COLIN TOWNS

October 20, 2010 | By

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The socially stunted (or blunted) Doctor Martin Ellingham is perhaps the role actor Martin Clunes was born to play, but the hit ITV series wouldn’t be success without the contributions of the supporting cast, the fine writers and directors, the producers who’ve kept the series’ quality control at top level, the gorgeous Cornwall locations, and the infectious music scores by Colin Towns, one of England’s most versatile composers who’s scored every genre in every medium, and continues to record and perform his own jazz material via the Colin Towns Mask Orchestra.

During his busy schedule, Towns graciously made time to answer our picky questions about his Doc Martin series music, which hopefully the show’s fans will enjoy, since the music (available on CD) and series (available on DVD) are the greatest things since sliced bread.

Really.

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Mark R. Hasan : When you moved from jazz performance and composition to film scoring, did you realize you’d be so amazingly busy and prolific, or are your diverse yearly activities a reflection of your personal and creative needs as an artist?

Colin Towns : I simply believe in good or bad music. I try to never close a door because there is always something to learn from all music. One thing is for certain – one sows some seeds and some of them grow, hence it is as normal for me to score Crimson Rivers II as it is for Angelina Ballerina or Macbeth. I have always seen the diversity of projects as a trigger to develop my skills in all areas of music and moving through all types of music as a push to explore my abilities. Only critics want to put you in a category. Yes, I am always busy, but I don’t stop to think about it. I am not Stravinsky, but in terms of exploring what I can do and where it will take me, I feel a very similar drive and compulsion.

MRH : Do you find the role of composer isn’t wholly different from a jazz musician, since a film composer needs a quick wit and good instincts to make sure his contributions to a film fit the performances of the actors, spoken dialogue, sound effects, and editing?

CT : Approaching film or improvised music may look similar on paper, and they do have some similarities, but my approach to writing music away from film is challenging in a very different way. A concert has to grip the audience and, like film, can be done in many ways. Composition, sounds, melody and orchestration all play a crucial role. At the same moment, it is vital to make the musicians feel valued.

I always write for each player and share out the solo areas. The music must have its own challenge and contain not only complex lines but also spaces. In my opinion, some Jazz does not appreciate the effect of silence. What happens behind the soloist is very important if one is trying to create a new or different feel or idea. Laying out chord changes will often result in the soloist playing what he or she knows and plays regularly. By creating a different colour (scale, rhythm, invading melodies etc.) one helps to take the musician somewhere else.

A fair amount of Jazz (particularly recently) does not exercise quality control. If you want an hour of music on a CD, you should record at least 1 hour 30 mins or, as Miles Davis did, many hours, until you have something strong. On a film I am part of a team and working with the director, actors, editor, script etc., which gives me a very strong discipline and also helps with my other music. Of course the film itself will drive the music and determine my thought pattern, as the music will have to support the scenes, whereas a live concert can branch out in any direction if wanted.

MRH : Britain is very unusual in that composers can work in TV, documentaries, feature films, shorts, and animated films with much more ease and less prejudice than in the U.S., where studios and some producers tend to hire a composer based on his/her most popular work in a genre wherein he/she made the greatest impact. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the kind of creative opportunities you’ve enjoyed in the U.K. compared to American projects, and whether you feel that, in spite of all the immense production that goes on in the States, there is a qualitative difference in Britain?

CT : I have worked in L.A. and for some time on commercials in New York. The Hollywood system doesn’t sit with me as a musician. In the U.S. it’s now in many cases a company or a large team of composers (or posse) producing a film soundtrack instead of one composer on his own. So one can never be quite sure if the person who claims the credit for composing has really done the work. Still, some fantastic music is happening there, but working in such a narrow and formulaic system is not my idea of ‘having a good day.’ There is more to life than having your name on a poster. I have good friends in the U.S. but I am a natural European and not driven by how many swimming pools you’ve got. I believe Britain can offer good opportunities with possibly less formula and restrictions than the U.S.

MRH : Do you feel your jazz background, and particularly your ability to improvise as a musician, is partly responsible for your ability to work in so many genres, or is it more a reflection of your curiosity and hunger for something new?

CT : I have one simple word that always surfaces whatever I am working on:‘Scared!’ Will I be able to achieve what I want and create something that moves me forward? Even though Jazz enables me to improvise quite easily, it is more the hunger for the new and the curiosity which drives me.

MRH : Some may know you best for your thriller (Crimson Rivers 2) and science-fiction (Puppet Masters) scores, and might find your music for Doc Martin to be very surprising because of its lightness; there’s none of the brooding writing of your darker-themed scores, and I wonder if writing a score with definitive light touches is much harder than a doom-and-gloom, apocalyptic orchestral score?

CT : The artist Turner painted huge seascapes and colour beginnings (very forward looking watercolours). Some actors/actresses – Dame Judy Dench for example – will perform heavy roles as well as light ones. It doesn’t make one a lesser person (although some producers will mark you down, but that’s their loss) but a bigger one. Not everyone feels they can switch, and that’s fine too. No score is easy to write, whether it is a solo instrument, a full orchestra or totally electronic.

MRH : How did you become involved with the Doc Martin series?

CT : Martin Clunes had filmed two Doc Martin films for Sky. His character in those films was quite different. As I understand it, Buffalo Pictures presented Granada with a new approach, which they liked and it was turned into a successful series on ITV. I had met Martin on the set of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ and I knew he liked the music I had composed for that film. So his wife, the producer of Doc Martin, Philippa Braithwaite, simply asked if I would be interested. Of course I didn’t hesitate.

MRH : Are you surprised by how well the show has been received?

CT : I am not surprised as it is one of the few programmes that is perfect for the whole family. With most dramas there are many people with many views, and the vision can be hard to read sometimes. The deciding team on Doc Martin is small – Martin, Philippa, and the director, Ben Bolt – and with very strong opinions. We all know what we are aiming for, and over the years it has become a sort of a family. By filming only every other year, they make sure to keep up the quality
and have time to develop strong scripts. I am very pleased by its success – but that doesn’t alter the fact that we all have to continue to work very hard. There is no ‘dead wood.’

MRH : Was the soundtrack album a project you had planned, or did it come about from the keen interest from devoted fans?

CT : It was because of the fans of the show who kept asking for the soundtrack. I am very fussy about issuing soundtracks in general, and only agree if I think the CD can be played as an album.

MRH : The instruments and musicians used for the show’s episodes are very intimate, and I wonder if you prefer exploring the nuances of a small combo versus a large-scale orchestra, since the performance nuances of a few are perhaps more tactile, and can arguably have a more personal impact upon the listener?

CT : The acoustic guitar fits very well for what I need, and the tango (which was Martin’s idea) carries a dignity, slightly overpowering aloofness that matches Martin’s character of an established surgeon sent from the city to deal with a local community – a quirky doctor who is caring but difficult, out of step sometimes, doesn’t suffer fools, a bull in a china shop, but ultimately very human. The tango is not Cornish but works great with the story. So yes, small community, small band – for this it works. A large orchestra would create the wrong ‘feel.’

MRH : Was Doc Martin’s theme one of your toughest to create, or was the character so potent that whole aspects of the theme began to percolate in your mind?

CT : I usually start with about five ideas. Sometimes that’s enough, other times I’ll keep going. As mentioned, the tango was suggested by Martin, so the theme came quickly, but the orchestration (instruments) and opening credits were played with for quite a while.

MRH : Rhythm is a very dominant component of the show’s music, and while it energizes the already oddball characters of Portwenn, it also gives the humour added propulsion. Was this a conscious decision, or did the infectious nature of the characters and rippling dialogue pretty much determine the specific textures you employ throughout each episode?

CT : The tango itself was a conscious decision right from the start and as it has many colours that I find attractive, it is very helpful in this series. It probably started with using three or four pianos to create a dramatic effect instead of the obvious tremelando strings, etc., and it grew from this. Now I know what is needed, and I am able to approach different events with a kind of Portwenn music. I don’t have draws of music, because I believe it should be created for the specific scene, but certainly the score is now part of the series as a musical language.

MRH : What specific elements do you draw from when scoring an episode to ensure it remains distinct, particularly since Season 4 is moving into production?

CT : One of the hardest things to do is ‘theme and variations’ on a long show. It is a fantastic challenge, and sometimes leads me to shoot off into a new direction or to use different instruments – only to be reminded by the director or the producer where we are, and that Portwenn should keep the very strong musical Portwenn feeling. Introducing new themes can be hard, as they have to feel natural – a bit like trying a new song for an established singer. In this case the specific element is the tango, with an allowance of branching out sometimes.

[NOTE: SEASON 3 FINALE SPOILER ALERT BELOW – READ AT YOUR OWN RISK !]

MRH : And lastly, two quick questions: a) Besides Dr. Martin Ellingham, is there another character whose (mis)adventures you enjoy scoring? and b)  If you could grant the socially challenged Ellingham one magical wish that would bring him some peace and tranquility in Portwenn this year, what would that be?

CT : There are love themes and subtle themes coming and going quite a bit – I enjoyed the mad ranger with his squirrel friend, the strange sisters and Martin’s marriage but then, to be honest, it is hard to pick certain characters or scenes, as I enjoy all of it. I don’t want Dr Ellingham to change – oddities and silliness should be part of everyone’s life fiction or not (I can relate to this) – and there are still many tangos to write to help him on his way.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Colin Towns for answering our questions during a very busy schedule, and Jo Lilley at Provocateur Records, Ltd. for her patience and dilligence in facilitating this interview.

For more information on Doc Martin, please visit the ITV website HERE.

Visit Colin Towns’ website HERE.

Visit Provocateur Records HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2008 by Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Catherine Cookson Music Collection: Vol . 1 (1998-2000) —  Doc Martin, Seasons 1 and 2 (2004-2005) — Guest House Paradiso (1999)

DVD/Film:  Doc Martin, Season 1 (2004)

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