The man who knows the score when working with our ken
Ahead of his show in Belfast, film composer Patrick Doyle tells Matthew McCreary why Sir Kenneth Branagh's talent was clear from the outset and about his battle with leukaemia
If a picture is worth a thousand words on the big screen, then when it comes to making the spine truly tingle there's nothing quite like a well-crafted film score. Imagine those opening credits of Chariots of Fire without the strains of Vangelis's synthesiser, the terror of Jaws minus that sinister theme tune, or Star Wars' famous scrolling intro without that rousing march.
And Bond just wouldn't be, well, Bond without John Barry's blaring horns and jangling guitar.
It's an asset which any clever filmmaker knows to use to his advantage and numerous creative partnerships between director and composer have thrived on it. One example is Patrick Doyle, who has scored almost all of Sir Kenneth Branagh's films since their very first collaboration on Henry V 25 years ago.
And it's a partnership which has developed into a warm and sincere friendship between the two men, which makes Doyle's visit to Branagh's native Belfast to perform a selection of the works this month all the more poignant.
"I'm thrilled to be playing here, as Ken still has a great fondness for his home city!" beams the spritely 60-year-old in his strong Glaswegian accent. "I knew his parents very well, and have been close to the family for years and been over to the city with Ken before. Also, for me there are great similarities between Belfast and Glasgow through the shipbuilding and those big ocean liners."
As part of this year's Belfast Film Festival, the concert at the Waterfront Hall on March 31 will see the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir performing music from films such as Dead Again, Hamlet and Frankenstein, as well as the stirring score from Branagh's 1989 debut Henry V.
"When I first met Ken, I was terribly impressed by this young man and how mature he was," recalls Doyle of their first encounters. "Initially I had been a little disgruntled, as I wasn't particularly bowled over by a lot of theatre directors I'd met before, but this guy completely blew me away. I thought he was one of the most intelligent, concise and charismatic people I'd ever met. I was won over by him and he'd yet to hear even a note of my music!"
It proved to be a meeting of minds, with Doyle's at times brooding, at times sweeping orchestral and choral score perfectly capturing the scale of Brangah's Shakespearean epic. Still considered one of the finest debut film scores in UK cinema, its moving centrepiece track, Non Nobis Domine, even scooped Doyle a prestigious Ivor Novello award.
That trust and vote of confidence from Branagh marked the beginning of a strong creative alliance between the two men, which has seen Doyle continue to score the director's more recent forays into big-budget blockbusters like Thor and Jack Ryan.
"We've both managed to straddle this friendship," says Doyle of the pressure of working so closely with a good friend. "There's a great trust there and I think because I seem to read his mind, there's rarely any kind of artistic conflict. He makes an instant decision based on a 360-degree thought process of a million things. He's a man of few words when he's busy ... but he gives such clear, distinct direction and there's no ambiguity. People can give you opinions as to what music should be doing in a picture, because it can be a moveable feast, depending on the director's point of view, but his is always so strong and clear so it's easy to jump on board with his vision."
It helps too, perhaps, that Doyle's former experience as a theatre and screen actor (he enjoyed a small part in Chariots of Fire and has cameos in most of Branagh's pictures) gives him an added insight as to the importance of music in a certain scene.
"I gave up acting years ago ... but I haven't forgotten what it's like to watch actors close up, and see a performance in a scene which I feel perhaps isn't hitting the mark and where the music could do something – maybe for a certain character I should play something more melancholic behind him because he is shouting too much. There are things you can do musically that can maybe redirect the emotion of the scene."
It's a revelation that raises the question of just how much the score can affect the character of an entire film. Chariots of Fire would doubtless be just another period piece without the juxtaposition of its electronic score; likewise the seedy grandeur of The Godfather would lose a lot without Nino Rota's music.
"Chariots of Fire is a case in point," says Doyle. "Part of the effectiveness of that score is the otherwordly, hypnotic quality in it. The beauty of that sound is it gives a sense of being inside the characters' heads as well. That jangly sound gives a lovely warm feeling too when watching it. It's very engaging."
Doyle is not remotely fazed by the scale of the big projects he is hired to score, such as the star-studded Harry Potter series, on which he worked in the fourth instalment, the Goblet of Fire.
"Daniel Radcliffe's such a lovely guy," he recalls of the boy wizard himself. "He's very fond of music and he even asked to come along to our sessions, which was a pleasure. He's a very grounded young man – in fact all those actors are great people."
While not every director indulges their composer to the extent of keeping them close by during filming, set visits are crucial to creativity for Doyle. "It's immensely informative to be on the set, and it brings something extra special to the music," he says.
"There's often something visceral about the experience that you take away with you and it leaves a much deeper impression of what it would be like to break the membrane of the picture, which is very difficult when you see it cold.
"In the case of Henry V, Ken discussed the whole Non Nobis Domine sequence and after very clear instruction as to what the camera was doing I wrote the piece accordingly. In Jack Ryan I got a script in advance and visited the set as well.
"However, for Gosford Park with the director Robert Altman, the film was completely finished and he just gave me one line of instruction and off I went. With Ken, though, I like to work in great detail from the conceptual process through to filming and post-production."
With such a striking body of work behind him now, Doyle is perhaps at the stage where there is nothing left he needs to prove to his musical and film peers.
Indeed, he admits to taking a more measured approach to work now, especially after a diagnosis of leukaemia in his mid-40s.
"It was horrible," he says. "It was a terrible, shocking, terrifying thing and being told was just awful. Bizarrely, the day I was diagnosed I was at home in complete meltdown and at that moment a policeman called at the door and – I'm not kidding – asked if he could use our house to observe a suspected criminal down the street from the window. I was in the living room completely melting down.
"He must have heard me screaming and shouting and said he'd go and catch him some other time.
"Fortunately, I got through it all with my wife and kids' help, but it does change everything completely. When I hear the NHS being attacked by all sides I get agitated because what they do – that incredible machine that kicks into play and the amount of people that run around looking after you – is quite unbelievable."
Alongside his talent, it's perhaps that sense of humility and groundedness that helped sustain Doyle's reputation as one of the most easily approachable men in the business, and is the key to that relationship with Branagh.
"When he got his knighthood recently he was so modest and unfazed by all the attention that he deservedly received," says Doyle of his friend.
"I think in order to sustain a career in this business, the minute you start to fall in love with the trappings of it all is the kiss of death!"