James Bond, Sherlock and Independence Day composer David Arnold discusses the music of quirky new Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett series Good Omens, starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant…
How does a composer capture the intricacies and quirkiness of not one but two authors? That was the challenge faced by the esteemed David Arnold (Independence Day, Casino Royale, Sherlock) when he was asked to score new Amazon Studios/BBC series Good Omens, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett.
The show, as with the source material, is a zany mixture of theology, broad comedy and horror, focusing on the cranky relationship between an angel and a demon as the birth of the Antichrist threatens the future of mankind. Frost/Nixon’s Michael Sheen is the fastidious Aziraphale and former Doctor Who star Tennant is his somewhat louche, darker counterpart Crowley. Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson and Frances McDormand (in a droll narrator role as God) fill out the excellent supporting cast.
We caught up with David Arnold to discuss the challenges of distilling the source material and his celebrated career to date.
Lovely to speak to you, David. As a child of the nineties, your soundtrack music meant a lot to me growing up. Just to kick things off, was there a particular film score that inspired you to take this up as a profession?
There wasn’t a particular film score, but I did, at an early age, go and see a few films within a week of each other. I saw You Only Live Twice, The Jungle Book and Oliver! all projected, because that’s the only way you could see films in those days.
I was astonished at the marriage of music and picture. Obviously, all those films are very different to each other, and they all have a different atmosphere, but all of them have produced classic aspects of musical culture. You know, The Jungle Book has so many great songs. Oliver!, probably the greatest British musical ever written. And You Only Live Twice, for everything around the Bond theme, the 007 theme, Capsule in Space.
It’s all remarkable stuff, and to hear it all and see it all for the first time in the space of a week when you’re seven or eight years old is like, ‘OK, I want to be involved in whatever makes that noise’.
So in terms of getting involved then, what was your path into the industry from there?
Well, I was born and brought up in Luton. And it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of cultural activity. It was largely an industrial town. And certainly, in the sixties and seventies, it was all about car manufacturing and the football team. And so you’d struggle to find arts places.
You did find the odd thing here and there – you had the library theatre, and there were things you did at school. But there weren’t that many places you’d go to nurture a craft, I suppose. But there were lots of places to see things. I’d go to the cinema and watch things all the time. It had record shops and music equipment, all of the things I loved, so I used to spend a lot of time at the weekend in those places.
But there was no real way in. The idea of being in the entertainment business part of it, being involved in music as a job, was so far removed from any reality in my family that you just wouldn’t contemplate it any more than you would being a space man. The expectation was you’d leave school and go and work at one of the major manufacturing places in town.
That never felt like the right thing for me, but fortuitously I did come across an arts centre that was set up in an old hat factory in Luton. It was run by a couple of people and it was an old house that had been used for some sort of hat manufacturing. They committed each floor to a rehearsal space for drama, for musicians and a slightly crude editing suite on the top floor. It was staffed by very enthusiastic people. There wasn’t much in there in terms of facilities but it was a place you could go, and I used to go there and practice with the bands I was playing with. We used to play in pubs and clubs.
It was there that I met Danny Cannon who was I think 16 at the time, and I was 19. He was making little films on a Betamax camera that his dad had bought him. At the same time, I was practicing and playing and we just used to meet and talk about things we liked. I said I love films and film music and he said, well I want to be a film director.
So we just started doing things together for quite a few years. We did local things based around that arts centre involving people who wanted to act, who wanted to write and a little community started. One of those little films we did got into the BBC Local Film-maker of the Year competition and Danny won the competition, he got into the National Film and Television School as a directing student.
I applied but I didn’t get in but Danny went ahead and started to make films of a much higher standard. I followed him there, unofficially, and would sit at the back and I would still do Danny’s films – we’re talking anything from 30 seconds to two minutes to a 10 minute short, ultimately ending up with a 25 minute graduation film.
And it went from there. I started scoring other people’s films who weren’t necessarily affiliated with that school and eventually, four years later, Danny graduated and got his first feature film, The Young Americans. Because we’d worked together essentially all the time, he asked me if I would write the score and more importantly, he convinced the producers to let me do it. And that was it. I was off and running.
So we’re here to talk about Good Omens, the new Amazon/BBC series from Neil Gaiman based on his and Terry Pratchett’s novel. In a general sense, do you think there has been an upsurge in the quality of music written for the small screen in recent years?
Well, that would rely on me having watched enough to form an opinion [chuckles]. To be honest, I haven’t really watched that much, and if I’m writing I tend not to watch tele of that quality, of that nature. You know, I think a lot of people who make feature films are making very high-end TV work, both in its ambition and its execution. And it’s interesting seeing people move toward that, because TV’s a very intimate medium. It also gives the opportunities to do things that wouldn’t ordinarily be done.
Good Omens, for instance, isn’t something you could concertina into a two hour movie. But you can effectively make it into what is a six hour film and put it on the tele where it aspires to cinematic standards. I mean, I always try my hardest whatever I’m doing and I hope everyone else does too. Budgets will have a certain impact on how that sounds, because certainly there’s not as much available for a composer working in TV as there would be for movies. You cut your cloth according to your means and you go in knowing that’s what you’re working with. You do your best and sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.
The show itself is very offbeat, and quirky and contradictory. It tackles an apocalyptic scenario in a very surreal manner and I wondered what challenges this presents for you in terms of crafting a defining musical identity for the series?
Well, it’s interesting isn’t it, the idea of something being quirky. I was thinking, well by whose standards is it quirky? For me, when I read it, I thought this is perfectly normal in terms of how I think about things. These are the kinds of questions I’d be asking and exactly how I’d be looking at a given situation. That’s why I felt so comfortable with it. It’s one of those things you either get or you don’t get. If you get it, like those who’ve read the book, you really get it. And there are just as many people left scratching their heads. But that’s true of a lot of things I’ve done and I don’t mind. I only really care about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.
So my entry into it was, I loved it and I wanted to do it – again, hearking back to that feeling that I had at seven or eight years old watching those films for the first time. I wanted to be responsible for part of this thing that looked like it was going to be great. There isn’t anything like it and to have a show that supports and shoulders so many different approaches while staying coherent is really clever. It was a really beautiful experience to do it and I loved every moment.
But it felt like it needed something at the centre, because it’s packed full of character and story, different timelines, different storylines. Characters finding their way through this outlandish Armageddon scenario. It felt like if we were too disparate and focused too much on having lots and lots of themes, it would flutter too much. I wanted it to stride a bit more purposefully.
Part of my reasoning for wanting to do the title sequence theme was that it would act as the tentpole from which everything else hangs. It’s something you return to, and it’s inspired actually by the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale. In a way, it’s their theme and it also becomes the theme of the show. Through the music they become the backbone of the show, and it also represents everything else that’s going on. The theme becomes cleaved in, even when they’re not on screen.
Does that also inform the instrumental tones and textures of the music? I caught elements of many different things in there including the harmonica, which as I understand it you got Mark Kermode to perform?
I did and it came about slightly by accident. It started out as a joke but very quickly became not a joke. It’s a very brief moment – I wanted chromatic harmonica to play four or five bars, but it was important that it be right. So I didn’t want to ship a professional down to London to play for all of 10 seconds. I bought a chromatic harmonica online and it got delivered the next day, and I put a message up on Twitter saying, if I can’t learn to play this well enough in the next 30 minutes, the harmonica will have to go out of the window.
Obviously, I didn’t get good enough in 30 minutes [laughs]. It did however make me want to learn it properly. So someone online suggested adding Mark and so we added him to the Twitter conversation. Now I knew Mark from a long time ago and I knew he played blues harmonica, fixed pitch, but this is a chromatic harmonica, quite different. And Mark had seen this message and he wrote back saying easy! [laughs] So I thought aye aye, so I wrote to him privately and said I’m not joking, I actually do need a really good chromatic harmonica player. And he said he’d give it a go, and if I didn’t like it, fine.
So I sent him the track and the notes, he went over to Aly who plays in The Dodge Brothers with him, he went into his studio and he recorded it very quickly. He sent it across and I thought it was perfect, no need to do it again. I think he was a bit shocked because I don’t think he thinks he’s that good. I reckon he believes I replaced it with someone else. But he did a great job for that brief moment in episode six, its front and centre and it’s delightful when that sort of thing happens.
We have a lot of great musicians on the soundtrack but that story is something people like hearing about because it was like an accidental celebrity appearance. Another reason why I did it – I said to Mark if I put this in, then you can’t give it a bad review, can you? [laughs]
I must, in a general sense, acknowledge your remarkable work as a composer throughout the 1990s and 2000s, which was really impactful on me and my generation as a whole.
How old are you?
I’m 32, so I’m exactly the right age to remember when Independence Day came out, when Pierce Brosnan stepped it up as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and so forth. For me, your music was part of a very rich period of blockbuster film music. Do you look back on that period as a halcyon age for rich and thematic blockbuster scoring?
Well… [pauses] Maybe retrospectively it is. I wasn’t going around pinging my braces going we are the last great melodists. I was literally just doing the films I was given. And I like tunes, I like melodies.
I think what’s interesting is when you think about contemporary film scoring, or things that are incredibly successful nowadays, I wonder how often that terrible cliche ‘walking out of the screen whistling the theme’ still happens? If you play themes from contemporary films to people on the street, versus themes from the seventies, eighties or nineties, I wonder if they’d know what they were. My suspicion is they’d probably know a lot less. It’s not always the fault of the composer. Very often we’re asked to do things like that and we don’t always have control over what’s going on.
But there are so many places now to watch films. You also don’t tend to hear much film music on the radio, generally. You used to be able to hear it on Radio 2. That said, I know there are some great shows on the radio but they’re once a week for an hour or two. There are a couple of great ones on Classic FM and I think Mark does one too, doesn’t he?
Yeah, on Scala Radio.
Yeah I’ve been on Scala with Simon Mayo talking about film music. Then you’ve got Matthew Sweet on Classic FM. These are all great shows. If you’re interested in film music, you’re well catered for in these instances, but you’ve actively got to seek it out. No longer will they simply play the theme from Born Free on Radio 2 anymore. In a way, the exposure for film music has become a bit narrower. So people don’t hear it as much, and also there’s so much more being made.
Certainly when I was younger, before there were multiplexes, a film would be in the cinema for two months and then you’d have to wait six or seven years before it went on TV. And it was therefore a proper event when it arrived on TV. But now you’ve got claims for greatest film of the year happening three times a week. It perhaps stops being so special because there’s such a lot of it. You build up this enormous head of steam and everyone splashes on the opening weekend, before another big head of steam builds again for something the week after. The amount of focus and attention something can get now I supposed is more… dissipated?
What’s interesting about TV, and also and video games as well, is it’s episodic. This means the music plays more frequently because over the course of six episodes, you get to hear the opening titles six times. There is more music in a six to 10 episode show than there is in a two and a half hour film. And there will be repetition of themes.
Take Game of Thrones – I know that’s been around for a long time, which helps it to be recognised, but it’s got great exposure in terms of people being able to hear the music. It’s very indicative of the success of a title sequence. Sherlock offered those same opportunities in terms of a title sequence. You hear it every week. Every time you watch the show, you hear that piece of music, and it’s that sense of familiarity that can help you feel more attached to music.
Well it’s interesting you mentioned the narrowing of film music. And yet one of the things I and many other people have spotted is the social media bromance you’ve got with composer Michael Giacchino, which has now blown up into a big London concert due to take place in October this year. Music from both of you is being performed, and that’s surely an example of something that’s gone from being an in-joke to a celebration of both of your careers. If there was one of Michael’s scores you wish you had written, what would it be?
Yeah, it’s not a bromance, it’s a smack-down [laughs]. We have a deep-fuelled dislike for one another. Nah, I’m joking [laughs]. Ultimately, we both like the same things and we both appreciate the same approach to music. I mean, I don’t think stylistically we’re similar, but we have a similar approach to the humanity of it. The kind of core things that are important to us. We both really love film music and we love melody. On that basis, if I was to choose any of Michael’s scores, it would be Up. Just wonderful.
What I took away from the John Barry memorial, organised with Laurie Barry, EON and Barbara Broccoli, is that, come the end, we’d all sat through three minute pieces that everyone recognised. Every one was a drop dead, stone cold classic. And whenever you go to film music concerts, there’s a reason why those big tunes keep coming back. You’re always going to hear Raiders and Star Wars and Superman and E.T. and the Bond theme and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather, Rocky… These things constantly come back because they’re just great tunes, and Michael’s got a catalogue of great tunes.
I saw him at his 50th birthday celebration at the Royal Albert Hall and each piece that was performed was identifiable from its respective film. People at film music concerts really don’t want to hear three and six, revision seven or whatever. They want to hear the big themes. I know the specialists, those really into film music, would want to hear those things. But in a room the size of the Albert Hall, comprising five and half thousand people, only 500 of them may be hardcore film music fans – the rest are the general public who want to hear something that they know. Or if they don’t know it, that they would like.
In a way, both Michael and I are fond of melody and it’s nice to do a show like that where I only have to do half of it. And the half that I get to choose will hopefully be the things that people know. There’ll be other things happening as well – hopefully a bit of mindless, senseless bloody violence [laughs].
Well let’s hope not! David, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks very much
And to you!
Many thanks to David Arnold for take the time for this interview. Good Omens is now available on Amazon Prime and will be broadcast on BBC Two later this year. The soundtrack is available now on Silva Screen Records.