The Film & TV Music of Christopher Gunning [Chandos Movies]

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Poirot Variants
La Môme Piaf [La Vie en Rose]
Under Suspicion
Cold Lazarus
The Rosemary and Thyme Caprice
When the Whales Came
The Hollow
Five Little Pigs
Lighthouse Hill

Nicole Tibbels (soprano), Craig Ogden (guitar) & Martin Robertson (saxophone)

BBC Philharmonic
Rumon Gamba

Recorded 14 July 2009 and 4 January and 15 & 17 June 2010 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: March 2011
Duration: 76 minutes



Like many of his forbears and other contemporary composers, Christopher Gunning (born 1944) has enjoyed a career successfully combining commercial film and television commissions with his more personal compositions. He has followed in a tradition whereby successful British classical composers have often been asked by the cinema industry to compose music for films. Those who enjoyed this status in the past include Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Bliss, Lord Berners, Benjamin Frankel, Elisabeth Lutyens, Michael Nyman and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Christopher Gunning studied at the Guildhall School of Music under Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett and has produced four symphonies, a piano concerto, and concertos for oboe and for clarinet as well as a wealth of film and television scores, the most famous or at least the most familiar being that for “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”. His other television work includes “Rosemary and Thyme”, “Cold Lazarus”, “Middlemarch”, “Porterhouse Blue” and “Rebecca”. He has written for many more television films and series including “Rogue Male”, “Running Blind”, “The Day of the Triffids”, “Rise and Fall of Idi Amin”, “Wings Over Serengeti”, “The Last Train” and “Wild Africa”. His film scores include “La Vie en Rose”, “Under Suspicion” “When the Whales Came”, “Pollyanna”, “Lighthouse Hill” and “Firelight”. His theme for the Martini advertisement has been heard around the world for over thirty years. Much of his work has been nominated for awards and he won a BAFTA award for “La Vie en Rose”.

In choosing scores suitable for this Chandos release Gunning found it difficult to select from his prodigious output. He took advantage of being given the BBC Philharmonic to perform the music by choosing some of his bigger scores and he also employed some of the many solo artists he has used over the years. Crucial to his choice and to his music in general is melody, which he believes is vital to his work as a composer. He says he has “always strived to embody the essence of a film by using themes or motifs which then go on to accompany the various characters and plot developments.”

The tune for “Poirot” dates from 1989, since when he has worked on some forty episodes in the series. He wrote different variations on the main theme to suit the various moods of the scenes and of Poirot’s character. For “Poirot Variants” he has collected several of these and collected them together, leaving the real tune, the jaunty melody that apes the way Poirot moves in his signature walk, until the very end. It provides an apt introduction to Gunning’s music and would make a popular concert piece. Along with Jim Parker’s music for “Midsomer Murders”, Eric Spear’s “Coronation Street” theme, Simon May’s for “EastEnders” and Barrington Pheloung’s work on “Inspector Morse”, Gunning’s “Poirot” music is arguably one of the most recognisable themes on television because it has been associated with such a long-running series and its many subsequent repeats. The haunting main theme is scored for alto saxophone and orchestra, the soloist here being Martin Robertson.

In the film of “La Môme Piaf” (re-titled “La Vie en Rose” for the UK) Marion Cottillard gives an Academy Award and BAFTA-winning performance as Edith Piaf, the ‘little sparrow’ singer of the Parisian streets and gutters. Gunning’s work on the film’s score interpolates some of Piaf’s most famous songs with original music that convey the sadness of Piaf’s up and down life veering between pain from illness and her emotional problems and some bouts of occasional happiness. The accordion, played here by Matthew Compton, is used as a kind of shorthand to pinpoint Paris and its music halls. Nicole Tibbels sings a wordless melody in the style of the French singer. The piece ends with a grand romantic waltz theme as a counterpoint to the darkness of Piaf’s life.

“Under Suspicion” (1991) is a murder thriller in which both Liam Neeson and Laura San Giacomo suspect each other of a foul deed even though there is a romantic liaison between them, a fact brought out in Gunning’s edgy, mysterious music that is full of drama and lurking thrills. “Cold Lazarus” (1996) was the last television series that Dennis Potter wrote before his premature death and gave Gunning the chance to write futuristic, space-age music for a large orchestra which he thoroughly enjoyed doing. There were four episodes and four different types of music, the first dealing with cryogenics, the second a fierce battle, the third an idyllic view of the Forest of Dean and the fourth a restatement of the original theme.

“Rosemary and Thyme” (2003-2006) is the detective series starring Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris as two gardeners and would-be sleuths, for which Gunning used the traditional ‘Scarborough Fair’ tune which has echoes in the programme’s title to augment his own music, here picked out on guitar by Craig Ogden. “Rebecca” (1997) is a version of the Daphne Du Maurier story with Diana Rigg, Charles Dance, Faye Dunaway and Emilia Fox. For the dark mood of the piece which is set in a mysterious old house, Gunning employed a cello, played here by Julia Bradshaw, which captures the intensity of the mood. Gunning is very good at conveying brooding menace in his music. In complete contrast is his score for “Pollyanna” (2003), a version of the famous children’s book, the joyfulness of the experience comes through in the upbeat nature of Gunning’s music.

“Firelight” (1997) is William Nicholson’s film about a woman who has a baby for money but who then gives the child away. Later she is determined to track down the child and subsequently becomes her daughter’s governess and in the process falls in love with the child’s so-called ‘father’. The film is one of Gunning’s favourites as he was able to express through his music powerful emotions that could not be uttered in words by the story’s characters. Love and desire are combined with a feeling of claustrophobia in music of simplicity and stillness that eventually leads to more-romantic musical statements. “When the Whales Came In” (1989) was coincidentally being filmed on the Scilly Isles while Gunning was there on holiday with his family. It concerns two children who meet a strange old man played by Paul Scofield who has weird tales to tell of a haunted island. When he returned home Gunning was amazed but pleased to be offered the chance of writing the music. He had had personal experience of whales being stranded on beaches and dying so already had an emotional connection with the subject-matter and with the sea itself. His music has a mystical quality aided here by Nicole Tibbels and the inclusion of slowed-down whale song.

“The Hollow” (2004) and “Five Little Pigs” (2003) are both Poirot stories and for which Gunning composed at least one special theme each. In the first a pool of water plays a central part in the plot. In the second a violin solo (Yuri Torchinsky) is performed accompanied by a small orchestra to evoke the mystery of the story. Finally, “Lighthouse Hill” (2004) is a little-known film with Jason Flemyng and Kirsty Mitchell, a quirky and original comedy by American writer Shirley Y. Cobb with a love-theme that Gunning composed to evoke stillness and calm. As always with Gunning simplicity is the keynote.

It is good that Chandos is continuing to champion film and television scores that might otherwise be forgotten. Christopher Gunning’s work is no exception.

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