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THE MUSIC OF DOWNTON: INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER JOHN LUNN

Written by Andrew Korpan

As you’ll read in this interview, I was not a Downton Abbey fan before A New Era. My mother is a big fan that watched the entire series and 2019 film during the pandemic. But even as a blind fan, A New Era was a surprisingly good time and one of the best aspects of the film was its score. Even if I haven’t seen a single episode of the original series, I recognized the score instantly when listening before my screening of the sequel film. That’s a testament to just how great John Lunn’s score is that even someone who hasn’t seen a moment of the show can recognize the series’ main theme.

John Lunn is a legendary Scottish composer with dozens of works in his lengthy resumé. Perhaps Downton Abbey is most prominent in his legacy, but his creative process and musical knowledge should not be taken for granted. It was an absolute honor and pleasure to speak to John, and I cannot wait to see what future projects he has in store. Thank you, White Bear PR for allowing me to speak to John.


I actually was not a Downton Abbey fan before seeing A New Era—I didn't see the series growing up or anything—but even I recognized the main theme. Could you take me back to how that started because you've been working on Downton Abbey since 2010 or so?

I think I started working on [Downton Abbey] in 2010 [and] it kind of all came quite naturally. There was no title sequence in the very first episode that we did, it just went straight into the drama and had a train going through the English countryside.


I was basically looking at the images and trying to go with the images and trying to come up with something that represented what I could see and what I could understand; it was a drama. I went with that train energy and then the next image was of a man looking rather for lonely out of the train window, looking like his best years have been behind him.


So I picked a slightly sad, solo piano tune and the train was following a series of telegraph poles and there was a telegram actually on its way to Downton Abbey to explain that the heir to Downton Abbey had been drowned on the Titanic. Of course, the audience don't know any of this so I'm trying to imbue these images with a meaning much greater than what the audience will understand. And then finally we arrive [with] a fantastic shot of Highclere castle, which is Downton Abbey itself. And that's the point where the harmony really broadens out. And so, I had those four elements: that the broadening harmony, the solo piano tune, the rising emotional strings to go with it that went with the telegram and the energy of the train and everybody just loved that music. And further on in the episode, it worked really well [any] time there was a cue needed to be doing with the house itself.


When it came to episode two, they asked me to do a 30-second version of that music, which I did, and then they put the graphics for the title sequence to the music. I never saw the graphics and it worked out really well because if I'd been shown those images of the title sequence, cause it starts off with a dog's bottom and then goes to somebody dusting a chandelier and they don't really tell you what you're about to see or what the program really is, the music's doing most of that.


And you know, I'd probably have written something completely different if I'd just been given those images.


Because you worked on the show for so long—it ran from then until 2016 or so—did you ever get tired of working on the same project?

I'm quite used to it. You know, I started out doing a lot more movies and somehow I seemed to graduate into doing long-running TV shows. So I was quite used to it. I suppose, possibly in the final season, I might have been [starting to think that] maybe my music was possibly getting a bit tired. But then when the movies came—it's not that it's a different ball game at all; in many ways, it's very similar—it was a different sort of structure and it was a different budget and there was a bit more time to concentrate on it so it really refreshed me. And having like three years after finishing the final season, and then coming up with the first movie’s [score], I was ready for it.


You said that the process between [scoring] TV and films are similar, but can you explain some of the similarities and some of the differences may be between them?


So you're basically doing the same thing. Your job is to help amplify the storyline. Sometimes in television, there tends to be slightly more dialogue to be crammed in and things tend to be slightly more compressed, whereas in a movie, things are slightly more drawn out. So there's a little bit more room for, for the music. There's a few more bits where music really is featured. You’ve got to be able to handle all that, but essentially it's the same. And of course the budget's slightly different and there's probably more people to keep happy.


But in the case of Downton [Abbey], it has pretty much been the same. I worked very closely with the executive director, Gareth Neame, and the producer, Liz Trubridge. And then on the second movie, I'd already worked with the director [Simon Curtis] on a completely different show as well. So we already had a sort of working relationship; that was useful.

This might just be like an American observing this, but I always find it interesting with British TV—Downton Abbey being an exception—they handle the length of shows well. In your estimation, what was it about Downton [Abbey] that allowed it to run for so long?

We've been getting more and more like that [American television], but I think there was quite a big cast, so there was always the opportunity for people's lives to change or something to happen to them. It’s an interesting, in drama, for instance, there's quite [a] concentration on people either kind of beginning to fall in love or the trials and tribulations of people getting together. But once that's happened and people are happy, it's a slice. [Though it’s] easy to do drama. For instance, Matthew died in season three and basically the first three seasons had been concentrating on him, getting together with Lady Mary, and then they finally did it at the end of season two.


And then, he [Dan Stevens] left at the end of season three. Happy marriages are not that dramatic, so it was probably quite a good thing that he was killed off—I'm sorry to say. But, you know, it's quite an interesting concept and I think we all just enjoy doing it. So I think there was always that always enthusiasm to keep it going. And it was very successful, it made a lot of money.


Is film any easier because of the lack of tight deadlines that come with a TV series? And is it ever hard to avoid repetition when scoring for the same series?

In Britain, it's slightly different. I mean, I know that in America, sometimes it can be like one [episode] a week. We are not quite as insane as it's more [likely] one every three weeks.


I don't think we ever used the same cue twice in the series. It was always redone because the timing of it was never quite right. We always had to redo [things and so] we never copied them.


The dialogue is so interesting and important in Downton Abbey, but as a composer, how do you manage not overstepping boundaries and overdoing it with music?

I pay a lot of attention to the dialogue and I know when I'm composing, I never switch the dialogue off—I'm always composing with it on directly. And then even when we're recording, I'm listening to the dialogue when the orchestra is recording so that we can kind of tailor it to the dialogue, and then I have a mixer that kind of specializes in mixing to dialogue as well. It's not just a musical thing. It's also a kind of register thing, you know? So kind of try and keep out of the way of that register [that] the voices are in. I just thought subtlety, really. I'm just trying to be really subtle with the dialogue and pay real attention to it. I mean, obviously, music [is] there for a reason, and I always have to ask what our reason is, you know? [What] people are saying, why do you need music, do you need music to emphasize that? Or do you need music to point out the fact that what that person says is not how they actually feel? [The] sort thing where music can take over and implant into the audiences’ head [that] they're not hearing everything precisely going on. The music's always a kind of slightly different element and that's always what I'm trying to do.


When you said you kept the dialogue on, did you mean that you keep the subtitles on? Or did you have a copy of a script that you were keeping up with?

Oh, no. The music goes on at the very, very end. The thing is all filmed and edited and music's just the last thing. So I'm watching the film all the way through when I'm composing to [it].

Okay. Okay. And so what did you think, I'm just curious on your thoughts on the second film, a new era, if I could ask.

I'm really pleased with it. I think with the first movie, we were really concerned. We didn't want to branch out too far and take away from what the TV series was and do something different.


So, although I had a bigger orchestra and a bigger budget, I kept the orchestration pretty much to the same as we used on the TV series, so It was essentially very recognizable as Downton Abbey, but in the second movie, because we've done a first movie, I think there was a decision that maybe we do have to branch out a little bit.


There’s one very important story line with the family [that] have to go to the south of France and it involves a plot line to do with Violet’s [Maggie Smith] past when she was in our early twenties, and that needed a completely different kind of style. The eight, to get them to the south of the France and while we're there, chart the plotline involving Violet.


There's another storyline where a film crew comes to the rent the castle and to make a film and it's just on the cusp of moving from silent movies into talkies. It’s kind of the early beginnings of proper Hollywood, so that gives me another avenue to explore. And then the last 10 minutes of the movie is really, really moving. There's an event that happens that it's really significant for the family and that required something new.


What I'm most happy about with the film for me, it's just a sheer contrast between the music that I don't think existed up until now.


I don't know if there are plans to do a third one, but if they did do a third film, would you come back?

Oh, God, yeah.


Okay. But if not, if they just saved, this is the final, does this feel like a proper then send off for your journey?

This would be a proper sendoff for me, yeah.

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