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Interview: Mark Ayres

Interviewed by David Bishop

Name: Mark Ayres
Age: 29
Occupation: Composer Musician
Born: London, Raised in Kent, Southern England
NZ Links: None that he knows of!
Doctor Who credits: Incidental music for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988); Ghost Light (1989); The Curse of Fenric (1989)
Awards: Best Composer, Season 26 survey, Doctor Who Magazine #160, May 1990.
Interview: March 27, 1990, Blackheath, London, UK.

'I was a fan - not really as a child, but as a teenager. Up until I was about 11 I wasn't allowed to watch it. I can remember seeing odd bits, like Yeti in the Underground (The Web of Fear 1968) or parts of Spearhead From Space (1970).

'It was 1972 and Day of the Daleks when I really started watching. There was a massive publicity campaign for that story. I had always been quite interested in Daleks, all the kids at school always talked about them but I had never really seen them. So insisted on watching it, much to my parent's distress. I was hooked immediately.'

Ayres' interest in the show grew during the first three Tom Baker seasons (1974-77) and he joined the Doctor Who Appreciation Society soon after it was formed in 1977...

'I went to the first ever DWAS convention which was in a church hall in Battersea in 1977. Yes, I was a fan - sad, isn't it?' he says, laughing at the memories. 'I went to what were, I suppose, the first three Panopticons - Battersea in 1977; 1978 was, I think, Imperial College and 1979 at City University. Then I went to university and decided I'd grown out of Doctor Who and that was that.'

Ayres remembers writing music and writing it down from when he was very young. Then as a teenager he really wanted to be an electronics engineer, but to use gadgets rather than make them. However less than brilliant maths led him to doing a combined music and electronic engineering degree at varsity.

'Within the first year I virtually gave up on the electronics and just did enough to get by. I spent most of my time in the university recording studio, writing and recording and playing with bands,'

In 1982 Ayres left university and moved to London to work as a TV sound recordist...

'The only people I knew in London were the people I'd known years before through Doctor Who. So I looked them up and started getting involved again.'

INTERLUDE

'I was interested in television music from early on. I can recall watching Doctor Who and thinking 'This is frightening. Why is it frightening? It's a rubber monster and it's obviously a rubber monster - why? Then I started listening and thinking - yeah, the reason I'm frightened is largely to do with the music. This is something that interests me...

Among the people Ayres looked up was an old friend Kevin Davies, who was working on the animation for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy television series at the time. Through him, Ayres met again the organizer of the very first convention back in '77, Keith Barnfather. He had just left Channel 4 to set up his own production company, Reeltime Pictures, mainly making corporate films and training videos. Barnfather also planned to make Doctor Who-based interview tapes through Reeltime, under the banner 'Mythmakers'.

'He suggested to Kevin and myself that we do the title sequence - Kevin doing the animation and I the music. I snuck my two synthesizers into the television station where I was working, TV-AM, and recorded the Mythmakers theme on the multi-track between two and six one morning when nobody was around. I got involved with the Mythmakers tapes....' There are now more than 20 tapes in the video series, including one full-length drama - more on that project later.

Ayres left university in 1982, moved to London and began work as a sound recordist at TV-AM, the new breakfast television channel. He began building up contacts, building his own home recording studio and by 1984 was composing music on a semi-professional basis.

'I eventually decided when I had got enough money to pay the mortgage for the next six months, I would go freelance as a composer. but I never had the courage to do it until 1987, when a number of things happened at once...

'In November 1987, a chain of events led to my union (the ACTT) at TV-AM going out on strike. We were locked out of the building for three months without pay and were eventually sacked in February, 1988. During those three months I was earning no money except by ringing up all the contacts I'd made - and I got a lot of work, both as a composer and as a sound recordist. So, I thought, now's the time to go freelance.

'I wrote a lot of letters and John Nathan-Turner was among an enormous number of producers I wrote to. I got the sack with all the others in February and, four rather nerve-wracking weeks later in March I got commissioned for Greatest Show. It was very quick and a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but events forced me into doing something I may never have had the courage to do otherwise...'

INTERLUDE II

By the end of 1987 Reeltime had made its first full-length drama Wartime featuring the return of John Levene as Sgt Benton. Ayres wrote the score for the tape during the strike/lockout and think it was valuable experience at the time.

'It was the first full professional-ish production I had done so it was effectively a dry run for Greatest Show. If I hadn't done Wartime, then Greatest Show would have been a real baptism of fire. It still was, to a degree, but at least I'd been able to try out the techniques beforehand...

'Looking back on Greatest Show, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had. There was an incredible team, like the director Alan Waring, he was great fun to work with and it had an incredible cast. Many of them I'm still good friends with, and have kept in touch with them, which is nice.

'I recall thinking as I started - this is my first full-length work for TV as a composer, so it's got to be good! I didn't panic. Having been in the business for five years, i was professional enough to treat it as just another job.

'Alan had an idea for a piece of music he would have used if he could only use records for the incidental music. This was the music he'd have used over the opening shots of the planet and Bellboy and Flowerchild. This gave me a very definite idea of the kind of feel he wanted. I won't say what the music was - the final score sounds nothing like it - but it gave me the initial idea and the rest built naturally from that..'

The rapping Ringmaster's section was scripted by 'Greatest Show's writer Stephen Wyatt. Ayres approached John Nathan-Turner about preparing backing tracks for the raps before the studio recording sessions, but the producer said there was no need, the actor was going to rap to his own tap dancing (!)

'Then I got a panic phone call from the production assistant. They were in rehearsal and had realized this wouldn't work. I had a rush trip up to the rehearsal room in Acton and spent a couple of hours going through the rap sequences with Alan Waring and Ricco Ross, who was playing the Ringmaster. We decided to go for a heavy rap feeling with all the scratching. I went home, did the rap tracks and they were played in the studio at a very low volume so the microphones weren't picking them up but Ricco could just hear them. The actual rap music on the show was relaid into the mix properly at final dubbing.

'I got a phone call in March, 1989 - 'Hello, this is John Nathan-Turner.' 'Oh, hi, John.' 'How'd you like to do the first story of the new season?' 'Love to.' And that was it. The first story into production was The Curse of Fenric and I started work on that. Finding the hook for it was quite difficult. I read the script, went down to Crowborough for a day when they were shooting the Army sequences, but all that happened was I got extremely muddy! I had a lunch meeting with the director Nick Mallett to discuss the story and a number of phone conversations but it wasn't really until I saw the final cut that I knew what the story was all about...

'We decided it wouldn't be a 1940's feel with 1940's music, just because it was set during the Second World War. We decided it would be BIG. Now I had just heard and gone quite overboard for Christopher Young's score for Hellraiser II. I hated the film, I hate most horror films and I find the Hellraiser series quite revolting, but Young's scores for both films are just amazing. I wanted that kind of big feel but couldn't afford the full choir or orchestra for obvious reasons. So Hellraiser was an influence for the stuffs with the Haemorrvoids, as we called them.

'But that wouldn't work for most of episodes one and two, where the action was more small scale. It's only once the monsters start coming out of the sea that it gets shock horror. For most of the first two episodes it's like a war film with something funny going on in the background...'

'I racked my brains thinking how are we going to have a strong opening. Eventually in desperation I thought, well, it's all about pagan gods, they're Russians and I want it orchestral - let's get the Stravinsky out! So I got out all my Russian music, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and the rest - I love Russian music. There were a lot of things that were very helpful and then I put on Stravinsky's 'Firebird' and that was it! And ever since people have said to me: 'You've ripped off 'The Firebird'!' I didn't, really - anything in 3/4 on the low strings is going to sound like 'The Firebird' anyway but that's what the opening basically is, with the boats coming out of the fog. Then I built on that with other ideas.

'There is a little bit of 1940's music when the Doctor and Ace first arrive inside the camp, which was a bit of an in-joke. I felt the sequence needed something that says 'We are in the 1940's', because at one point the Doctor says rather quickly something like 'World War II uniforms' but that's about it. And this scene was really the only place where I could signpost the time musically - plus that's one of the few laughs in that story.

'The other influence for that was a comment that filtered back to me from the writer Ian Briggs that he hoped it wasn't going to be all 1940's big band music, just because it was set in the 1940's. So I thought, well, I'll put a bit in just to spite him! It was quite funny at the press preview because he was sitting just in front of me and when that moment came up he sort of turned round and looked at me. I just winked at him and that was it!

'I was working on Curse, I heard that Keff (McCulloch) was going to do Battlefield, and I spoke to Dominic (Glynn) who said he was doing Survival. But nobody was assigned to Ghost Light and there was a lot of wondering about it and rumours. There were rumours they wanted to have four composers to match having four stories and four writers. Rumours they wanted to get a real orchestra for it, all sorts of rumours. Anyway, they were halfway through shooting Ghost Light and I was halfway through episode four of Curse when the phone rang - it was John again. 'How'd you like to do Ghost Light as well?' 'Love to, John', and that was that...

Ghost Light - it was an interesting experience. I think it's the least satisfactory of the Doctor Who scores I've done, but generally it's gone down better than any of the others with the fans. It was very difficult - I had only six days to write episode one, where as on other stories I've two weeks per episode. With Ghost Light I didn't have that luxury, I just had to go straight for it. Alan and I agreed on a kind of Victorian chamber-parlour music feel and I worked on that idea. John commented to me on the last studio day that there had been an intention to have a little chamber orchestra group play the music for the story.

'That stuck with me so I wrote the whole episode like a small Victorian chamber group, the kind you'd imagine a wealthy old Victorian family would have, one daughter playing the viola, mother the piano and eldest daughter the harp. So basically I scored it for a string quartet plus harp, flute and clarinet. But it just didn't work...

'I went along to the dub for that episode rather shamefacedly, because I felt it was the wrong score. John agreed when he heard it and I was given another week to rewrite it. There's still a definitive chamber feel to it but it's a much bigger score than it was originally.

'There have been criticisms about the volume of the music. It's simply that the music is perhaps too loud in the final mix of the episodes in some places. There is a scene at the start of episode one where the Doctor and Ace emerge into the hallway and there's a harp thing going on and you can't hear the dialogue at all. i suppose I have to take some of the responsibility - I do sit in on the dubs and often comment on the mix, saying where I think my music is too loud or too quiet.

'At the start of Ghost Light, when we first go into the cellar there's a stuffed bird thing in the foreground. You can hear a bird noise - that's actually a saucepan lid being scraped across my kitchen floor! It's fun taking sounds that are not and making them into something that is, coming up with an interesting sound out of something that's totally bizarre...

'My favourite episodes are Greatest Show 3, Curse 2, or Ghost Light 3, strangely enough. There are definite pieces I'm proud of - Mag's transformation at the end of Greatest Show 3, Bellboy's death scene from the same episode - I find that, even now, very intense to watch. The start of Ghost Light 3...

THE 'HOW DOES HE DO IT' BIT

'Generally I get a script months before it's shot. I'll read it several times and then put it on a shelf, forget it, except when it's faster to refer to than a video tape. I like to go along to a studio session, meet some of the cast and especially the Director. Only then can you find out what they are trying to achieve.

The difficulty with television music is you're presented with the final cut video and have to try and slap something on top of it. It's not easy feeling part of the creative process, because you're coming in at the end. Hopefully I'll have talked to the Director several times by the time the final video arrives, so I know roughly what direction we want to take it...

'I'll spend a few days just watching the video a few times, playing with ideas, coming up with new synthesizer sounds. I like to have a new set of instruments, a new 'orchestra' for each story. My video copy has a time code on it so basically every frame is numbered. I spend a day going through it frame by frame, making a note of the frame numbers, finding every point I want to hit, gaps in the dialogue, each cut. Then it's a question of writing through each scene, writing and recording as I go. I sit at my synthesizers with a pile of manuscript paper, a computer and the multi-track running, and just write. When you're doing a score, if you're lucky it's inspiration and the muse. if you're not, it's bloody hard work - Ghost Light 1 falls into that category. On average I'm given ten days an episode and I'm happy. comfortable with that. I think Keff did Paradise Towers - all four episodes - in about ten days, because they'd had another score written which they'd ditched. i don't know how he did it, there's a lot of music in Paradise Towers.

INTERLUDE III

'Because there's so little time in something like Doctor Who to get a tune in, you end up with chords or just sounds as motifs for characters or situations. For Greatest Show I had to get a sound that summed Mags up and I spent a day trying to make a wolf howling noise that didn't sound like a wolf howling noise. I eventually realized I was being a total twit and in a fit of desperation I thought - a sighing noise - and that's what she ended up with - whenever she flicks her eyes there's a pahhh! sound. That's actually me going 'pahhh!' into the sampler with a lot of echo and flange and treatment...

AND THE FUTURE...

'I'm a great film enthusiast - I collect film scores and I will go and see a film just because of who has written the score, such as John Williams' score for Born on the Fourth of July. Now I'm doing corporate videos, a couple of Mythmakers tapes, some other projects. I'm working on two LPs - one re-recordings of my Mythmakers stuff, the other's still a bit secretive. I've got some definite maybes and a few maybe maybes for TV projects. A move into films is on the cards but I shall just have to see how it goes....

This item appeared in TSV 19 (June 1990).

Reprinted in: The Best of TSV 1-20, TSV: The Best of Issues 1-20