The music of horror films

From the lullaby in Rosemary's Baby to Bernard Herrmann's final score in Taxi Driver, an unforgettable episode of BBC Radio 3's In Tune discussed music in thrillers.

An unforgettable episode of In Tune (weekdays, 4.30pm) discussed music in horror films and thrillers, from the curdled lullaby in Rosemary’s Baby to the Wagnerian thrum characterising the best Hammer soundtracks. The BBC’s cross-media “Sound of Cinema” season has been programmed in precisely the right way: as though by obsessives in relentless pursuit of exciting sensations. (Let’s stick on the 1933 King Kong at prime time on a Sunday on BBC4! Let’s have a foley artist snapping rhubarb near a microphone to replicate the sound of catastrophe-shattered limbs!) The composer and silent movie accompanist Neil Brand gave a burst of the “landing at Whitby” scene from Nosferatu on a piano, relishing his role as both jukebox and magician – you could hear the audience fizzing.

The Tippett Quartet played music from Psycho, so intricately full of hostile power that you found yourself wondering why its composer, Bernard Herrmann, bothered using an entire orchestra. And here was Herrmann’s widow, Norma, gossiping about her long-dead husband (whom she still dotingly called Benny) and his final score, which was for Taxi Driver. She confessed that when Martin Scorsese first asked him to consider working on the movie, the caustic Herrmann had replied: “I don’t do cabbies.”

It was a personal relief to hear this lady speak. In the brilliantly useful and contumelious 1991 Hollywood memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips describes her work as a co-producer of Taxi Driver and the inconvenient moment when Herrmann “woke up dead”, aged 64, hours after completing the score.

“His wife freaks out,” Phillips writes breezily, “not least because she literally has not a penny to her name.”

I’d often wondered what had become of this wife – in that weird way that one aside or even half an aside in a book can act like a stone in your shoe – and here she was, not dead in a ditch somewhere, but on BBC Radio 3, happy as a person sitting with a large bowl of Miracle Whip and a spoon, admitting that she really ought to get round to seeing North by Northwest one day because Benny’s music was rather good, don’t you think?

Brand played some of it and the audience went through the roof. This was the definition of euphoric radio.

Michael Phillips receives the Palme d'Or for the movie Taxi Driver during the closing ceremony of 1976 Cannes film festival. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Breaking the Bond ceiling won’t solve British cinema’s race problems

Anyway, Ian Fleming’s Bond was grotesquely, unstintingly racist. As a character, it’s hardly the highest role available in UK film.

I don’t know which of the following is weirder: the idea that Idris Elba is the only black British actor, the idea that James Bond is the highest role available in UK film, or the idea that only by putting the two together can we be sure we have vanquished racism in our entertainment industry and in our hearts. I almost feel for Anthony Horowitz, who ballsed up the Elba question in an interview with the Mail on Sunday to promote his newly-authored Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis.

He even had another black actor (Adrian Lester) lined up as his preferred Bond to demonstrate that it really wasn’t “a colour issue”, but in the end, calling Elba “too street” sounded too much like a coded way of saying “too black”. By Tuesday, Horowitz had apologised for causing offence, thereby fulfilling his anointed role in the public ritual of backlash and contrition.

Whether Elba would make a good Bond depends a great deal on what your vision of Bond is. Elba is handsome, and he’s capable of exquisitely menacing composure – something more in evidence as Stringer Bell in The Wire than in his stompy title role in Luther. He can do violence of the sudden sociopathic sort. All of this puts him in good stead to do a kind of Bond: not the elegant killer gliding on a haze of one-liners, but something closer to the viciously alluring bruiser of Sean Connery. Something like the ur-Bond, the Fleming Bond.

The only thing is that the Fleming Bond is also grotesquely, unstintingly racist and in hock to a colonial past he wishes had never ended. “I don’t drink tea,” he tells a secretary in Goldfinger (ungraciously, since she’s just made him a cup). “I hate it… it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire.” Bond has always been a bit of a has-been. Even in his first adventure, he’s a tired and slightly ragged figure: past it from the start, an emblem of wistfulness for a time when everyone knew their proper place and an Eton-educated murderer could sit comfortably at the top of the heap.

“This country right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date,” he maunders in Casino Royale. “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” In the end, the only thing that saves Bond from this alarmingly unpatriotic attack of relativism is that he lacks the imagination to do anything apart from booze, smoke, fuck, and kill the people he’s told to kill. “A wonderful machine,” his colleague Mathis calls him, and this is exactly what Bond is: a beautifully suited self-propelling module for the propagation of white male supremacy.

One of his primary work-related pleasures is seeing that anyone non-white is “[put] firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” In Live and Let Die, black people are essentially voodoo-addled amoral children, and the civil rights movement is a front for a Russian assault on the western world. Women, meanwhile, exist to be obliterated, the foils to Bond’s marvellous virility. Bond’s favourite kind of sex has “the sweet tang of rape”, and the women he does it to (never really “with”, because that would imply some kind of reciprocity) are “bitches” or “girls”, but utterly disposable either way.

He’s also not quite as glamorous as you think. Yes, there are luxury cars and card games and elaborate dinners, but Bond is a character strung absurdly between heroism and bathos. He saves the world, but he’s also the office bore delivering lectures on hot beverages to junior staff, and even a license to kill cannot save him from the terrible frustrations of the road system around Chatham and Rochester, which Fleming describes as unsparingly as any piece of weaponry. The accidental Partridge has nothing on the deliberate Bondism.

I suspect that Fleming would piss magma at the thought of Idris Elba playing Bond – almost a compelling reason to want the casting, but it doesn’t explain why there is such an obsession with redeeming a spirit-soaked, fag-stained, clapped-out relic of Britain’s ghastly rapaciousness. Nor does it explain why any good actor would want the role. It’s true that a black Bond would not be Fleming’s Bond, and thank Christ for that. Every rotten thing the character is, means and stands for should by rights explode on contact with postcolonial twenty-first century Britain.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.