M speaks to Tony Britten

Composer Tony Britten is best known for writing the UEFA Champion’s League anthem, but he has worked across a variety of genres, creating music for film, TV, commercials and opera.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 30 Jun 2011
  • min read
Composer Tony Britten is best known for writing the UEFA Champion’s League anthem, but he has worked across a variety of genres, creating music for film, TV, commercials and opera.

He spent the first few years of his career in theatre as a musical director, working for Cameron Mackintosh as music supervisor on many shows including Godspell, The Rocky Horror Show and Oliver!.

Britten’s Champion’s League theme was first used in 1992, but last year alone, the music was played more than seven million times across 22 countries.

He currently runs his own company Capriol Films from a barn in Norfolk, directing and scoring feature films with a strong musical element. His latest project In love with Alma Cogan is set for theatrical release later this year.

Here he speaks to M about the changing nature of songwriting, and mulls the current trend for pop musicians turned classical composers.

You’ve already had a long career spanning different media, and have created music across many genres. How would you describe yourself?
I suppose I’m a commercial composer. In terms of records, I’d mainly be the arranger and conductor. I did records with Judy Collins, Elkie Brooks. And then it was a cross-section of media music work. I ran an opera company for many years with a colleague, called Music Theatre London. The basic premise was to take mainstream operas, write new translations, new chamber orchestrations, and have them performed by actor-singers. They were West End actors rather than opera singers because we thought in those days – we started 20 years ago – that the dramatic side of opera wasn’t heeded. I think that’s changed now. Anyway, it got more and more successful and when Nick Broadhurst left to go and work mainly in Germany, I took over the directing. Having done mainly the orchestrating and conducting, I thought I’d have a pop at it.

How was that?

I thought it was great. It was the same sort of step as the one I’ve just made going into films, in that it’s all to do with music. You can’t work in theatre for as many years as I did, if you are as nosy as I am, without learning all about it. I was the musical director of the original Guys and Dolls production [1985] at the National Theatre for example. All that stuff rubbed off. I never thought that music should stand on its own; it should always be organic. So it wasn’t a big step to move into directing.

What skills have you picked up that have encouraged you to move from genre to genre?

I think it’s my curiosity. I’m of the opinion that there are two sorts of music – good and bad! If you make a piece of work – whether it’s an opera, a film score, whatever – it needs to be joined up. So hopping between the genres hasn’t been a major problem for me.

With a name behind you, I suppose it might have been easier for you to get involved in a variety of things…

Yes, I think it probably has, and I think that every film or TV thing I’ve written or directed has had a very strong music element. I recently did a documentary for Sky Arts about Gilbert and Sullivan. From my experience as a film and telly composer, there have been very few directors who I think really understood music. I think if you ask most film composers they will tell you the same thing. The thing about music is that if you’re not a musician it can seem such a frightening thing, it’s like another language. It would be like me trying to direct in Russian. There are one or two directors who I’ve worked with over the years – mostly Tony Smith, who I think is a marvellous drama director – that can bring out the best scores in me.

People think that music is expensive, but its not...

What is it about the scoring process and your relationship with the director that draws out your best work?

I think its confidence on the part of the director. If you’re any good as a film director you should understand every part of the process. You don’t have to be an expert but you should understand enough technically of all the areas. It’s not that difficult to learn the basics. Nowadays, you are in this situation where producers and directors – particularly directors - want the whole thing demo-ed, they can’t use their imagination and they’re too scared or feel too compromised to say ‘Well, we’ve employed so and so because we think he or she is a really good, so let’s just let them get on with it and see how they interpret the film.’ There’s an awful lot of direction now, and I know a lot of composers who have just given up on it. It’s nuts! You wouldn’t say to the cameraman ‘Can you give us a demo of how you are going to shoot that thing?’

Why do you think directors are more inclined to act that way now, rather than 20 years ago?
To be fair to directors, I think they’re under a lot more pressure from producers and broadcasters and the money men. People think that music is expensive, but its not. We are very competitive; we have the best session musicians in the world in my opinion. But there is a huge economic pressure and it’s tough for the directors. There are whole layers of trust which need to be built, which can be hard to do.

How do you get your musical kicks? Obviously you’ve built a career composing commercial music, do you make music for private listening and personal satisfaction too?
I think my kicks come from my work. I do like allsorts of music, and have written allsorts of music – for a long time I was a hired hand, a composer for rent. The bit I miss is standing in the studio with the guys. There is something wonderful when you’ve written the music and you get some fantastic players to bring it to life. I don’t really compose for personal reasons often. I don’t consider myself to be a serious classical composer. Obviously the Champion’s League music is very classically orientated, and thank god for that! The PRS [royalties] from that help me to fund all the other things! I don’t feel the need like a really serious composer to get up in the morning and have to work on this grand piece I am creating. I used to get a phone call in the morning and then write to order.

How difficult is it for young people to come in and start composing for film and television?

It’s hard to say, but my feeling is there are a lot of young writers out there. When I was a student there was nowhere you could go to study film composition, you taught yourself. Now there are hundreds of media music courses. You can do it for GCSE, A Level. The danger is there are a lot of young people coming out of education who think they have the emotional equipment to write for films, but it’s not as easy as that. The technique is one thing but the actual understanding of illustrating drama – there’s a whole language that must be very hard to teach.

Where does that language come from? Is it something you develop along the way?
In my case I spent quite a few years working as an arranger-conductor for other composers, notably Nick Bicat, Wilfred Joseph and people like that. So I learnt from my betters. It was almost like an apprenticeship and I got to learn the best way by doing it for real. Also I would be privy to the conversations with the directors and producers where you explore that common language, which is sometimes a really difficult thing to do. You are able to assimilate a huge amount of knowledge and experience before you start writing your own scores. But that type of opportunity is not necessarily available these days. I don’t see how you can come out of a media course fully formed – it must be difficult.

Is there anything a composer can do to make the whole scoring process easier?
The most valuable thing you can do is form relationships with directors. It’s a process of evolution. A director will work with a composer and then always come back to them because they have established that common language. That’s still by far the most valuable thing. Making films and telly is such a collaborative process, so if you find people who are sympathetic to you, that’s more valuable than anything. It’s not about being scared of new things, it’s about being able to cut out an awful lot of crap.

What do you think about pop musicians moving into other genres? Is there a noticeable difference in the skills they bring, and are they creating a shift?
I think there is a shift, and a little of me thinks ‘What do these guys know?’ But having said that there are people coming through, such as Jonny Greenwood, who are doing very interesting stuff. And young people are really enthused by that. My son has just turned 23 and he’s in quite a successful band in the States and has just scored the music for a trailer for a low budget feature. He is already aware that there are other avenues to explore apart from pop and rock, where his musical voice might be of use. I think that’s great.

There is definitely a trend for this at the moment. The same thing happened in the 50s and 60s, where every film had to have a pop song attached to it. Serious film composers were out in the cold. Then along came a young man called Scorsese and his film Taxi Driver, and then serious orchestral music was back on the agenda. Things go in cycles.

I think that Jonny Greenwood and Damon Albarn are obvious examples of people who are crossing genres, and I think if they choose to carry on doing that they are talented enough. At a certain point, it won’t be, ‘Oh, it’s that guy from Blur’, they’ll say ‘Oh, this is a new thing by Damon Albarn’.

But, at the moment, crossing over is certainly a trend which financiers can grab hold of, especially in feature films. People ask, ‘Who’s in the cast, who’s the director and who’s doing the music?’ When it’s a conventional score, promoters are less likely to say who the composer is, but if you get Jonny Greenwood on board, who has a fanbase of his own, then I suspect producers will be keen because he is bankable in the same way actors are bankable. It’s the way the business works.

My theory is that ultimately, this is a trend, and the ones that can really do it will carry on and the others will try it and then stop.

Looking at composition from another angle, you wrote the music for the UEFA Champions League. Since then, classical music has become increasingly visible in pop culture. The X Factor uses music from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. Have you started a trend for using classical music to soundtrack popular culture?
I think I may have started a trend to some degree, but the point about using classical music, or music derived from existing classical works, is that it sounds somehow significant and creates a timeless element, as well as providing rather more excitement than people might assume a classical piece can.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed a feature film In Love with Alma Cogan, which I wrote, directed and composed. We're hoping for an autumn release and I'm currently working on treatments for several more music orientated films, which seem to have become my specialty. I'm also looking forward to this year's Holt Festival, which happens up here in Norfolk at the end of July. I'm the artistic director, which gives me a great opportunity to catch up with lots of friends in the music, theatre and film businesses who come to perform at the festival.