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Barrington Pheloung

Composing The Inspector Morse Theme & Other TV/Film Music By Richard Buskin
Published July 1999

BARRINGTON PHELOUNG: Composing The Inspector Morse Theme & Other TV/Film Music

British‑based Australian Barrington Pheloung is well known for his prolific film and television work, including the theme music to Inspector Morse. One of his most challenging recent projects was the soundtrack to the biopic of Jacqueline du Pré, Hilary And Jackie...

One of the great musical prodigies of the twentieth century, Jacqueline du Pré dazzled concert audiences around the world through her virtuosity with the cello. Her incapacitation and eventual death from multiple sclerosis was rightly perceived as a tragic loss for the world of classical music. Now, however, it is her personal life that has been thrust under the public microscope, courtesy of the recent film Hilary And Jackie.

Controversy still surrounds the film's depiction of du Pré as an egotistical neurotic who openly pursued an affair with her sister's husband. For score composer Barrington Pheloung, however, the chief concern was always one of a more musical nature: regardless of what the viewers would think of the storyline, it was his job to ensure that they were convinced by both actress Emily Watson's handling of the cello and Caroline Dale's du Pré‑like performances, not to mention the blending of works by Elgar, Bach, Beethoven, Dvor(breve)ák, Handel and Haydn with his own dramatic score (the soundtrack features about 25 minutes of classical music weaving in and out of 53 minutes of original Pheloung).

"It was a really long project," he says. "I was involved with the film from the earliest script stage back in June of 1997, and continued to work on it for over a year and a half. There was so much exhaustive research work that went into choosing which of the classical pieces should be used, and, for obvious reasons, they all had to be specially recorded."

These decisions were made in conjunction with the movie's director, Anand Tucker, with whom Barrington Pheloung had first collaborated in 1986. The pieces had to be ones that Jacqueline du Pré was playing during a particular time, or even at a specific concert, and it was only once the choices had been made that Pheloung was then able to embark on his own compositions.

"Those [classical] pieces had to be locked in and finalised long before the shoot started, because 90 per cent of them were needed for the playback," he explains. "That was only half of the job, but it formed the backdrop for the original score which is another bit of narrative, another bit of storytelling. In fact, given that the film is such an emotional rollercoaster, the biggest task was to provide it with music that was appropriate. If it got schmaltzy when it was sad that would kill it, so we were always treading a fine line between underpinning an emotion and undermining it by putting in exclamation marks.

Getting the start is always the thing for me. If it's a film it's down to the first cue; if it's a concerto it's the first bar. Once I've got that, it starts to write itself.

"About 90 per cent of the time you read a script and then see and hear nothing until the film is being edited. You usually get a rough cut or a semi‑fine cut, but there's really not too much point in starting work until they're pretty locked in, and I've learned that because of the number of times I've done massive cues that have then ceased to exist. When things do get under way, I'll sit down with the director and the editor and possibly the producer, and we'll go through it all step by step. That's probably the most important time; deciding where to put music and why. In many cases I find myself arguing about where not to put music, because very often by that stage the director and the editor are so close to the project that they get more and more insecure about it. I'll say, 'No, really, this scene works. You don't need music there,' and it's that sort of economy which really is my trademark. You know, where you don't put music is almost more important.

"What's so lovely about Anand's direction, in all of the films I've done with him, is that he leaves so much room for the music to help tell the story. It's a revelation getting to work with directors like that, and fortunately there are some who do have a strong appreciation for what the music can do, but there's also a scary tendency relating to pre‑marketing feature films as well as television programs, where there's this sort of urgent necessity to bung something on while they're editing. That is happening to too great an extent, especially in Hollywood, where they live with another composer's score for weeks and sometimes months, and then the brief is 'It's got to sound like John Williams.' As a result, the scores in Hollywood films are starting to sound more and more alike, whereas I'm thrilled to say that, if Anand does lay up other music, at least he's got pretty good taste!

"When films are road‑tested with preview audiences most of them are screened long before they are scored. Of course, no one wants to show anything to a producer or the money people unless it's got the music, and so that's a trend I don't like; I think it's really sad. The craft of composing music to picture is a very specialised one, and it's one that will die if it keeps cloning itself."

From A Land Down Under

Barrington Pheloung's career as a composer has straddled the worlds of film and television for quite a few years now. Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1956, Pheloung started playing the guitar at the age of six and joined a number of blues bands during his teens. Moving to London when he was 18, hstudied composition, conducting, double bass and guitar at the Royal College of Music, and during the late '70s began laying the groundwork for his future career by writing the first of more than 50 ballet scores. This work subsequently led to scoring assignments for the London stage, and then TV shows such as Boon and Inspector Morse, the latter earning him Brit and BAFTA award nominations as well as British chart success. Pheloung has since scored more than 20 other TV series, while the last dozen years have also seen big‑screen projects in the form of Friendship's Death; Truly, Madly, Deeply; Nostradamus; The Mangler and Twin Dragons.

"With every single project I try to do something that is completely different," Pheloung asserts. "I always incorporate some element that is totally new for me, whether it's an orchestrational thing or has to do with the approach; maybe writing from the top down rather than the bottom up. In that sense, Hilary And Jackie was a particular challenge, because for the first cue — the big sequence with the two little girls on the beach, where the music says, 'This is a serious film' — Anand laid up my first cello concerto! That was a great compliment but the trouble was that it worked bloody well, and so then it was a case of 'Well, now you're going to have to write another one!' The first one took me so long it was like giving birth to a breeze‑block.

"I learn more and more as I go along, and so much composition goes on in the head. Very often, when I'm spotting a film in silence, I can hear what I am going to write. Well, in many ways Hilary And Jackie was so different, but, as per the average, I had about four or five weeks to write the original score. Five to six is the maximum that you usually get, unless you're John Williams and insist on three months. Anyway, that first concerto took me about four months! Unfortunately this only comprised five minutes at the start of the film, but it was a case of getting the idea, and I must say that this was the first time in my career that I've ever prevaricated in any way. It was a real case of writer's block.

My studio was originally designed as a MIDI studio to write in, but it sounded so good that it's now expanded into a full 16‑track digital setup.

"I remember, it was the late spring and I was sitting around for hours on end, trying to come up with something that would be effective. You see, whether I'm writing for a film, a ballet or a symphony, I start at the beginning and work through to the end. It has to be that way or the morphology is wrong. I can't just pick a bit, add it all together and make it work. Normally an idea will come from one simple line — a line that may end up being just an inner part — and in the case of that first epic concerto for Hilary And Jackie I had to come up with something that was very pure and simple. Well, it eventually hit me on the cricket field while I was fielding at mid‑off. It was almost just a folk melody, and of course it was for the cello. The original music in the film is practically all like a cello concerto, and it's about Hilary and Jackie, not Elgar, because it's their story. So, once I got the idea I started working on it the next day."

Earlier in his career Pheloung used to work out all of his orchestrations on paper, whether he was sitting on a bus or in front of an upright piano, but these days his preferred modus operandi is to either play the music in on a keyboard or write it with the aid of a mouse and keypad.

"Sometimes I can literally write a whole cue in real time," he says. "It will be eloquent, it'll say what it needs to say and I won't ever add another thing. Put on more icing and I'd ruin the cake. On the other hand, the music for Hilary And Jackie often had to be complex, yet there were also parts that were very simple; a single oboe line or whatever."

Indeed, having taken what felt like an eternity to come up with the first five minutes of film music, Pheloung then completed the entire score in a matter of days. "Getting the start is always the thing for me," he says. "If it's a film then it's down to the first cue. If it's a concerto or a symphony then it's the first bar. Once I've got those first two bars, something exists, and after four or five bars it starts to write itself."

A Woman's Touch

Of course, the music doesn't play itself, and therefore a very pertinent factor in the realisation of the film's score was cellist Caroline Dale's own musical background, which saw her take up the stringed instrument as a child after being inspired by a Jacqueline du Pré concert. Similarly, Barrington Pheloung gained inspiration as a student when he witnessed one of du Pré's later performances, and so composer and cellist were both well atuned to the requirements of the Hilary And Jackie project.

"Caroline was a very deliberate choice," says Pheloung. "Apart from being a very dear and long‑standing friend, I do rate her as one of the very finest cellists around. At the same time she is also a woman, and a woman with the same sort of feistiness as Jacqueline du Pré. You see, Jacqueline was someone who played the cello with great machismo but who always sounded like a woman, because, although it may sound sexist to say it, you can definitely tell the difference. That can't be explained in terms of physics and how hard someone attacks the string, but it can be explained in terms of musical phraseology. I mean, when I hear any recital I can usually tell if it's a man or a woman playing the violin or, especially, the cello. Don't forget, Jackie almost went overboard to prove that she could thump that thing as hard as any geezer and, if necessary, break the strings, yet there was still an innate, true woman's touch with regard to the phrasing. It therefore would have been wrong to have Jackie's sound double played by a man, and I reckon that discerning people would have known the difference. For her part, Caroline grew up with Jackie as her role model, and so, while she doesn't necessarily imitate her sound, boy, she can do it when she wants."

Caroline Dale was also around when the cameras were rolling in case she was needed as a hands double. However, as things turned out, she was surplus to requirement in that regard, with Emily Watson acquitting herself more than adequately on her way to garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

"Emily had special cello lessons, and she learned every one of the sequences in the film in which she is seen performing," Pheloung confirms. "She had, in fact, played the cello when she was a young girl, which made a huge difference, because you can tell straight away just by the way that someone picks up the instrument and the bow. That's the biggest giveaway, so her familiarity with the cello was a fantastic start. After all, the producers could have chosen some big American actress who would have held the cello back to front — I'm not kidding, I've seen it too many times! What's more, Emily is innately, naturally musical anyway, and that's very often the case with the best actors. Just her grasp of the [spoken] accents displayed that she has a great ear, and you have to be a natural to do that. Her bowing technique, the way she held it, and the fact that all of her fingers were in the right place; that alone lent itself to a virtuoso performance, never mind the emotions and everything else she had to deal with. She absolutely nailed it. What's worse, I then had to live up to that!"

While the 100‑plus‑piece orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road, the mix took place both there and at London's Whitfield Street Studio. "It was a huge project," says Pheloung, "and there was also a hell of a lot of classical music that we recorded and which didn't get used in the film... Reels and reels of tape.

"In order for the sound to match in a big Dolby surround setting, all of the old classical music had to be specially re‑recorded. I mean, purely for technical reasons, we needed to separate the cello track and we needed to have complete autonomy with regard to the rest of the sound, whether it was a trio or a concerto. The Elgar, on the other hand, is unashamedly Jackie's performance. That's another way of storytelling and that's great, because you can hear her breathing. It was taken from a digital remaster and I think that was done well."

Earlier in our interview Barrington Pheloung recalled that the movie's classical music pieces had to be locked in and finalised long before the shoot started. When I ask him if there were any last‑minute amendments, he laughs. "A good film is never locked!" he asserts. "Nevertheless, in this case everything was so pre‑ordained that I got it all done in a matter of days."

Barrington Pheloung's Home Studio

A more general view of Barrington Pheloung's third‑floor studio. On the wall to the left are some of the more unusual medieval stringed instruments in his collection.A more general view of Barrington Pheloung's third‑floor studio. On the wall to the left are some of the more unusual medieval stringed instruments in his collection.

Unsurprisingly, Pheloung's home studio is heavily geared towards sound‑to‑picture applications. A scene from Hilary And Jackie can be seen playing on the monitor.Unsurprisingly, Pheloung's home studio is heavily geared towards sound‑to‑picture applications. A scene from Hilary And Jackie can be seen playing on the monitor.

"Everyone's studios are always in basements," says Pheloung. "They often don't have windows, and if they do then you just see someone's brick wall. It's rather refreshing, therefore, to have mine up on the third floor, with a balcony overlooking an estuary. At the same time, I've got a very large living room downstairs and it's completely soundproofed, as are many of the other rooms. There are tie lines and video links throughout and our bay windows are triple‑glazed, so there's no peripheral noise, and in the process it's incidentally become the most thermally‑efficient house in Essex! Our fuel bills have gone down enormously.

"We've recorded up to about 50 players scattered in different rooms, but a normal, medium‑scale chamber orchestra can be accomodated more comfortably. It was originally designed as just a MIDI studio to write in, with some recording facilities for vocals or instrumental overdubs, but a few years ago I used it more extensively for a movie which had a zero music budget and it sounded so good that, since then, it's expanded into a full 16‑track digital setup. As a result I can now work at home almost all of the time without looking at the clock, whereas before I was spending about £100,000 a year in studio time alone and I was away most of the time.

Pheloung's Soundcraft Ghost desk, with (left) B&W monitor speakers. At the front of the picture is the BRC remote for the studio's two Alesis ADATs, which are in the right‑hand rack underneath the desk.Pheloung's Soundcraft Ghost desk, with (left) B&W monitor speakers. At the front of the picture is the BRC remote for the studio's two Alesis ADATs, which are in the right‑hand rack underneath the desk.

Some of Pheloung's outboard gear: from top, Behringer Ultrafex multi‑effects, Lexicon MPX100 multi‑effects, dbx compressor/limiter, Alesis 3630 compressor/limiter, MOTU MIDI Time Piece.Some of Pheloung's outboard gear: from top, Behringer Ultrafex multi‑effects, Lexicon MPX100 multi‑effects, dbx compressor/limiter, Alesis 3630 compressor/limiter, MOTU MIDI Time Piece."I really love the Soundcraft Ghost desk. It's noise‑free, but basically what made me choose it was down to the space. I didn't want the whole of my home studio to be taken up with a 48‑channel console, and the Ghost is really compact; it's about half the depth of, say, a Neve, but it does everything I need. Everything's automated, it's all controllable from the same Mac and for the price it was ridiculous. We're just about to move all of our recording over to hard disk. Of course, the medium's had its teething problems, but we do all of our editing on hard disk and so that's the way to go. We're just in the process of deciding whether to go the Pro Tools or RADAR route.

"I've got a heterogeneous collection of orchestral samples. Some years ago I sampled a full symphony orchestra, semi‑tone by semi‑tone, section by section, right down to the solo instruments, and so I'd imagine that's the most definitive collection around. It was actually done at CTS Studio 1 with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. I record those players all of the time anyway, and the uncanny thing — being that I've known most of them since college days — is that their samples sound so much like them. They sanctioned it because they knew that I'd never use the samples for anything other than demonstration purposes with film and TV directors. The only time that my craft comes alive for me is when the guys play it for real, so I've got a contract with them; I'll never sell the samples and I'll never use them except for demo purposes. Nevertheless, it's pretty incredible, because I can illustrate to a director exactly how an entire score is going to sound, sync'ed to picture, and that's a real thrill."

Based on the third floor of the Pheloung family home in rural Essex, Barrington's studio houses the following equipment:


  • AKG C414 microphone.
  • Alesis 3630 compressor/limiter.
  • Alesis Point Seven monitors.
  • Alesis ADAT digital 8‑track recorder (x2) with BRC remote.
  • Avitel SMPTE reader and encoder.
  • B&W DM110 monitor speakers.
  • Behringer Ultrafex multi‑effects.
  • Dbx Project 1 compressor/limiter.
  • HHB CDR800 CD writer.
  • Lexicon MPX100 multi‑effects.
  • Neumann U87, KM100 (x3), KM184 (x2), KM84I (x2) microphones.
  • Shure PE15microphone.
  • Sony DAT recorders (x2).
  • Soundcraft Ghost 24‑channel mixer and 24‑channel expander.
  • Yamaha SPX900 multi‑effects processor.


  • Apple Macintosh Centris 650 computer.
  • Apple Macintosh Power PC 6400/200MHz Performa computer.
  • Emagic Logic sequencer.
  • MOTU MIDI Time Piece.
  • Optima 200MHz NT server.
  • 250MHz PC with digital I/O card.
  • Sonic Foundry Sound Forge audio editing software.
  • UMAX 604e/233MHz Macintosh clone.


  • Akai S1100 sampler with 32Mb memory.
  • Akai S1000 EX sampler expander with 32Mb memory (x4).
  • Emu Proteus sound module.
  • Kurzweil Micropiano sound module.
  • Roland A90 master keyboard.
  • Yamaha EMT10 tone generator.


  • Takamine HP5 classical guitar.
  • Takamine FP400SC 12‑string guitar.
  • Ramirez classical guitar.
  • Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar.
  • Fender F‑55‑12 guitar.
  • D Easterbrook lute.
  • S Barber archlute.
  • S Barber mandolin.
  • Miscellaneous medieval instruments.