Murray Gold and I are singing at each other in a manner that I later realise is both slightly embarrassing and impossible to recreate in print. The subject is the Doctor Who theme tune. In 2005, when the sci-fi series was resurrected by Russell T Davies, Gold was asked to spruce up the famous opening. So how, I say, do you improve upon “Dun-der-dun, der-dun-der-dun, der-dun-der-dun, der OOO WAAA WAAAAAA?”
“The simplicity of that tune is what makes it so easy to change,” says Gold. “The only thing that’s annoying is that glam rock triplet beat, which makes it sound like The Sweet. As soon as you add drums to that you end up with a party tune from the Seventies. That’s why I broke that up on series one.”
Gold’s BBC paymasters evidently liked what he did, because he has been writing all of the music for Doctor Who ever since, including a second reworking of the theme tune in 2011. Although he is a prolific and successful composer – most recently he wrote the music for Last Tango in Halifax and The Musketeers – he describes Doctor Who as his main employment. His trademark, at least on Doctor Who, is epic, stirring anthems that drive the action forward while remaining eminently hummable in the playground the next day.
He says that his girlfriend “can’t stand” the programme and that he rarely meets people who like it in his daily life spent between New York and Los Angeles. Gold, 46, is a Doctor Who devotee and it’s an affection that stems back to his Seventies boyhood when he was obsessed with Tom Baker’s incarnation of the Time Lord.
“I get very sentimental when I talk about Doctor Who – he’s like an intergalactic Atticus Finch. It’s one of the last great morality tales out there but it also celebrates life. For that reason I think it’s a great show for kids. I couldn’t write this much music for it if I didn’t feel that way.”
The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, hosted by the fifth doctor Peter Davison, takes this music around the world, and is touring the UK next month.
“We do it with the National Orchestra of Wales, plus a big choir, huge screens, monsters, the works – there are 150 people on stage. It’s anthemic music, so the emotional pitch of the show is like a rock gig. Because Doctor Who’s a geeky sort of show – one that celebrates wit and humour, rather than brawn and power – it’s a congregation of people who are revelling in their underdog status. I like that.”
As a TV critic, I tell Gold, I have heard several comments saying that certain TV series seem to have too much music, or that it is too loud and overbearing.
“Some people definitely have a language/music thing where it’s difficult in their brains for them to deal with both. I can’t play the piano and talk to somebody at the same time. A lot of people can. I think the people who say the music is too loud are expressing a subjective viewpoint and that is how they hear it – it’s a difficulty of processing the logic of language with the emotive language of music simultaneously.”
Gold is a funny, mischievous, self-deprecating presence. He characterises his path to his pre-eminence among screen composers as a matter of luck and good timing. He never attended music school, instead relying on piano lessons “from Mrs Winifred Ayling in Portchester”. Having taught his grandma, she refused on principle to raise her prices and charged him 25p per half-hour. He ended up at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and immersed himself in theatre, becoming music director of Footlights after writing both plays and the music for them. Continuing in a similar vein after graduation, he got his big break when he met the director Marc Munden, who recommended him for the BBC’s 1998 adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair after turning him down for a previous gig. The result was one of the most innovative TV scores of the past 20 years.
“That score came about after Marc and I had been sitting around saying, ‘Well, this is about the death of the middle classes, this is about a bourgeois disaster and a woman claiming her stake in middle-class society – so let’s try to make it Brechtian, let’s try and make it a bit Kurt Weill’.”
“The BBC did get concerned about what was going on,” he admits of his decision to employ amateur musicians to record the soundtrack. But while the score was pilloried in some quarters, it got Gold noticed. The first of four Bafta nominations for Best Original Television Music followed.
The writer Paul Abbott (State of Play, Shameless) was an admirer, and suggested Gold to the television producer Nicola Shindler and writer Russell T Davies, who were looking for a composer for their new series, Queer as Folk, about a group of young gay men in Manchester. Gold became both Abbott and Davies’s composer of choice, creating the music for this and subsequent landmark dramas, including Clocking Off and Shameless.
“I came of age when a group of social realist, British, particularly Northern dramatists were coming into their own. Somehow I became their flagbearer,” he says. “I would write their anthems. There was so much passion in the first season of Shameless, so much fantastic stuff in Clocking Off. There’s nothing better than some of those shows I’ve worked on. America can’t come close. They’ve got a grit and an honesty about them.”
His method appears to be that he doesn’t have one, although when he stumbles upon a good tune he will try to find a place to use it.
“A lot of the time it’s just because I’ve been listening to something and I want to make some music like that,” he says.
For Doctor Who, however, he took a different tack, composing some of the music for the recent Doctors based on the actor’s personality.
“A lot of the music for Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi was written even prior to script; it came up through just watching the new actor in other things he’d been in.”
How would Gold describe these actors’ defining traits?
“Capaldi is direct, to the point, abrasive. Whereas Matt was gangly, awkward, eccentric. David Tennant was passionate, buccaneering. Sometimes parents tell me their kids can listen to one bit of music and know not only what doctor it is but what episode it’s from. That’s the highest praise.”
The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular tours the UK from May 23
And will be in New York City Later this year.