Debbie Wiseman: She scores emotion

By Paul Lester, September 19, 2008
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We meet one of the UK's most prolific and celebrated film and TV composers


Debbie Wiseman has been called "the most romantic and lyrical composer alive in Europe today". She's also among the most prolific, having written over 200 scores for film and television in the last 20 years, including movie soundtracks for Wilde (which won her an Ivor Novello Award), The Truth About Love and Arsène Lupin and TV themes for everything from Children's Hospital to Warriors, Jekyll to Jackanory. She was even awarded an MBE in the 2004 New Years Honours List for services to the film industry.

"I met the Queen, yes," she says from her home in Highgate, North London. "It was absolutely wonderful. She told me I'd written a lot of scores, what a great job it must be, to keep up the good work... and that was that!" Has she ever used the award to get the best table in a restaurant? "I don't eat out that much," she laughs. "I'm too busy working." Has she ever uttered the phrase, "Don't you know who I am?" when she's out and about? She laughs again. "No." Does she feel like a Member of the Order of British Empire first and Jewish second, or vice versa? "I don't know how to answer that. Pass!"

Wiseman, a glamorously attired 45-year-old, is not, you imagine, a typical composer/conductor. In fact, beyond furiously writing music - she's incredibly productive, which she says is due to a "Jewish work ethic" - one of her aims is to challenge our idea of what people who do her job are like.

"A lot of people think of composers as men with grey hair sitting in an attic, writing away by candlelight, and it's not the case," she says. "To be a composer you can be a man or a woman, old or young. I'm trying to squash those preconceptions. There are some good female role models out there now - more young conductors are coming through. I hope that by being a positive female role model doing good work, other composers, especially women, will think, ‘Maybe I can have a go at this.'"

She was born in Belsize Park in 1963 and went to Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb where, she says, "I was one of those weirdos who enjoyed school". She did not attend Hebrew classes although she did join her family during High Holy-days at Kinloss synagogue in Finchley.

Wiseman talks about the composer's signature, the style that is uniquely his or her own - what she calls "the voice". But is it, in her case, a Jewish voice?

"It's interesting," she says, "because I was asked to write the music to accompany a 20-minute video about the history of the Jews that plays at the entrance to the diaspora museum in Tel Aviv. And the music came so naturally; it felt right because it's in my blood. But at the same time, if I was writing music for a comedy or a horror film, no way would it sound Jewish. Why would it?"

She was obsessed with music from a young age, and began writing songs - "not necessarily classical ones, just melodies that appealed to me" - before she was in her teens. "It was a kind of escape for me," she adds.

She did not come from a musical family - she believes "a great-grandfather down the line" might have been an opera-singer - but was encouraged by her mother to pursue her interest. First she studied at the Trinity College of Music. Then, after taking a special A-level course at Morley College, she went on to study piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music And Drama, where she learned an important lesson.

"I had a fantastic piano and composition teacher who told me to write something every day even if it meant throwing it out afterwards, because it keeps the compositional juices flowing and means you never run out of ideas," she recalls. "That was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever been given. Because when you're writing for TV or film you need lots of ideas all the time, deadlines are usually very tight and you have to deliver. There's no time for composer's block."

One of her first professional commissions - following a period as a member of a weddings-and-bar mitzvahs band playing the hits of the day such as, as she recalls with a shudder, Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You - was a TV advert for Pringles crisps. Since then, she has soundtracked everything from the most serious TV documentaries - on the '80s miners' strike or the Cuban Missile Crisis - to frothy comedies.

She has just completed the music for a 2009 film called Lesbian Vampire Killers. "It's the funniest film I've ever worked on, from the team behind [Bafta-winning sitcom] Gavin And Stacey," she says by way of reassurance. "The music is real comedy-horror action, fun and full-on."

A good soundtrack, she says, should leave the composer feeling drained. "Sometimes writing music for a documentary or a challenging programme does leave you feeling emotionally exhausted. But it definitely brings good music out of you."

The key, she reveals, is to find a hook, a piece of music that will grab the listener. With a mastery of so many genres, from tragedies to comedies, could she stray into a completely different area? Could she, say, pen a U2- or Radiohead-style rock song?

"Well," she considers, "you've picked two bands with very individual voices. Of course I could emulate what they do and write something similar. But the art of my job is to maintain my own style and use my own inspiration. Why copy other artists when they do it themselves?"

One of Wiseman's latest projects is an album called Different Voices. Described as "a young person's guide to the orchestra", it is a sort of latter-day fairy tale that tells the story of a group of children fighting to save their local park from an evil developer. With music composed and conducted by Wiseman, lyrics by Don Black and narration by Stephen Fry - making it an all-Jewish affair - the underlying purpose of the live concert recording, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is to "introduce young people to a full symphony orchestra".

With such a busy schedule, does she ever find herself in Waitrose as a haunting, elegiac fragment of melody comes to mind?

"I do get ideas when I'm out and about," she says. "I might be in a park and I'll get an idea and have to write it down when I get home."

But she doesn't want you to get the wrong idea: composing is one per cent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration, including painstaking, formal annotation.

"Some people think composers float around in space humming tunes to themselves, then they come back home and gently write it down, have a lovely cup of tea, put their feet up, and that's a day's work," she says. "The truth is, it's exactly the opposite of that. It's about being disciplined. Yes, it's an incredibly creative job. But you're also writing and revising all the time, with a pencil and manuscript paper, then orchestrating it with samples and keyboards so the director can review it before you go into the studio. That studio might be Abbey Road with an 80-piece orchestra, which is the most exciting, wonderful thing. But before you can get to that point, it's a lot of hard work."

Different Voices is released on September 29

Snapshot

Born: London, May 10, 1963

Education: Attended Henrietta Barnett school, the Trinity College of Music and later the Guildhall School

Career: Her music is heard regularly on television in series including Judge John Deed and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. She presented the series Backtracks, about writing music for film and TV. Her film credits include Wilde, for which she won an Ivor Novello award

On her Jewish identity: "I was asked to write the music to accompany a 20-minute video about the history of the Jews. And the music came so naturally; it felt right because it's in my blood"

    Last updated: 11:51am, March 18 2009