balance?

It’s certainly balanced, but of course there are moments where keen listeners will be able to pick out influences; like in ‘The Magic Shield’ on the CD, there’s a moment which is very Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, for example.

Well that has been commented on before, but that was actually a joke put in and it was an homage – it’s literally only two bars. So yes that is true, hands up to that… I’d like to see that as a tip of the cap. There’s never been an attempt to do so and one tries to avoid any sense of plagiarism, but film music – if you listen to scores by Williams and Shore for example – has its classical references, and the genius of those composers is their ability to transcend their influences; we all struggle with that on a daily basis. Obviously if you’re writing three minutes of music a day, some days you have days of inspiration; I mean I was particularly pleased with the aria in episode one – ‘The Witch’s Aria’ – which I think stands on its own as a piece that, whilst it has Wagnerian overtones and so on, is a fairly original piece, you can’t really tell what the influences are. There are other things where, by speed, or just sheer pressure, you end up sounding a little bit too much like the temp. I think it’s the sort of challenge to every film composer now, how can you improve on the temp?

So the album is out on CD; that must be a good feeling?

It’s great, I’m very happy that Mikael has chosen to put it out and we hope that if there’s interest in the first one, there’s certainly more music there that could fill a second album. We’ll have music from episodes four to thirteen to choose from, so I would have thought there was easily another album there…

You mentioned ‘The Witch’s Aria’ as being a favourite cue, are there further moments you’re particularly proud of?

Well I’m really pleased with the theme and the opening to episode one, and while it’s clearly within the genre I think I’ve still managed to find a good memorable tune. I like coming away from something with a clear musical signature of what that show is, so I think the theme stands up and I’m pleased with some of the tournament writing in episode two; some of the battle sequences I’m just pleased that I managed to deliver a good, martial fighting cue!

You’ve been busy of late… what else can you tell us about?

Well I did Tess of the Durbevilles over the summer and I am currently working on a film called The Dandy Knighted, which is about Brian Clough. It’s based on a quite well selling book by David Peace and it’s quite a quirky, left field look at Brian Clough’s forty four day tenure as Leeds manager – 1974 I think – but more to the point it goes into the professional rivalries and friendship that is the back story to that disastrous forty four days. It’s a character study of a man who is incredibly inspiring, a sort of flawed genius… I’m recording that in about two or three weeks and I hope that will be out next year!

What sort of approach are you taking?

It’s completely different to this; it’s a sort of guitar and string score basically. That’s one of the things I enjoy about the job, and relish, is the chance to take on a variety so that you’re always trying to remain a moving target and remain a bit chameleon about what you do.
Merlin continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings at 6pm, with the soundtrack album available right now. For a chance to win one of ten copies, click here to enter our exclusive competition.

My thanks to Rob Lane, Matt Groom and Mikael Carlsson


Originally published at Music from the Movies.com in Autumn 2008.