An Interview with Christopher Gunning by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.49, 1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
One of the nicest British film scores of recent years was that of the poignant drama, WHEN THE WHALES CAME, composed by Christopher Gunning. The composer has worked in British film and television music since 1971 and brought his gift of melody and thematic interplay to a number of fine scores. Interviewed recently, Gunning describes his background and his approach to scoring WHEN THE WHALES CAME.
Would you briefly describe your background in music and how you got involved in film scoring?
I trained at the Guildhall School of Music, in London, for four years. I studied piano, I studied composition, and I also studied for a Bachelor of Music degree. I think I’ve always been interested in just about every kind of music, although, of course, my musical education was mostly of a classical nature. But I also got interested in jazz at the same time, and I developed an interest in pop music at the same time. Whilst I was at the Guildhall School of Music, I studied composition, firstly with Edmund Rubbra and later on with Richard Rodney Bennett and I went to him specifically because I was interested, already, in writing for films. I thought that, since he was already a very, very successful film composer, he might be able to help me with some of the technical aspects, etcetera. And in fact he did, he was most helpful. My very first jobs in film were arranging some music for him, I arranged bits – the sort of bits that he didn’t want to do, I guess – for NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA and also another film called THE BUTTERCUP CHAIN.
Round about the same time, I started writing the music for television commercials. That came about completely by accident. Actually what I was doing, I was doing some arrangements for a singer who worked on the end of Brighton Pier. It turned out that his day job was producing television commercials and one day he said “Chris, how would you like to write the music for a commercial?” And I don’t mind admitting that I’d heard that there was a fortune to be made at this, so I said yes, in view of the fact that I was really earning no money at all at that time. That’ show I became involved in commercials, and I was to be involved in commercials for the next ten years or so, on and off. At the same time, I was involved with pop music a little bit, mostly doing arrangements for singers. Some of the names are CilIa Black, Tommy Steele, Colin Blundstone, the Hollies, and later on of course I was to become involved with an album made by Mel Torme, which was a great joy, and also a couple of albums by Phil Woods, the saxophonist.
What were some of the first films you scored?
The first films that I was involved with were all documentary films. Once again, I think it was on the recommendation of Richard Rodney Bennett that I became involved with these. But I wrote film scores about all manner of things, about 20 of them in total. But the first feature film that I composed was GOODBYE GEMINI, which was a film about twins, and that was produced by Joseph Shaftel and directed by the late Alan Gibson. The score for GOODBYE GEMINI was partly pop music and partly orchestral music and some of the orchestral music was pretty freaky, I think, for its time. I enjoyed working on that, quite a lot.
What can you tell us about your score for WHEN THE WHALES CAME?
This of course is a far more recent score of mine, and one which I’m inordinately fond of. A series of extraordinary events seemed to come together with WHEN THE WHALES CAME. I was on holiday on a small island called off the southwest comer of England, a very beautiful place. My family and I were there and as soon as we arrived there we noticed that a film was being made on the next island, and I jokingly said to my wife, “my goodness me, I should have brought my demo tape on holiday with me!” Day by day we watched from one island to the next – the islands are separated by a sea channel, I suppose about half a mile wide, maybe a little bit wider – and we saw all sorts of things happening, we saw a house being burnt down, we saw lots of shooting taking place at sea, and we saw some inflatable whales, and I learned that the film was called WHEN THE WHALES CAME. This interested me, because, for one thing, I knew about the book, ‘When The Whales Came’, and I knew that it concerned a whale beaching – many years earlier, when I was once in the Canary Islands, I watched absolutely horrified when a whole pod of sperm whales beached themselves in front of my very eyes, enormous black creatures, some as long as a bus, some babies about three feet long. They all beached themselves and of course they died out in the hot sun. To make matters worse, the native Spanish islanders came down and they were sticking huge, great iron poles in these creatures and waiting for them to die, and then the whales would be taken away to be processed, and of course it constituted a rich bounty. I was brought up in a family of animal lovers and I found the whole thing one of the most distressing things that I’d ever seen, and of course the memory has lived with me ever since.
As I saw, the film title, WHEN THE WHALES CAME, immediately struck a chord and I was absolutely astonished to find that, when I got home, there was a message on my answering machine asking if I would be interested in composing the music for the film. I might add that all the time I was on holiday there I never met anybody from the film at all. But it did transpire that the director was somebody with whom I’d worked on commercials and I suppose that’s how that connection came about.
What was needed, musically, for WHEN THE WHALES CAME?
There was a variety of music. We used fairly ethnic music for some of it, solo harmonica, solo pipe, and solo violin. We felt that these instruments would best conjure the loneliness of the place, the isolation of the place. But, contrasted with that, was some orchestral music, with a lot of singing. For no other reason, I’m afraid, that I felt it instinctively to be appropriate. WHEN THE WHALES CAME is, essentially, a sad fairy tale, and it seemed important to get over a lot of mystery of the story, a little of the romance of it, in a way, and of course to paint musically the incredibly beautiful surroundings – hopefully, in a rather haunting way.
What briefly are your current musical activities?
Unfortunately I’ve been in a holding point a lot lately. Last year I composed the music for a six-part series called THE BIG BATTALIONS and in fact I’ve been nominated for a BAFTA award for that. You may know that I have won the BAFTA award for best (original television) music twice before, the first time was for PORTERHOUSE BLUES (1988), the second for AGATHE CHRISTIE’S POIROT (1990). I have also just completed eight more episodes of AGATHE CHRISTIE’S POIROT – this being the fifth series, and so that has involved me in an awful lot of work. Not too long ago I wrote a large-scale orchestral piece called Yorkshire Glory, to which a film was made by Yorkshire Television – the whole thing lasts about 55 minutes and is scored for a large orchestra, and was performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vernon Handley.
Right now I’m enjoying a bit of a rest, having worked absolutely flat out last year, and later on this year I’m working on a wildlife film that I’m very much looking forward to, it’s set in Africa. I’m also going to be involved in a 3-part television drama and I’m writing a piano piece for a pianist friend of mine, and, oh gosh, various other things on the go.
Without wishing to paint too black a picture, there is not much going on in the film industry here. Although, of course I did write the score to a film called UNDER SUSPICION two years ago, which won me an Ivor Novello Award, which I was very happy about. Otherwise most of the work for composers here is television, and unfortunately the general run of television work is not highly glamorous, I suppose, certainly not highly paid. And I think what’s more galling than everything is, music budgets sometimes are depressingly small and one has to fight for orchestras as opposed to synthesizers. It’s a great shame.