Best known as a composer for television, Debbie Wiseman has written the scores for series like Dickensian, Father Brown and Wolf Hall and has a string of film credits to her name. A visiting professor of composition at Royal College of Music and composer in residence for Classic FM she has a full schedule of composition work with enormous variety. Alison caught up with her in her North London home. 

AK: I’m told you write very early in the morning. Is that so?

DW: I like working early and certainly, for writing, I’m most productive at that time of day. I start writing between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning, when the sun's coming up, when it’s quiet and the phone doesn’t ring and I get most of my writing done by 10 am. I’ve never been able to work very late, partly because I’ve got all the tunes going round in my head so I can’t sleep.

© Phil Watkins
© Phil Watkins
What can you tell us about how you go about your work? What’s the process? 

This whole business of writing music to picture is completely dependent on the production schedule, the demands of the score, what the director wants and the producer needs and the main thing you have to do is to be very flexible and be able to deliver suitable music, on time, which helps tell the story. Sometimes I see a script first: with Wolf Hall, I saw a complete adaptation of the whole series before I started anything. I had a full and lengthy discussion with the director, Peter Kosminsky, and wrote Cromwell and Anne’s themes before he’d shot a frame: Peter likes to listen to the music on the set and was able to do so. But in other cases, it’s not quite so organised. When there's time, the director will come over to me. They will sit exactly where you’re sitting now. I will be at the piano and on that screen there’s the film and I run them the score, mocked up with sampled instruments. We discuss it and I’ll make changes. It's a proper collaboration.

Wilde was very different: everything had been completely shot before I was brought in. There were problems in post production and I had just 3½ weeks to write 75 minutes of music. I delivered a completely written and edited score with my own orchestration – on time – and we went to Abbey Road Studios with an 80 piece orchestra to record it. The adrenaline keeps you going. You collapse afterwards. But I find a deadline focuses me.

I particularly noticed and enjoyed your music in Father Brown, whose latest series was recently aired on TV. Is there a lot of music scored in each episode?

Every episode is scored individually, with themes for Father Brown and all the supporting characters. Each episode is completely scored to picture and there's a new murder mystery and new characters coming into each episode. There’s always something fresh and that’s what I love about it so much, that you never get bored of it. I’ve scored 60 episodes now over the first five series. And this month I’ll receive another 10 episodes to score as they're just starting to shoot series 6.

How important is the music to the film?

Music is a very powerful tool in a movie or a production. Hardly anyone ever sees a film without music, but I do all the time so I know the power it has over the image. If the music is telling you fear or threat or danger, even if the scene is very, very innocent, the audience will believe the music because it goes right to the heart. And that’s why directors are very careful when they choose a composer because it can make or break a film. If the music’s wrong, if you’re being over-sentimental or giving the audience the wrong message, it’s very damaging for a movie. It has to feel completely seamless with the picture, and as a film composer, you have to learn the skill of stepping back, of not having an ego in order to make the film as good as it can be.

What do you want to achieve from your music?

I want my scores to have something in them that is memorable. It doesn’t have to have a big tune – not every film demands that – but it has to have something memorable so when you come away from the film or television show, you feel that you have heard something that’s fresh, which is original. Father Brown has a theme that after a few episodes, if you’re away from the telly and you hear the tune, you will recognise. It’s part of the brand of the film or the show.

© Michael Leckie
© Michael Leckie
As a pianist yourself, do you always use piano music in your films and tv?

I write at the piano but no, I don’t always put piano in the score. Wolf Hall didn’t have any piano in it as the piano wasn’t invented in the time of Cromwell. There was harpsichord music and Tudor instruments. Although I sketch my ideas at the piano, it doesn’t always end up in the score.

I’ve been told that you can sit at a piano and take requests from the audience and can improvise to a set theme. Is that something you still enjoy?

Yes, I’ve always been happy to improvise. When I went to Trinity College as a junior on a Saturday, there was a particular composition teacher, Philip Coleman, whose idea it was to get the kids to improvise, not only at the piano but to sing too. As tiny little kids, we would sit in a little circle and one kid would start a tune and the next one would be told to follow on the melody and so on until we got all the way round the circle. It was such a simple idea to show how a melody is formed but it is very clever. It’s just a series of notes in a particular formation. So I was always very comfortable, singing a tune, thinking about melody in that way and improvising.

Now I’m a visiting professor at the RCM on their Composition for Screen course and when I go in, I get the students to sit at the piano and I give them a scenario. It might be a woman and a man punting down the river on a lovely sunny afternoon or it might be a thunderstorm, and I ask them to improvise. They are usually completely terrified the first time. They can’t think of anything and sit at the piano completely frozen. But after a few goes at improvisation, when they realise it doesn’t matter what they play as long as they create some kind of instant, atmospheric response, they’re not frightened any more and most of them can do it. You don’t need to be a great pianist to improvise. You just need to have an idea.

Do you compose for the concert hall too?

Yes, I do a lot of composition in the concert hall too. In my capacity as Classic FM’s composer in residence, I premiered a 6 minute concert piece on Tuesday for Viking Cruises (Classic FM’s sponsor) as their new signature music – it was a very different commission – but for me, the process is the same. I want the music to tell a story and this one was about a traveller who went on an adventure. Music is a kind of journey and you have to tell a story and allow the listener to come on board.

Backstage at Teatro Cordoba for 2014 Cordoba International Film Music Festival © Julio Rodriguez
Backstage at Teatro Cordoba for 2014 Cordoba International Film Music Festival
© Julio Rodriguez
Do you think there exists a divide between those who compose for screen and contemporary classical composers?

It is a different skill when you’re writing for film because you have to take into consideration all sorts of other things. There’s dialogue and special effects, whereas when you’re writing for a concert hall you have none of that: there is just your music and the audience have paid to listen to it. When you go to a film or sit at home watching TV, the music is part of a whole. So it is a very different experience, but for me music is music and whatever you are writing it for, it has to serve its purpose and to be useful. There’s no point sitting at the piano for hours on end and not to know if the music is ever going to get performed – I wouldn’t be able to get inspired to do that. I want it to give enjoyment, to serve a purpose which is a great reward in itself for a composer. 

What is the view of conservatoires towards their students writing music for film, game or TV?

Nowadays all the conservatoires offer courses in film composition and they’re all open to the idea that music written for film or media is a very valuable skill for a composer to have. I think most composers and composition professors that I’ve met feel much more open minded about music nowadays and realise there are plenty of avenues for composers to express themselves, not only the concert hall. You can express yourself within a film score just as well as you express yourself in other areas. It’s just a slightly different way of working.

When I studied at Guildhall I was very fortunate with my composition teacher, Buxton Orr, because he had written film scores himself and saw no divide between writing for the concert hall and writing for film. I would show him my compositions and some of my music was quite filmic. He would encourage me to be original but wouldn’t force me to write in a particular style. And my natural tendency was to write something that was melodic, whereas his was to write something slightly more avant-garde, more crunchy music. He would just encourage me to find my own voice, which I think is very important as a composer. And that shouldn’t mean having to fit in with any particular rules. There are no rules.

When do you think those attitudes changed?

I think those attitudes did exist when I was studying about 20-25 years ago. There was a snobbery about it and the feeling that composers should only write for the concert hall and should only be writing avant-garde contemporary music, because otherwise they weren't proper composers. There was a slight air of cautiousness about this whole media thing but I think things have changed dramatically now and you would now be hard pressed to find a professor of music who would be quite so adamant about it. It’s taken long enough, but finally those barriers have completely eased off.

What do you think of the new concert format of stripping a film score of the music and screening the film alongside the score played live?

Brilliant! People love hearing live music so for them to hear the music from one of their favourite films played live and be able to watch the film at the same time, what a fantastic way to be able to experience it! The benefit of a live performance lets them relive the whole film experience. It’s no wonder they’re really popular.

Conducting at the Royal Albert Hall © Bill Hiskett
Conducting at the Royal Albert Hall
© Bill Hiskett
You’re one of a remarkably small number of very well known women composers. How do you feel about that?

It’s funny: when I was studying, there were other female composers on the course, lots of brass players and percussionists – instruments you don’t commonly associate with women, and it was never made a thing of. we just got on with our job. It was only when I left college, started working in the industry and started trying to build up credits, when people would say to me “it’s really unusual that you’re a female composer – there aren’t very many”, that I started to notice it. But I can honestly say that working with musicians and directors, it hasn’t made any difference to me at all. Now I work with more female directors than ever before, I notice there are many more women in production, in the media, being successful, in positions of power, commissioning editors, in orchestras. I also conduct all my own music, and even that is less of an unusual thing now for a woman, although numbers of female conductors are still very low. But the more young women, aspiring conductors or composers, see other women doing it, the easier it becomes for them to aspire to do it themselves. There’s no physical reason you can’t do it: it’s a confidence thing. As far as I'm concerned, the more women composers the better, the more women on the podium the better and then eventually I hope – if we’re having the same conversation in 20 years time – it may not even be an issue, I think people will just accept it. What’s the big deal?

Do you think it could be the difference in the way boys and girls are brought up which causes this lack of confidence in girls?

It’s hard to know if it’s the upbringing or if it’s ingrained in our psyche as women to be gentle and caring and nurturing, which is all part of what we are, but at the same time there’s no reason we can’t take control. It's difficult, but taking control doesn’t mean you have to do it in a masculine way. I don’t try to be like a man. I just want the music can be as good as it can be. And the great thing is that musicians don’t have any problem with it at all and neither do the audiences actually. It’s just seeing more people do it and encouraging more young women who want a career to not feel restrained or restricted in any way.

What do you have coming up next?

I'm working with Peter Kosminsky on a four-part drama, there are ten new episodes of Father Brown to score, I’m writing the music for a play at the Chichester Festival, Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams, and I also have a couple of new commissions for Classic FM, one a guitar piece for Craig Ogden and the other a choral piece. And I've just completed the score for a film called Edie, starring Sheila Hancock, which is due out in the autumn. Sheila is absolutely brilliant. It’s a never too late story, about a woman who has always wanted to climb a mountain in Scotland, how she managed to make this journey, to fulfil this ambition. Sheila filmed it aged 83 and she actually did it [climbed the mountain]. Sheila’s a phenomenal woman.