Melody Man

An occasional series on Scots of outstanding merit, deserving of our attention and praise.


Patrick Doyle, composer, and all-round Scotsman

There is a pleasing symmetry to this interview. Patrick Doyle is scoring the remake of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. I interviewed the composer of the first adaptation, Richard Rodney Bennett, back in 1974 when I was still a sapling. If Bennett was alive today he would be astonished at Patrick’s output, and envy how much he is in demand by filmmakers here and in the USA.

Patrick Doyle creates melodies, lots of them. Like painters who begin with a blank canvas, composers seem to me a sort of wondrous sorcerer. They buoy our spirit, and give us that too often diverted emotion called pleasure.

They don’t all have to wander around in a thunderstorm as if maniacally depressed Beethoven straining for inspiration. They can look like bespectacled, good natured Patrick, cuddly, amenable, cosy in the cloister of his Shepperton Studio office, adding a dying seventh to a film score for emotional effect.

Awards galore

Patrick is multi-talented – composer, musician, song-smith, orchestrator, and generally far too nice for his shirt. Other people have spotted his attributes. My interview coincided with Patrick’s invitation to the International Film Festival of Braunschweig, (Brunswick) Germany. The city feted him, making him their first recipient of their White Lion Lifetime Achievement Award for Music in Film. He can add that to his Scottish BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award, his PRS Lifetime Achievement Award, and many others. He also has Oscar, Golden Globe, César nominations, and a BAFTA nomination to his credit, as well as a Los Angeles Film Critics Award. Lifetime awards sound as if people presume your work is over. Not so Patrick.

Multifarious awards are evidence a Scottish-born composer can achieve international status. In the past too many European composers led an impoverished existence: no CD or DVD sales, television episodes for theme tunes, or radio stations to fill impecunious periods with welcome royalties. Today, a composer can specialize in one genre or another and make a decent living. For Patrick it was the dramatic combined with the descriptive.


Doyle as maestro

Early days

I knew Patrick in my youthful theatre days, he usually seen clutching a sheaf of music sheets and staying close to a piano. I have an abiding picture in my mind of him playing wee Hector in John Byrne’s Slab Boys, and later at a party playing lively tunes on an old Joanna, always happy, always smiling, always composing snippets of music.

Speaking to him after an interval of thirty years confirms his sense of humour remains intact. The interview was peppered with hilarious anecdotes of people encountered, and I lost count of the films he has graced with his originality.

School days

Patrick’s childhood haunt was the west of Scotland, Uddingston to be exact, nurtured by a caring family.

“I had tunes going around in my head; I could hear the orchestra play them but I had no understanding of how to construct them. When I was six or seven I was given a Glockenspiel and began externalising harmonies on it. In school, I found a piano in the Assembly Hall, and lifting the heavy lid with a bang, I sussed that the keyboard was similar to the Glockenspiel. I started to play Catch a Falling Star. [Crooner Perry Como’s big hit.] Hardly a few bars into it and the janitor appeared bellowing, “Shut that lid, boy!”

Despite the philistine intervention Patrick found the experience “scintillating.” From that moment on his future was mapped, a vocation cushioned by red carpet premiers. First comes the hard bit, music academy.

Musical training

The best movie composers are classically trained. Patrick studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, now the Conservatoire of Scotland, to give it its more recent posh name. There he wrote a trio for piano, cello and violin. His student colleagues couldn’t believe he was the author, a case of undervaluing ability too close to perceive.

Working in draughty theatre music pits, playing at Glasgow’s Fountain restaurant, to sustain wife, mortgage, body and soul is an arduous business. A peripatetic lifestyle takes its toll on a musician.

There’s an assortment of fates awaiting the unwary: employers who delay fees, non-payers, crooked agents, gigs closing down, and kudos stolen from you. Patrick avoided the bear traps. It was a stealth attack of acute myeloid leukaemia that dealt him a deathly card.

The fickle hand of Fate

To deal with a life-threatening cancer in a few short paragraphs, an illness that drags courage to the brink of extinction cannot begin to convey the pain and despair a person endures. Nurses napalm your blood with chemotherapy. Bed ridden, immobile, you’re a useless body watching consultants discuss your condition. Patrick’s treatment lasted six months.

“The ominous signs were mysterious bruising on my skin and bleeding gums. When the doctor called me with the news I dropped the phone in shock. At that moment somebody knocked at my front door, a policeman searching the district for a criminal. “Do you mind if I look out of your top window?” he asked. It was a truly bizarre moment.”

Faced with an answer to life’s biggest question, a man wonders if it’s time to swear allegiance to a higher being. The smallest moment is experienced in the sharpest terms. Bird song outside a window so often ignored takes on a haunting quality; youth’s bloom assumes a spectre all of its own.

Spirit assaulted, Patrick managed to complete a score for the children’s animated project Quest for Camelot, a Herculean task. That was 1998. Happily, the disease was diagnosed early. He made a full recovery. “I have nothing but praise for the NHS”, he says, a compliment to their life saving skills.

Profound illness beaten is guaranteed to harden resolve in an exceptional talent. Patrick stayed on course pursuing work and commissions until good fortune brought him the friendship of actor-director Kenneth Branagh.


A match made in heaven

Though Patrick has worked with many outstanding directors, the British film business tends to place Patrick’s music in association with Kenneth Branagh. The collaboration produced a string of pearls: Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994), Hamlet (1996), Love Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006).

It is no surprise Branagh was there to help Patrick, together with a brace of film actor friends, stage a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Music from the Movies, in aid of Leukaemia Research UK.

Justifiably Doyle speaks of his mentor with affection. “We first met to discuss the music for his new Renaissance Theatre company’s production of Twelfth Night at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in the late 90’s. We hit it off immediately. (Richard Byres played Malvolio.) I think that Branagh and I being Celts helped a lot. It was refreshing to meet someone with no pretensions; with a clear vision of what his ideas were for the play. I felt I understood his mind. The play produced was exactly as he described it would be, in every detail. I thought he was a class act and still do. Incidentally, he never asked to hear a note of my music in advance.”

Appointment begets assignment 

Patrick was nominated for an Academy Award for his Hamlet score. Among all his compositions for the Bard’s canon, to my mind Doyle’s theme for Henry V, stands out. It got him an Ivor Novello Award. He teamed up with Branagh again for Marvel Comics Thor (2011). His score is suitably percussive, hard metal bashing anvils and crashing crescendos, full of ostinato phrases and rhythms.

Regular moviegoers get familiar with a composer’s style, their orchestral voice. Ennio Morricone’s innovative western themes are a good example, and John Williams’ insistent Wagnerian storm-trooper riffs another. As soon as you hear them you perk up because you know you’re in for a good time.

Patrick is the musical equivalent of a chameleon, so adept is he at suiting scores to a movie’s topography. To my mind, when he employs choral work he is easier to identify, yet even smart musicologists can misjudge his work. They view with mixed feelings his score for Much Ado about Nothing. Nobody can deny it’s bright, sunny, energetic and optimistic. It radiates happiness, the very essence of Shakespeare’s comedy. 

Four score and more

Patrick’s film oeuvre must be reach a hundred productions by now. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Carlito’s Way, Sleuth, Eregon, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Scotland’s own Pixar cartoon Brave, guild the lily of a prodigious output. Those films are testament to Patrick’s ability to collaborate with the worlds most accomplished and demanding movie directors. Working with Ang Lee on Sense and Sensibility is one thing, a huge compliment when Mike Newell calls you back after Into the West, (1992) to score Donnie Brasco, (1997) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, (2005) all extremely successful movies.

He has scored six films for Régis Wargnier. Directors have a way of sticking with a winner. Among my favourites Doyle scores are those for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, and Alphonso Cuaron’s contemporary interpretation of Great Expectations, (1998) set in New York. There is a gracefulness in them.


Like an octopus opening clam shells, currently he has four productions in embryo simultaneously, with the topical Amma Assante directed A United Kingdom completed.

The plot is based on true events; a Botswana prince in London falls in love with a white woman, forced to face the prejudices of his own people, and the political shenanigans of the Foreign Office in a diamond rich country, factions hard set against the marriage but for different reasons. An alternative title could be, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

I was keen to hear of Patrick’s work with the youth orchestra he founded, its genesis an invited talk to high school students in Strathaven, Lanarkshire. Playing in an orchestra is a great discipline.

There are plans afoot to perform at major venues. Details of the Patrick Doyle Arts in Film Youth Orchestra will have to wait until announced. However, Patrick told me he had a “sensational” time galvanising young people from different social backgrounds towards creative endeavour.

Music has much to teach the young, team work, interpretation, mathematics, timing, the expressiveness of sounds, and a shared exaltation in applause.


Patrick, never known without a piano

To infinity with music

A kaleidoscope of composition has flowed under a fiddle’s bridge since Patrick’s days in the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, including a few pieces for the concert hall. If you listen to his early work through to current scores you can detect the stages where his music grows more and more abstract and transcendental. That’s when you know you are in the presence of high ability.

In Los Angeles, thinking us an ocean and a sea apart, I recommended Patrick to my producer as composer for the film I was working on but idiotically failed to seek him out. To my eternal shame I didn’t know he was working in the same city of angels. His career success has punished my inertia ever since.

Listening to Patrick reminisce about tribulations and treble clefs of musical hard graft is listening to a globe-trotting life lived fruitfully with meaning. Scotland has a very fine, jovial composer who is gifting memorable music to moviegoers the world over.

We should cherish Patrick Doyle for the creative being that he is, and celebrate him whenever we can by playing his music.

This article appeared in the December edition of iScot magazine. Subscribe to it and get more bang for your bucks than this one article?

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