Thunderbirds are Go: Interview: Composers Ben & Nick Foster

Ben and Nick FosterOne of the many contributory factors to the success of Thunderbirds are Go, ITV’s revamp of the classic Gerry Anderson series Thunderbirds, has been the music score from composer brothers Ben and Nick Foster. Renowned for their separate work – Ben most recently on Happy Valley, Nick on Derren Brown’s shows – the pair write the scores for each episode together, and have been nominated for a BAFTA Award for the show’s music. Late last year, as they were working on the final episodes of series 1 and shortly after the release of the first album of music from the series, they took an hour out to chat with Paul Simpson…


The album has some interesting things on it such as the original version of the theme, rather than the as broadcast… Hopefully that’ll be on volume 2.

Ben:    You never know; depends how people react. We were keen to put in a couple of bits we’d missed out.

Nick:   We did it as part of our pitch.

Ben:    Yeah, we recorded a longer version of it for the media promotion that happened before the show was finished. We just wanted to put that full length back in. It adds something to the history of it.

The album’s also got a “standard” version of the launch sequence music…

Ben:    There’s a number of reasons we’ve had to change the launch sequences, particularly in the first half of series 1.

Nick:   They kept cutting it, didn’t they.

Ben:    They edited it to the Thunderbirds main theme, because they liked it, but they knew we wanted to replace it so unfortunately it means the cart’s before the horse. What’s happening now is they’re editing to two or three different versions of our launch sequence that don’t sound too abridged. There’s a couple of times we’ve had to make abridged versions that we’re not particularly happy with either.

Nick:   You’re talking about the 6/4 bar in the middle…

Ben:    Yes, I was watching with my niece and she was singing along, and then it was 2 beats out. It really threw her, and sent home to me that kids like things to be the same.

TBs 1.24The F-A-B motif works well…

Ben:    We were really happy that we could use it, and that we could do F-A-B flat, or F-A-B natural. Sometimes we’ll use the two together.

The launch was something we recorded with the theme tune when we did the first recording session because we felt it could be really useful. It wasn’t clear if there would be interstitials between scenes, so we recorded little wipes… We also recorded break bumpers for when they put commercials in abroad. We had to do lots of little bits and it was a joy to realise that would work as a motif.

Nick:   It gets good use!

Let’s go back to the start. How did you get involved?

Nick:   They asked Ben to pitch on it. Ben and I obviously know each other! We’ve met, and done lots of things together over the years. He thought it might be something we’d enjoy doing together, so we pitched for it.

Ben:    These opportunities don’t come along many times in your life and obviously Doctor Who has been great fun. Thunderbirds is a show that I loved as a kid, and shared that love with Nick, having fun watching it and doing our own little versions of it. We made our own little films and did the music for them. So to have the opportunity is great – these things usually only come around once. If The Prisoner comes round again, we’ll probably do the same thing: that’s another show that we used to like.

Nick:   And The Avengers.

Ben:    We’re on this route now!

It was nice to think we could spend time doing it together because believe it or not, although it’s one of the things we love doing most – writing music – coupled with watching a television show that we love, when you get 13, 14, 15, 16 episodes in, it does start to feel hard. You have to keep that momentum, that enthusiasm going, and one good way of doing that is working with someone whose enthusiasm is equal to yours. So on a day I might not feel quite up to doing it, Nick will come up with some great enthusiasm and we’ll keep going. And we’re staring at another 26 episodes ahead!

Thunderbirds Are Go, 106 - VirgilI’m seeing it now through kids’ eyes: I have a lovely little niece who’s been watching it with me, and she’s thrilled with it. My little boy, he’s only very young, he’s been watching it. You realise one of the reasons you’re doing this show is because it appeals to kids and gives them an excitement about something that you loved when you were a kid. The circle is complete, which is rather nice. It’s a boon and a real privilege to do it.

As part of the pitch, they sent us the original voiceover, the Peter Dyneley 5-4-3-2-1, which was a brilliant thing to hear, and that had to go into the pitch. We did a version in the studio: I had to go over to Australia to do Doctor Who stuff and Nick and I were in touch while I was there. I had a studio set up over there, Nick was in London and we kept going backwards and forwards and eventually got something that was really cool.

Then we recorded it with a bunch of friends back in London, strings and brass.

Nick:   We did that just off our own bat – this was the pitch. It was one of the most exciting things: a document came through which didn’t say much, but what it did say was thrilling. It was so exciting that they were finally going to do this. If you’re a fan of Thunderbirds and things like this, it’s the Holy Grail – it’s almost happened so many times, then there was the movie…

Ben:    As a fan of Barry Gray’s, the worst thing that could have happened was that we didn’t get it and we heard somebody else had done it; then we heard their version and we thought it was awful, a terrible ruining of Barry Gray. I would have found that very hard to live with. But an awful lot of people think that’s what we’ve done. Even though we did it with the greatest respect and genuinely thinking about things, and trying to push it forwards without it feeling old-fashioned, still people are beloved of the original. You can’t win. All you can do is get to the end of the pitch and say, “This is going to be great, we’ve done our best…”

Nick:   You mentioned your niece watching it and things like that – that’s really the audience that need to know this. They may well never have seen – they will never have seen the original; hopefully they’ll go back and watch it – but this is their original. For them, this is the original version of the music. The best we can hope for is that we treat the Barry Gray one with respect and then we move on with it.

Was there ever any discussion of doing a straight reduction of the Barry Gray theme to fit the shorter sequence rather than heading off in a new direction after the initial few bars?

Ben:    If we had done that, we wouldn’t have got the job.

ITV’s approach for everyone who worked on the show was that they wanted people to take this beloved theme tune, take this beloved set, take these beloved designs for spacecraft, and update them for a new audience.

I’ve said this a few times, and I say it with respect: Barry Gray’s original theme for Thunderbirds sounds wonderful but it sounds like a jolly tea party in the 1960s and has absolutely no reference point with a five or six year old of today who’s into Minecraft and all of that. To actually help that theme become something that people are now humming up and down the playgrounds, that’s how we’ve managed to keep that alive for Barry.

It’s not disrespect, it’s not that we thought we could make it so much better. We couldn’t. We made it different because it now appeals to a different audience. I still love the original but it’s like I love all sorts of things – I love Mantovani, I love Nelson Riddle, stuff of a period. I’m a passionate enthusiast of period orchestration but Thunderbirds was a period orchestration. Even at the time it was a wee bit old-fashioned.

Look at the opening montage of the boys in their kit, you can’t marry the two – people have tried on YouTube but they’re like chalk and cheese.

More importantly – and it’s the same with the show – the essence of Thunderbirds musically, we hope is still there. The theme is still there. It’s just updated. It’s the same with the craft.

FAb 1Nick:   The thing that people will hopefully hum or whistle in the playgrounds is basically the same melody – it’s the first four bars of the melody. It’s still there.

At one point we were talking about whether we’d pitch two versions – one that was closer to the original. We tried that and thought, no; we felt ours was a confident take on it.

Ben:    You have to put your… whatevers… on the line and say, “This is where we think it should go.” An executive producer spending millions of pounds to relaunch a brand, a really precious brand, will want it to be updated. It can’t be the same. Even FAB 1 has been updated.

I don’t think what we’ve done is like the movie version: I think that was done with slightly less respect.

When we talked about music with the executive producers, we talked about the show, the passion we had for it, and we also talked about the fact we realised that you have to move something on but you are always aware of what was great about the original.

We all grew up with this. Everybody that works on it grew up with it – we’re all about the same age – and a lot of us saw it for the first time in the Nineties. We saw it as a period piece even then.

Nick:   That’s a really good point. We loved period stuff growing up. For some reason we loved the ITC stuff and The Avengers. There was something about that period that attracted us in the Eighties and Nineties.

BArry GrayBen:    Don’t get me wrong – Barry Gray (right) could be as hip as anyone. Listen to UFO! There’s a really brilliant recording of a recording session with him – all the outtakes. You hear the drums warming up in the middle of the break. We were listening to it with a couple of pals, including a well-known famous composer, and we were vibing with the idea that this was Barry Gray – and he wasn’t young. But he was cool – he was really cool.

We listened to the Scarlet soundtracks, on the surface, and taking aside the really interesting orchestration, it’s actually just very curtain-lining stuff, it’s panto gestures. But the sound of it is incredible. That applies to Cloudbase, and Spectrum; then you listen to the stuff for the Mysterons, and it’s amazing. This stands up today – it’s really inventive.

Thunderbirds was this really British institution: military, but a light tea party thing. It was decent and wholesome.

Nick:   It was clean cut and there was nothing funky about it.

Ben:    Additionally, as you say, those opening titles were quite long. We didn’t have that long. We had to get the tune round a couple of times and out. We had to speed it up.

One of the things the producer said that I remember at every point that we do any other pitches, is that we were the only people who took the theme and put it in the minor key.

SILCD1487-Thunderbirds-album-cover-V2-320Nick:   I think that was when we cracked it.

Ben:    That’s what he said cracked it. We all know the basics between major and minor but there was something about the minor key that gave it more of a current feel. If you listen to any big film score they’re always in the minor keys, often in D minor. We did this in D minor…

Nick:   We played around a fair amount.

Ben:    We tried it in a major key and it just sounded stupid. It just sounded like trying to update something that didn’t fit. As soon as we got it into D minor, it absolutely felt right.

So many of the theme tunes kids are growing up with nowadays are in the minor key. A major key would sound light, wouldn’t sound dramatic, wouldn’t sound urgent. I think kids are attuned to that.

So that was our pitch, and how we got in.

Click here for page 2, in which Ben and Nick describe how they work together to compose an episode…


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