Written by Matthew Strachan
My first job for Sir Dirk was in 1995 on a pilot radio show for Celador Productions called NOBBLERS, featuring a cast including Ann Bryson and Arthur Smith. I’m guessing that the producer, Nic Philips, had argued for hiring me as composer so Dirk called me and sent me a CD with the kind of music he wanted. I duly gave him a theme and… he liked it.
I probably should explain at this point what is, in fact, so remarkable about that story. Composing music for TV, Radio or film can be like treading slowly across a semantic minefield. Producers and directors tend to be uneasy working with composers because we work in a medium which is, for the rest of the human race, something of bafflement. Moreover, TV folk think almost exclusively visually whereas their radio counterparts often conceive things rather more ‘narratively’. As a result, whichever poor sod briefs the composer; it is rarely managed without wild compensations for lack of musical terminology.
Daytime in a credible sort of way which is contemporary (like Phil Collins) … and tough yet darkly optimistic with a brass section but small trumpets and a ground-breakingly accessible vibe, though there’s no money so can we have real strings, not synths … and we don’t like the ‘boingy’ noise in the long bit but don’t lose the funniness … and add a didgeridoo at the start but we don’t want it to sound Australian … and by tomorrow at the latest if poss - is that okay? Great.
Nine attempts into the job, a theme is reluctantly accepted by a mystified and wounded looking producer.
Dirk Maggs is, somehow, uniquely gifted at briefing. His starting point is what he wants the music to sound like – what style and which instrumentation. He’s not afraid of demanding what is, actually, most essential - how he wants the listener to feel. And to top it all there’s not a whiff of the insecurity one expects from the director – he assumes you know what you’re doing and have good enough instincts to know what’s needed. So he trusts you. He understands enough about music to describe certain specific things he’d like – woodwind trills, marcato strings, triple tongued trumpet fanfares - and the rest is communicated in terms of mood and pace.
Here’s a nice example of a Dirk Maggs brief:
"Motown-ish with real drums, live sounding band, energetic and feel-good, avoiding banjos where possible."
That’s what he asked me to do for CARROTT’S COMEDY CHOICE, a Radio 2 comedy show. I pinched myself to check that this brief was really as simple as all that, then wrote a theme and… he liked it. I’m not making any claims for myself (well not many anyway) but he gave simple and specific instructions.
(It’s worth adding at this point that I like Dirk a lot)
After working on THE JASPER CARROTT TRIAL in 1997 (the brief was a Mike Post theme meets corporate television news), Sir Dirk approached me to provide a full score to his BBC Radio 4 Christmas Day ‘audio movie’, THE GEMINI APES. He wanted extended cinematic cues in the manner of John Williams or Alan Silvestri. I jumped at the chance and understood immediately what he wanted to achieve. I received rough edits of the episodes every two days accompanied by a script with suggestions in the margin and a plea to follow my own nose (and to avoid Banjos where possible)
Throughout the whole process Dirk gave clues and hints nudging me one way or the other but, amazingly, accepted every cue I provided. He often placed them differently, re-edited them or threw them in the bin but always respectfully and always for the good of the production. THE GEMINI APES remains one of my least unpleasant experiences as a composer and I still listen to it every now and then for the thrill of Dirk’s great sound effects.
(I hope it’s absolutely clear that I like Dirk now)
1999’s BEN-HUR was an even more ambitious production with five 30 minute episodes. A cast including Martin Jarvis, Wendy Craig and Bernard Cribbins headed Sir Dirk’s adaptation for US radio. The script was more faithful to the original Lew Wallace novel than the 1959 film starring the latterly trigger-happy Charleston Heston and, again, used intricate sound effects and acoustic imagery to allow the listener to feel involved in the action and visualize rather complex scenes. I too wanted to try a fresh perspective so I listened to the score of the movie and then tried to forget it. I referred to some of the musicians that its composer, Miklós Rózsa, had been influenced by – Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. And I was mindful of Dirk’s love of classic film composers such as Bernard Hermann and Elmer Bernstien.
The multitude of characters and action sequences posed a stiff challenge which required advance planning of themes and variations. The chariot race alone (yes, I know - for radio) stretched my abilities somewhat. That particular cue was composed in 36 hours with very little in the way of sleep in order to get it to the dub on time and, in its full form, lasted seventeen minutes. I say full form because the sequence had been re-edited as I was composing. Some of the music required a little doctoring at the dub and some was thrown in the bin. But I must say it was all done very respectfully and all for the good of the production.
As for Sir Dirk himself, he is a mysterious and complex figure who, for all his transparency in the workplace, remains an enigma. He writes, directs, produces and does his own sound effects. He even plays drums. It was often that I watched he and Paul Deeley at the Soundhouse Studios as Dirk paced the floor nervously in his cape and fedora yelling for ‘more top end’, ‘less proximity on the horses’ and ‘no banjos’.
It is always a pleasure to work for him and I hope he calls me again soon. Not socially. Just offering me work.
(God I love him)
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