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A musical Theme: Dorset Lives, Stephen Warbeck

Joël Lacey talks to Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck about his Purbeck wedding, boat-building in Swanage and music

Stephen with daughter Aggie outside his Purbeck cottage

During one of the few sunny intervals in April, Stephen Warbeck appeared in the drive of the Swanage cottage he co-owns with his brother, considered the idea of being interviewed outside for a moment, and then, discretion being the greater part of valour, we repaired indoors to talk through his life and work.

He is not always so chary of the outdoors. When Stephen got married, just over ten years ago, the entire wedding party – excepting some older members of the party who sensibly decided to drive – walked from this cottage to the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. To sustain them on their way, his brother Christopher (along with John Madden, director of Shakespeare in Love, for which Stephen won the Academy Award for best original music score), decided to transport a barrel of beer in a wheelbarrow. Sadly the wheelbarrow broke, 200 yards into the three-plus-mile journey, so Christopher and John heroically carried the barrel the rest of the way. Musicians played during the journey and the 40-50-strong wedding party did their best to lighten the beer-barrel-bearers’ load. On arrival in Worth Matravers, a full-English breakfast was consumed to mitigate the effects of the beer, followed by another rather more splendid feast in the pub itself.

Part of the wedding procession en route from Swanage to Worth Matravers

The pub (this one, that is, not just any pub) played another significant part in Stephen’s life in that it was about the current landlord’s father that Stephen wrote ‘The Sprightly Landlord’, the first tune (on the Gutted album) by his band, the hKippers (the h is silent). The band’s members include, among others, actor Paul Bradley (Eastenders, Holby City) on vocals and Sellotape, Andrew Ranken (drummer with The Pogues), clarinettist Sarah Homer, trumpet-player John Eacott, multi-instrumentalist Dai Pritchard, Dave Berry on double bass, trombonist Richard Henry and Rob Townsend on saxophones.

Although his live music is clearly a very cherished part of his life – he admits that it was in order to woo his wife that he formed his first band – it is Stephen’s compositions that have brought him wider fame. In addition to Shakespeare in Love, he has written the music for, among many others, the films Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Charlotte Gray, Billy Elliott and Mrs Brown, the TV programmes and dramas Prime Suspect, Just William, Bramwell, Skallagrigg and Different for Girls, the music to the Northern Ballet Theatre’s Peter Pan, as well as dozens of stage and radio productions for companies including the RSC, National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, Royal Court, Almeida and, perhaps most notably, for the Stephen-Daldry-directed production of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which has been performed with his music for over a decade.

How the Musicians' Union magazine, Musician, celebrated Stephen Warbeck's Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love in June 1996


Stephen’s involvement with music started at the age of four, when he learnt to play the piano – he also started the violin at six; he continued with this until his teenaged years when he decided it would be more fun to be in a rock band, so he formed one with Andrew Ranken. He didn’t study music at university – rather he read French and Drama – and it was thanks to the latter element that he came into the world of composition in a more meaningful way, writing scores for stage productions. His first job on leaving university was with a small East London theatre company, as an actor and musical director. As well as a new job, he had a new name; Equity, the actors’ union, deemed his real name to be too similar to an existing member, so ‘Stephen Warbeck’ was born. After this first foray, he worked with various theatre companies and once, when a company he was with was playing at the Lighthouse (the Poole Arts Centre as was), Stephen had to replace one of the actors at the last minute and so ended up playing on stage, rather than merely providing the music.

It was the making of a film called Happy Feet – not the blockbusting penguin animation of 2006, but a rather overlooked 1985 story of a ballet school for girls in Scunthorpe – that was his big break. As well as being his first feature film score, the choreographer on the film was the partner of a director named Christopher Menaul, who was looking for someone to write the music for (what was to be the first of five series of) Prime Suspect. Stephen recalls: ‘I ended up writing the music for Prime Suspect and that got me linked up with John Madden (who directed one of the later Prime Suspects), and that really got me involved in TV films and then, bit by bit, with feature films.’

The actual art of composition is, one gets the impression, both difficult and difficult to explain. Stephen described the process thus: ‘You spend about two weeks wondering what you’re doing, then gradually you’ll fall in love with one or more elements of the project; it could be the plot, one of the characters or a location – it can be anything. Once you’ve got that one thing, you can start to write.’

Getting out of a project seems to be as difficult a proposition as getting into it, as Stephen explains: ‘after I’ve finished the thing, there’s almost a sense of grief; I’m horrible, terrible to be around… and then another project comes along and you have to fall in love with the new one.’

In the light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that Stephen seeks other avenues to explore than just scoring films and plays. This month will see him on a barge, along with a bevy of other film composers, each of whom has been given a short phrase from Handel’s Water Music, from which they have written a short piece of music, and which will be played as the barges process along the Thames for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

And, as well as a new French film to score, a play for which to write music at the Royal Court Theatre for writer Jez Butterworth, there is the small matter of building a seven-foot plywood boat with his daughter Aggie in time for use in Swanage bay this July.

Stephen (far left with hat) with just some of the members of the hKippers

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