Composer Paul Honey has scored dramas, documentaries and children’s shows ranging from Blandings (BBC) to double-BAFTA winning Old Jack’s Boat. Here he reveals what it takes to be a successful composer.

New paul

As I look out of Paul’s studio window and am slightly distracted by a bird perched right outside of it against a very picturesque scene (he lives in Totnes, Devon), Paul’s one hour away from recording his latest commission – the re-versioned theme for Porridge (remember that? Yes, it’s coming back this summer to BBC One).

But he seems unphased to chat away to me while he rather intensely checks his instrument parts (he’ll be recording some live brass in another studio an hour).

So Paul, when did it all start and why composing?

I came into composing relatively late in life – it wasn’t part of a game plan when I left uni and turned professional. My original dream was to work as a jazz musician, but earning a living and jazz didn’t really go hand in hand (plus I wasn’t a particularly good jazz player!) so I started exploring other avenues. I had a good deal of encouragement from friends and colleagues and a few opportunities to write arose, and I just sort of fell into it.

Who are your biggest influences?

That’s a tricky one to pin down. I’ve been very lucky in my life as I’ve been exposed to some incredible music and musicians from an early age. My roots are firmly in Western classical music, but I’ve experienced such amazing music from all over the world. So in short, I’m influenced by everything!

How did you get your reputation in composing?

That’s not for me to say! I would say, however, that the composing business is very similar in that respect to being a player. It’s who you know in this game and I’ve found that the TV and Film business is quite small. If you go to meet a producer or director for a potential project, he’s very likely to know someone that you’ve worked with before.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?

There have been many moments that I consider to be important. In fact, I would say every gig is important as you’re always learning and developing your writing.  I have to say, though, one of the most incisive moments was actually hooking up with Steve Berman when he started up The Composer Works a few years ago. We’d worked together some 15 years ago and after that period I’d taken a bit of a long term sabbatical from writing. I’d always wanted to get back to composing, but really needed an agent as I’m completely hopeless at selling myself, as a lot of musicians are! Steve gave me a call and said that he was setting up the company, could he represent me, and rest is history..

What are currently your main compositional challenges?

Taking this week as an example, I’m ensconced in composing material for a big natural history series, but have also been reworking the theme for Porridge for the BBC Landmark Comedy season. Every day is different!

Where do you usually start with when scoring something new?

That’s very hard to answer, as every project you work on is different. Sometimes the musical ideas start coming to fruition after that initial discussion with producers and directors.

For example, before starting work on Old Jack’s Boat, I met with the producer, Dominic Macdonald, and explored all sorts of different musical avenues. He wanted to music to be very elegiac, a real throwback to children’s programmes of old. As we chatted away, he told me of his love for traditional music and that’s when the idea came about to integrate elements of folk music, sea shanties etc into the score.

We both agreed that it’d be great to have the overall tone as orchestral, and as a result I was lucky enough to record the music with the BBC Philharmonic.

However, there are other times when you come up against a temp score, which is when producers and directors lay down existing tracks into the programme to give them an idea of how the music might work. Sometimes these can be really helpful to give you a starting point, but there’s always the danger that the production team become wedded to the temp music as they’ve probably lived with it for weeks, and then you come in and write something new. That’s when you really need to work closely with directors and producers to get that balance between what they perhaps like about the temp score and you putting your own musical stamp on the production.

What instruments would you be and why?

I’m perfectly happy being a human being, thanks.

Finally, what recent TV shows/ films have you really enjoyed?

How long have you got?! There’s always this talk about the present time being a real golden age of TV – I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but there is some great stuff out there. I’m presently enjoying Line Of Duty, The A Word and the second series of Better Call Saul.

BBC3 has been producing some good stuff too – a drama called Thirteen and a harrowing one-off drama called Murdered By My Father that dealt with honour killing. There have been some great dramas with some great scores as well. I’m not a huge fan of electronica generally, but I think the music to The Bridge works beautifully. Jeff Beal’s music for series 3 House of Cards was as ever really enjoyable – I really like his harmonic style.

Martin Phipps is also a composer who you can rely on to be really inventive, and his score for War & Peace, combining Russian choral singing with electronic instrumentation was hugely enjoyable.