From lesbian vampires to terrible Tudors: inside the world of Wolf Hall’s chart-topping composer

Debbie Wiseman

Debbie Wiseman - Credit: Archant

The Highgate musician tells Alex Bellotti about how she went about the task of making history sound alive in BBC drama Wolf Hall.

It’s hard to believe, but before the first episode of Wolf Hall aired, expectations were so high that few thought director Peter Kosminsky and his team could meet – let alone surpass – them.

The success of Hilary Mantel’s original Man Booker Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, and their subsequent stage adaption, made for a hard act to follow. But through a combination of fine writing, filming, acting and music, the television show is now the BBC’s most popular drama since modern TV ratings began 13 years ago.

Its success has also brought good fortune to Highgate resident Debbie Wiseman, the celebrated composer who created the series’ unmistakably atmospheric score.

Two weeks ago, the official soundtrack stormed straight to the top of the Classic FM chart upon its release, taking the 51-year-old by surprise as much as anyone.

“With soundtracks, you’re never sure whether they’re going to be successful or not, and they’re generally not,” she laughs. “So it was a wonderful surprise because it was very unexpected. Everybody has just been so positive about the whole series and it’s been a great experience.”

The musician, who was awarded an MBE in 2004, puts the show’s success in part down to Kosminsky’s re-imagining of 16th century Britain.

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While great care was taken to make sure this Tudor world looked authentic, everyone involved was also encouraged to give the show a more contemporary, relatable edge.

“The clever thing – which is what we tried to do with the music – was trying to make it feel very fresh and relevant.

“So although there were some Tudor instruments in the score – and I did use some period instruments like recorder and harpsichord and lute – actually a lot of the music feels quite modern because that’s the way Peter shot it, to make you feel as though you’re not watching these characters through a stain glassed window.

“You’re not looking at them as though it’s a piece of history; you’re looking at it as though it was now and you could be in that position yourself. You could be Anne Boleyn. You could be Cromwell.”

With a reported budget of £7million, the temptation might have been to enlist a big orchestra, but Wiseman deliberately opted for sparser, “un-perfumed” arrangements.

Alongside the subtle acting talents of Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy, the soundtrack lets even the most dramatic moments breathe.

“The feeling of it is quite raw, therefore the music didn’t want to feel too rushed” explains Wiseman, who was born in Belsize Park. “A lot of the big moments, for example when Anne Boleyn’s been taken to the tower in episode six and she’s being rowed down the river, the music there is just two instruments – the harp and the mandolin – and that’s it.

“It was about suiting the tension. The looks between Cromwell and Anne at that moment said everything – they were just glancing at each other.

“The silence, the sound of the oars against the water – all that was so dramatic on its own so when I started to score that scene, it was very obvious that whatever I did had to be very delicate and simple to capture that moment. That’s what a score is generally required to do: to support what’s on screen but not to lay it on with a trowel.”

One of the project’s many unusual benefits for Wiseman – whose work in film and television includes productions as diverse as Wilde, Tom & Viv, Warriors and Lesbian Vampire Killers – was that she was given almost a year to work on the music from start to finish.

Although she was still recording parts for the last episodes after the first few had already aired in January, she wrote the themes for Cromwell and Boleyn before filming even begun, and Kosminsky often listened to them on set as inspiration.

Compared to Wilde – where Wiseman was brought in at the end to produce the score in three and a half weeks – it was a more enjoyable way to work, although she believes the different requirements of each project is part of the magic of making soundtracks.

“The great thing about writing scores for film and TV is that every project’s different, everything requires a slightly different feel, a slightly different tune and orchestration.

“I do like to mix it up as much as possible and find that one day I’m working on a contemporary spy thriller and then three weeks later I’m working on a period piece set in the early 16th century. I think it’s very healthy for me as a composer not to get pigeonholed into doing one particular style.”

Wolf Hall: Original TV Soundtrack by Debbie Wiseman is available now.