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When Sheridan Tongue was growing up in Belfast his orchestra conductor father's radio programmes would be interrupted by police alerts... now the composer of some of our best known TV shows is scoring a major new BBC documentary on The Troubles

Michigan-based Bafta-nominated composer Sheridan Tongue talks to Una Brankin about his music-filled childhood home, working with big names in the industry and what he thinks of the creative scene in Belfast today

TV and film music composer Sheridan Tongue at work in the studio
TV and film music composer Sheridan Tongue at work in the studio

By Una Brankin

Sheridan Tongue is responsible for filling millions with a sense of unease, dread, pathos and trepidation - and we can't get enough of it. He can elevate tension levels and haunt us, but he can also instil intense feelings of awe and soulfulness - all with a few carefully chosen chord sequences and ethereal vocal takes.

The long-running Silent Witness crime series wouldn't be the same without the Belfast-born composer's highly evocative and eerie soundtracks.

Likewise, his contribution to the BBC's Brian Cox series, Wonders of the Universe (and Wonders of the Solar System), helped win the productions a Royal Television Series Award for Best Documentary Series.

It's hard to think of anyone better qualified to score the BBC's planned series on The Troubles, a project so hush-hush at present that he's not allowed to talk about it, although the mere confirmation of his involvement hints at big-budget documentary-making.

Now based in his American wife's home state of Michigan, Sheridan was back home in Belfast recently for meetings at the BBC and for a workshop with students at his old school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, otherwise known as Inst.

He says: "I was meeting the next generation of composers - they have so many of the opportunities that I never had. Belfast is such an exciting place now. When I was growing up, there was nowhere to record and the only place to go for a nice meal was the Skandia on Howard Street. That was it."

The Bafta-nominated composer lived on the Malone Road until leaving for university in Surrey at 18. His home was filled with music by his mother, Maddie (nee McCormack), a dancer from Co Armagh, and his English-born father, Alan Tongue, a retired BBC music programmes producer and chief conductor of the NI Symphony Orchestra.

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The couple met at Cambridge University in the 1960s before the onset of the Troubles, which eventually influenced their decision to return to England after Sheridan and his younger brother Michael had flown the nest.

Sheridan (51) remembers a stream of well-known faces from the music world passing through the house during his childhood.

"My dad worked with Derek Bell from the Chieftains, so he was often there, and James Galway, Barry Douglas, Mary O'Hara," he recalls. "And (Holocaust survivor, author and dancer) Helen Lewis was one of mum's best friends - we'd go to her house for tea.

Sheridan Tongue conducting other musicians
Sheridan Tongue conducting other musicians

"Mum was always very active with dance and drama and I remember one time she needed a composition for a production she was in, so dad got the electric organ and drums set up and recorded all the parts.

"I thought, 'so that's how you do it'. That definitely planted the seed."

Sheridan learned piano at primary school but found that he preferred to play by ear. Such was his natural musical flair, that his great uncle, a former bishop of Cork, declared that the boy could get music out of a stone.

"I was always picking up things - pots and pans, a piece of wood, and trying to make up a rhythm. I couldn't sit still. I was always fascinated by rhythm and sounds," he says.

"I'd spend hours listening to records, like Hazel O'Connor's Eighth Day, and working out the music on the piano, and I'd tape all these television soundtracks and try to work them out.

"I'll never forget hearing the soundtrack for Where Eagles Dare, although I never thought of becoming a composer for film. I was just into the music."

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s at a slight remove from the city centre and the main Troubles areas, Sheridan paid scant attention to the conflict until a bomb blew in the family's front door and stripped the trees of their leaves.

"I was about 10. My brother was younger and he was in tears," he remembers. "It was our only real experience of the Troubles, apart from the cops chasing some IRA suspects and ending up in a cul-de-sac near us.

"There's usually a look of shock on their faces when I tell people I grew up in Belfast, but the Troubles were just there; they didn't really affect us, although my dad's music programmes would often be interrupted by those police announcements, telling all keyholders to return to such and such a place. He'd be furious."

Sheridan has composed music for Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe
Sheridan has composed music for Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe

As a result of the bombing incident, a neighbour suffered hearing damage. A few years later, Sheridan had his own frightening experience of it, from his proximity to overly loud speakers at a friend's house party.

"We were dancing and having great craic but the next day I went into the studio and my ears were ringing," he explains. "I couldn't hear the all the different layers I usually can in the music - the colours and textures and details. It was very scary.

"If it had gone on forever, my livelihood would have been gone.

"Fortunately, it was only temporary tinnitus but it was a big wake-up call. Since then, I wear custom-made earplugs for loud events and even on transport. I try to spread the message, through the British Tinnitus Association's Plug'em campaign. It's so important to protect your ears.

"I'm lucky that I've managed to avoid permanent tinnitus."

Having learned the clarinet under the tutelage of the "inspirational" music teacher Arthur Ashton, the young Sheridan went on to form a "terrible" band, Plectra, which died a death at their first gig at the Reid Memorial Hall on Belfast's Lisburn Road, never to be seen again.

He had more success with the Saxophone Madness quartet, which started off busking and worked its way up to weddings and restaurant openings around the province. But Sheridan knew had to leave Northern Ireland to further his career in music, opting for a 'Tonmeister' degree in sound recording at the University of Surrey.

There, he explored his love of sound recording and acoustics, alongside orchestration, composing and conducting, working into the night on the exciting new recording equipment at his disposal. After that, it was a case of being in the right place at exactly the right time for the fledgling composer.

Britpop was just around the corner when Sheridan found himself on work experience at the Red Bus studio in London.

Sheridan has composed music for Silent Witness
Sheridan has composed music for Silent Witness

"Blur recorded there in their early days, when they were still only on the NME stage at Glastonbury. A few years later, they were massive," he recalls. "The Verve were there too. I got the work by putting up my hand during the course when a producer asked if anyone could play the piano.

"I played in a session and got it in the first or second take. That led on to other sessions and suddenly I found myself right in the middle of this new golden age of recording."

As well as Blur, Sheridan worked with Robert Plant and Johnny Marr, and was presented with a gold record for his work on the album Prodigal Sista by Beverley Knight But his real passion was and remains classical and experimental music. Debussy, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams, along with Philip Glass, the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson and the film composer Hans Zimmer, are more his cup of tea.

He found the perfect outlet for his natural musical leanings in film and television composition and went on to work on numerous UK contemporary drama series including DCI Banks (five series), Sea of Souls and a dozen series of Silent Witness.

He has also scored the music to five television series for The Discovery Channel and PBS Curiosity Stream with Professor Stephen Hawking, bringing to life the work of the late genius in programmes such as Into The Universe with Steven Hawking, Grand Design and Did God Create The Universe?

By that stage, Sheridan had settled down with Pam, the mechanical engineering student he met at the University of Surrey.

"Pam was an exchange student but she stayed on to be with me and did a PhD in biomechanical engineering," he says. "We had two little boys (Tristan, now 20, and Ryan, 17) and moved from London to Cambridge to be in the countryside. We went to Michigan for a year in 2011 and really enjoyed the lifestyle, so we moved there permanently in 2013, but I have a strong pull back home and we go and stay in my parents' cottage in Killybegs, in Donegal.

"They used to take us there in the summer to escape the Twelfth for six or eight weeks - it's a very special place and the boys love it. Sarah Jessica Parker has a house nearby. It's so brilliant to go back there."

He's planning to record an album in Donegal featuring local musicians, under his IN-IS alter-ego. A reimagining of classical music for the contemporary era, according to Fortitude magazine, Sheridan's first IN-IS album of original music received glowing reviews in 2016. He's working on a second album but continues to score highly popular TV projects, working closely with producers and directors to get the mood music exactly right.

He created the moving score for children's drama Summerhill, a Bafta-winning BBC film based on the real-life court case of a school that took the British Government to court and won.

He also composed the music for the BBC One documentary Wounded, another Bafta winner about soldiers injured in action in Afghanistan, and scored the music to the 2018 film, Bertie, starring Alison Steadman.

Bella, his bearded collie, often accompanies Sheridan to the studio for the recording of his latest opus - and promptly falls asleep. She's an exception to the rule, her master's compositions aren't exactly sleep inducing. His soundtrack for the BBC's series on the Troubles promises to be very special.

"Belfast has changed so much since those days, especially the creative industry.

"There were no opportunities for me when I left in the mid-1980s; now there's the Oh Yeah centre and studios - Gary Lightbody has created something phenomenal there," he concludes.

"It's brilliant to be able to put something back like that. I'm coming over in November as a special guest to give a talk there. It's such a privilege. We never had anything like that in my day."

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