Blair Mowat is the composer for Big Finish’s Torchwood series, and has written music for countless other Big Finish productions, films, stage plays, and tv shows – including Russell T Davies’s upcoming Nolly. George Hewitt was able to speak to Blair about his life and his various projects, and this exclusive interview is presented here in full.
Hi Blair – let’s start with some questions about you. Were you interested in music from an early age, and could you tell me about how your childhood experiences with music shaped your path?
I played music from an early age – harp and piano lessons from around the age of five – but I really resented having to do the practice. I struggled to find enthusiasm for the music I was playing as I found it all a bit ‘stuffy’ and technical at that young age. It wasn’t until my playing was good enough to start enjoying the romanticism of composers like Ravel or Rachmaninov that I started to feel a genuine connection to the music I was playing. I was also struck by the modern minimalism of composers such as Philip Glass, which had an immediacy I was naturally drawn to. However, it was bands like Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins or Placebo where I really fell in love with how music can convey emotions, and how exciting and modern music could be.
I’d always enjoyed film music and it slowly dawned on me that the art of film scoring combined all these elements I liked, along with filmmaking. I briefly flirted with the idea of playing in a band and going on tour, but I quickly realised there was a monotony to the repetition of touring, as well as dangerous pitfalls in the lifestyle that I was keen to avoid. I’m sure touring can be amazing, but I watched a documentary about Radiohead called ‘Meeting People Is Easy’ where they’re all utterly miserable and that was enough to put me off the idea of touring as part of band forever.
What were some of your early projects, and how has your career path progressed since then?
The first time I ever wrote music for narrative was A Satire of the Three Estates by David Lyndsay, a theatre production put on in my school in 2001. It’s one of the few Sixteenth-Century Scottish plays still in existence, and I remember my English teacher Mr Chalmers telling people my music had made him cry, which surprised me greatly as Mr Chalmers was not one to show his emotions. I think that revelation awoke something in me, that music was incredibly powerful when combined with story. I knew very early on in life I wanted to be a composer for film and TV and because of that I was 21 when I finished my MA in Composition for Film and Television – the problem with that was very few professional productions are interested in hiring a 21-year-old. So, because of my youth, I had to bide my time in the face of – somewhat understandable – ageism. This meant I ended up doing over 100 short films and theatre projects whilst supplementing my rent with catering shifts in London. Whilst it was frustrating at the time, looking back now it was all ‘homework’ and basically a continuation of my training.
There’s that theory from Malcolm Gladwell that you can become an expert in anything though 10,000 hours of experience, and I achieved that through the hard grind of working my way up the ladder from student films to professional productions. I used to see my age as a curse at the time but now I’m so thankful I had such a low-stakes environment to learn and develop in. Some older composers are thrown into the deep end, straight out of university, and in all likelihood they are still learning the hard way, on a professionally paid job, what does and doesn’t work. There’s no doubt landing the Doctor Who spin-off Class in 2016 was a huge break for me, allowing me to score eight episodes of high-quality BBC drama – that came at the perfect time, as I was itching to get my hands on a decent music budget and put those hours of experience to use. The rest, as they say, is history as I’ve been lucky enough to be in work since.
What do you consider the most influential pieces of music and songs in your life?
I’ll never forget watching Fight Club and hearing ‘Where is My Mind?’ by The Pixies at the end of it – that’s a perfect marriage of existing music and film. I don’t know how much they paid for it but that moment is priceless – the feeling that song gives is ineffable. I’ll also never forget hearing ‘Plug In Baby’ by Muse for the first time. Here were these guys from Devon who had basically put a Paganini violin solo on to a distorted guitar with a thumping fuzzy bass behind it – we take that juxtaposition for granted now but their production style felt so fresh at the time. It’s no surprise to me that they went on to become the stadium-filling success they are today, but to me my most treasured experience of their work was at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange in 2001. I was in the front row and my friend Nash crowd-surfed all the way to the back of the venue. He lost both of his shoes on the way but one of them found its way back to him through the crowd shortly after. That was more than music, that was the sound of raw unadulterated teenage rebellion, and the opportunity to witness a band swagger with the confidence that comes with the realisation they were about to become a worldwide sensation.
If you were on a desert island and could only take three albums, what would they be?
Radiohead’s OK Computer, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and the Complete Rachmaninov Piano Concertos. Those are just albums I could listen to over and over again.
What other composers have influenced your choices?
I think Bernard Herrmann was a genius – you can hear his influence in some of my work from time to time. I’ve also started listening to Alex North’s music recently and I’m bowled over by his skill and how much influence he clearly had on 20th Century film music. Apparently, he was John Williams’s favourite composers, and I can see why. I try to listen to a diverse selection of music so it’s not just film scores. I’ve always enjoyed the music of Radiohead and their experimentalism – I think the influence of modern rock and pop music is seeping into film scores more and more these days and that’s exciting, as long as people don’t lose sight of telling the story and place more importance on the style than anything else.
And now some questions on your music for Big Finish’s Torchwood series – what was your process like when it came to composing a new theme?
The first thing I realised was that it needed to be shorter [than the tv series theme], and to achieve that the change in chords had to happen twice as fast – so harmonically I made it more compact. Then I had to work out how to make it sound good on a limited budget, so I got my guitar out and played on it myself to give it some edge and life. I also hired a violinist to come and play some of the string parts. The next challenge was to make sure it sounded like “Torchwood” but that it could also be its own thing, so I analysed the original theme and worked out all my favourite bits about the arrangement. Then I started doing my own take on them to give a feeling of familiarity mixed with the ‘new’. When James Goss told me Russell T Davies had emailed to say how much he loved the new theme, I relaxed and felt confident we’d pulled off a success.
Following on from that, how do you decide whether to compose new mixes (such as the Torchwood Soho, The Victorian Age, and the new Double mixes)?
One of the things that I’m most proud of is when we do a different version of the main theme like in The Victorian Age, it still manages to sound like the Big Finish Torchwood theme. It’s got its own musical idiosyncrasies. James Goss usually emails me to tell me either he or one of the writers have requested a variation of the theme and I sometimes roll my eyes because we have such little money and time for each episode! Doing a new version of the theme can be a lot of work! I put of a lot of time into the ‘Victorian Age’ version as it just felt like such an interesting experiment, and I even hired a string quartet to play it. Sometimes if I have a bit of spare time I can go the extra mile for fun. One of the sad things about Absent Friends having never been released is we had a special theme for that that no one has ever heard. There you go, that’s an exclusive! But what did we do? I’ll leave you to guess…
How do you balance music from the show (such as Ianto’s theme) with new score, and what drives those decisions?
I think you save those themes for big character moments, as I know how nostalgic it can make fans of the series feel. I’m glad we were able to do that as it gives the Big Finish range an authenticity and legitimacy that it really deserves, given how successful the storytelling is under our producer James Goss. I also tend to lean into those them more for episodes set during seasons 1 and 2, for obvious reasons. The most exciting thing though, is coming up with new themes for characters like Hartman and Norton Folgate.
What’s your favourite piece of music from Torchwood that you’ve worked on?
I’ve scored over 100 episodes so I’m sure it would change every day but since I just mentioned it, I am particularly proud of Yvonne Hartman’s theme. It’s creepy and sneaky and dark, but with an ounce of hope and cheekiness which I think really suits her character. She’s a bit of an anti-hero Yvonne. I’d love to see her make an appearance in the TV universe and that feels like a tangible possibility now, with Russell back at the helm.
Tell me a bit about the importance of scenes that contain no music, and how you decide whether a scene needs music?
It’s important to not have music in every scene or it just becomes like wallpaper. The absence of music means that when it comes in and out it can really help to tell the story – it enters for a reason, not just to add generic pace. Also, some moments just land better without music – silence is a weapon in your arsenal, and to ignore it is foolish! Making those decisions comes down to experience and understanding how narrative works. You need to figure out what story is trying to be told in each instance by the writer and director.
How do you decide which instruments to use when it comes to period and location?
I know I bang on about budget all the time when mentioning my work at Big Finish but that’s because if I had more budget everything would probably sound quite different! So the answer to that is – I have to think about what’s the quickest and cheapest way we can get that setting or period across to our audience. I think we’re quite clever with that though – I don’t think it feels like we’re cutting corners to our listeners, and that’s a skill you need to learn to be a successful Big Finish composer. I came into the industry professionally around the recession of 2008 so I become an expert on how to get great results on the cheap – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t lust over the idea of recording a John-Barry-esque sequence with a huge jazz swing band at Abbey Rd. I think being a fan of Doctor Who since I was a child also helps, as you can subtly hint at things that might tickle other fans or subconsciously remind them of something. I watched Torchwood on broadcast and really enjoyed it, but I’ve been sure to go back to it over the years to make sure I know it well enough to service the fanbase where we can.
How closely do you work with sound designers?
In all honesty, not as closely as you might think – they have usually done their job by the time I get the locked audio – but we do have a chat about mixing the music once I’m finished, and maybe making more room for the score, if a scene was very heavily sound designed etc. In general though, I tend to trust their judgement with the mix as the sound designers at Big Finish are all phenomenal. They deserve medals for what they pull off in the time they have.
Can you tell me about some specific Torchwood releases that you’ve enjoyed working on?
Recently, I enjoyed working on Double featuring the Autons, as I used the same synth Dudley Simpson would have used around the time of Terror of the Autons – called a Synthi. It felt appropriate for us trying to evoke that time period. I also got to include the occasional elements of disco in there, which is not something you get to do every day in this job! There’s honestly too many to name, but off the top of my head I enjoyed doing a live band version of the Torchwood Theme for Tim Foley’s My Guest Tonight, it was great to revisit Cell 114’s theme in Serenity, and I enjoyed evoking the space setting in The Black Knight. But sometimes it’s just about how much I enjoy the story – episodes like The Great Sontaran War, Save Our Souls, Tropical Beach Sounds, The Hope, and The Death of Captain Jack are just the most amazing hours of drama that happen to be on audio, but I think they stand their own against some of the best episodes of Doctor Who and Torchwood.
Outside of Torchwood, what’s been your favourite project to work on, and can you tell me a bit about that?
I’ve just finished Russell T Davies’s latest drama Nolly, which is just the most amazing project. Russell’s script is, of course, brilliant but the whole team is made up of some of the best people in British television. Peter Hoar, who just won the directing BAFTA for It’s A Sin, was so wonderful to work with and has delivered an incredibly moving and entertaining piece of television. In fact, everyone is BAFTA-winning – our editor Sarah, our producer Karen Lewis, our exec Nicola Shindler, our leading lady Helena Bonham Carter, and of course Russell himself. It’s an indulgence of talent and to be welcomed into that crew with such open arms meant so much to me.
It feels like only yesterday I was writing music for my school play and now I’m working with the best writer in the country. You pinch yourself, when you get to work on something that special and that meaningful, because Russell isn’t just writing a drama with that show, he’s righting a wrong. Noele Gordon was treated terribly when she was fired from Crossroads, and she deserved so much better. Sadly, she’s no longer with us, but thanks to Russell and that entire crew, the story of her life is now immortalised and can be celebrated forever. The cruelness of how she was treated has now been softened slightly because we now have this work of art – it’s an amazing gift to both Noele’s memory, and all those around that still remember her.
It doesn’t even feel like a job really – it’s a passion project, because despite not knowing who Noele Gordon was before I started work on it, you get swept up by Russell’s passion for her. When you wake up to go work on it you feel inspired, and you have piss and vinegar running through your veins because your small part in that project means so much more than the paycheque at the end of it. You’re doing some good in the world. I don’t mean to sound too grandiose; I know it’s only a TV show and we’re not saving a life or curing cancer, but I think that project is special, and it’ll mean something to a lot of people – that sort of thing is just lovely to be part of. I literally cried over my keyboard when making that score at points, it’s a very touching story because it’s based on a real person’s life. I take that responsibility very seriously.
What would be your dream project to work on?
I’m a great admirer of Damon Lindelof’s writing, so I’d love to compose the music for a show he’s written. I’ve also been a lifelong Star Wars fan and I’m excited by how that universe is expanding in the world of TV and film. Andor was a very sophisticated and mature piece of work – it’d be a personal dream to work on a show or film in that universe. And finally, yes of course, lots of people know my favourite television show is Doctor Who… so I’m always excited to get any musical opportunity to play in that universe.
Blair conducting the RSNO for Mark Gatiss’s ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’
What projects have you got coming up that you’re excited to be working on?
There are a few things that I can’t talk about because I haven’t signed the contract yet or I’m not allowed to mention them, but I will say that I’m excited to release some soundtracks this year. Historically I’ve been quite bad at releasing them as I’m often straight on to working on the next gig! I’m putting together the soundtrack for Nolly right now, and I’d like to put out an album for The Amazing Mr Blunden, which is a score I wrote for Mark Gatiss’s feature-length directorial debut in 2021. Finally, I’ve written a huge amount of music for McDonald & Dodds, so it’s about time we got some of that out there too! Hopefully I can find some time in-between whatever comes next to make those happen. Last year was very exciting, professionally, so I’m curious to see how this next one will pan out.
Many thanks to Blair for speaking with us. His Torchwood stories are available to buy from bigfinish.com, and Russell T Davies’s drama Nolly is due to become available on ITVX on the 2nd February, with episodes broadcast on ITV1 later in the year.