On a practical point, how do you work together?
Ben: We don’t really have a rule. We’re here today writing episode 26. We will start at the point where we know the music has to start. Maybe I’ll sit down and try something and it won’t be good and Nick will have a go, and it’ll be great and we push on from there. He’ll do a few bars, I’ll do a few bars. He’ll do a left hand, I’ll do a right hand…
Nick: We do actually do that and it does work.
Ben: There is no set rule.
So you’re playing it to picture and then fiddling about with what you’ve put down?
Ben: Totally. We record it on a basic piano sound, trying not to get hung up on how it’s going to sound – we know how it’s going to sound eventually – but just get the melody in and the timings right. Because we’ve got so many recurring themes throughout the series, some of which pertain to Jeff, some to the boys, some of the actions, some about FAB, we have a library of stuff in our heads that we can pull out…
Nick: …and rewrite, to be clear. We have motifs that we use, and it’s pretty heavy on that, and I think rightly so. It needs to be.
Ben: One of the nice things to be able to do is to be writing a cue and cut to the next scene where they’re doing something action-y, and we remember an action cue from a previous episode and just play it. We play it in again, rerecord it, and there’s a continuity there but inevitably we misremember it, so it becomes developed.
Nick: It’s a new reaction because we’re playing it again to a new picture.
Ben: There’s a great cue in episode 26 – we think it’s great; we certainly spent long enough on it! It’s a moment where individual people arrive at the party in about 12 bars. Every time we up it and up it and up it, repeating the theme but in a different key. It’s really exciting for us.
It’s a very old-fashioned way in a way – we’re bashing away like silent movie pianists in a way, but we’re sharing the energies that we may have in the course of a day, and we get it done. It’s great, it’s very efficient.
Then everything’s orchestrated and mixed and produced by the two of us. We’ve got an excellent assistant, Sam, who’s really helpful in all regards, including printing music. It’s a nice experience.
Is there a set amount of music for each episode, or is it your judgement call?
Nick: There’s a great series director, David Scott, who’s been across the whole of season 1, even episodes that he hasn’t directed. He’s hugely responsible and influential in setting up the feel and the sound. He has great ideas about music. Initially we did spot with him where we could, and with Giles Ridge, the executive producer, but as it’s gone on, it’s become… not autonomous, but we’ve been able to lead more in that respect.
We also like to think that we have a sense of what we’d like to do. Sometimes they’ll point things out to us that they think are particularly important, but more often than not, we’re all pointing in the same direction.
Nick: If it’s called for, we would.
Ben: We record in six hour blocks, and record up to 45 minutes of music in each block for three episodes. Each episode has roughly 23 minutes in it; some of that will be the title music; some of that will be the launch sequence. Right there, you can strike off three to three and a half minutes.
Nick: Do the maths backwards from there: that only leaves 19 minutes of episode, and we record 15 for each. It’s not perhaps wall to wall, but it’s not far off.
Ben: We will do cues which are purely synthesised; not synthesised orchestra, but vintage analogue synths for cues that are under dialogue. Scenes that don’t need to be orchestrated, and would be better not, because they would sit back nicer in the mix if they’re just synths.
We do reuse cues. We often find ourselves putting an action sequence in a spot – “that chase sequence from episode 5, we should try that.” We’ll open it up, and about four bars will be great and then it goes out of synch, so we’ll keep the first four bars and then record from bar 5 onwards. There is reuse in that respect, but we try not to reuse the whole piece and hope for the best. We really do care about how it’s spotted, because it’s a fine line where you put the music cuts. Where you bring in the music, the sound effects is so crucial to the enjoyment of the show for kids.
The visuals are amazing, the dialogue is great, tight and interesting, but the music and the sound really help get that excitement going on the sofa. We realised early on to get it just right to the frame, and really carefully making sure that it fits.
Nick: The sound is a good thing to mention. Nigel Heath and Hackenbacker who do the sound are brilliant. We do a dance with them so we’re hopefully not all talking at the same time – that’s certainly our aim.
Ben: We go to every single dub – which is not that common – and every time we’ve been we’ve heard a new thing in terms of what we can do better next time. Watching back the first three episodes, we’ve moved on considerably from there in many different, perhaps subtle but important ways. I think that’s due to the fact that we’re all listening; we’re all shifting and making it work better.
Nick: Look back to the first one we did, Crosscut. Stylistically, we were writing quite differently, The themes are all there but the way we were writing it felt quite different, watching it back from the vantage point of episode 26.
We’ve both been out to WETA and seeing what they’re doing out there and the imagination. They just try things out – it’s an amazing enterprise. They’ve been learning on the job and so have we.
Ben: It’s bloody hard work but from the very beginning they’ve been determined to make something really great.
Nick: There are some stunning visuals in the second half of the first season.
Thanks for the Fireflash cue in that particular episode…
Ben: We put it in knowingly because we thought it might please a few people – it certainly pleased us. I got the original score from Ralph Titterton and we transcribed it note for note and recorded it. I’ve got a couple of videos of us recording it – it was so exciting. It’s a wonderful little piece.
In Relics, did you reference Barry Gray’s Mysteron music…
Ben: No, because that would be far too much fun. We didn’t do that for sure, and I didn’t put baritone sax in just so it would sound like Barry Gray.
Nick: Wait till you hear Designated Driver…
Ben: It’s the one with Sylvia Anderson. There’s a little more Barry Gray in that one than usual, which again we felt justified. You’ll see why.
Do you read ahead?
Ben: No. We’re as excited as anyone to see it – it’s a surprise. What’s coming next? We don’t read scripts any more because you want to see it, so we wait till we see it. Often we’ll sit down with an episode in the morning and by the end of the second day, we’ll have it in sketchy form. It’s those initial reactions – you imagine yourself age 9 running round the garden with a cardboard toilet roll shaped like Thunderbird 1, which is what we used to do! There’s a lovely scene opening an episode with Thunderbird 3 launching and we pan back and see it’s just a little kid with a remote controlled model. It’s great
It’s the most enjoyable show, and it has that kind of bravura that nothing else sort of has. You can’t really give anything else in terms of TV that much life and joy. It’s a very different thing.
The stories are timeless, and what’s brilliant about it and what we try to get over in the music is the camaraderie, the friendship, the brotherhood, the family unit, however disparate and bitty it is, it’s the relationship between the brothers and their lost father. It’s really important to give kids a sense of “This is right, this is wrong, you can be brave, you can beat the bad guys.”
Nick: It’s clearly delineated and that’s wonderful but it’s also feels like a real family. There are strange divided loyalties in there; the Kayo situation; where’s Jeff? They’re a nuclear family, an unconventional nuclear family and that’s a brilliant and very relevant message.
Ben: The relationship between the brothers and between older and younger siblings is really important. Alan saving the day, despite people not believing he could – or he not believing he could. It’s really valuable.
It means a lot to us and if it didn’t we wouldn’t be able to come in and do it. It’s not just another job. It’s just punch the air fun. It’s a hoot. And I think it’s a show that will continue to grow. I hope it will mean the same to a new generation of kids as it did to us. It led us to what we do now.
Thunderbirds are Go returns to UK screens later this year, and launches in the US on Amazon Prime shortly. The first volume of music is now available from Silva Screen
Thanks to Jelena Jancic at Silva Screen for her help in arranging this interview