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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit