An Interview with Andrew Collins, Host of Film Soundtrack Show ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’
By Roger Crow
Presenter of Classic FM’s Saturday Night at the Movies, writer and all-round film buff Andrew Collins will join the Orchestra of Opera North for a blockbuster celebration of the art of the film soundtrack, From Hollywood with Love, at Huddersfield Town Hall.
I had a chat with the journalist and Film Editor of the Radio Times about great movie scores, some of Yorkshire’s finest film makers, and his thoughts on the pending Oscars and BAFTAs…
You have a dream job hosting Classic FM’s Saturday Night at the Movies. What is it that makes a great film score? Is silence often more important than telling the audience when to react?
I’ve been hosting the show for three years, playing two hours of film scores every week, and I find myself evaluating the greatness of a score on two counts: does it work with the film, and does it work when listened to in isolation, away from the pictures?
We often play classic themes – what we think of as the “big hits” from John Williams or John Barry or Elmer Bernstein – to balance the newer, less well known, or sometimes challenging music in a given show. There’s no argument to be had with, say, the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, or Lawrence of Arabia, or Gone With The Wind. These favourites transcend the notion of “background” or “incidental” music.
If we’re playing a new score, our listeners may have not yet seen the film, and thus must be able to enjoy it on its own musical terms. There are times when I haven’t seen the film and so I’ll be enjoying the music entirely on its own musical terms, too. This tests a piece of music.
As movie music is written to accompany moving pictures, very specifically in many cases, it ought not have to stand up on its own. But on a radio show, it has to. My producer and I started an imaginary file called “Great Music, Shame About The Film” and we often showcase scores from it, making a subjective and almost light-hearted case for its inclusion despite the awfulness of the film.
Take The Swarm, a thriller from the disaster movie era about killer bees. The film is one of the worst ever made, but its score, by the grandmaster Jerry Goldsmith, is inventive and clever, and worth listening to.
As for silence, one of my all-time favourites is John Barry’s score to Zulu. In full, it lasts for 20 minutes. The film lasts 139 minutes. A lot of the drama onscreen is unaccompanied. But when it comes, the music is stirring and dramatic, more so for being used sparingly.
James Mason is Huddersfield’s most famous movie son. Why was he so unique?
James Mason is one of those actors that everybody feels they can impersonate, like Cary Grant or John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Marilyn Monroe. This is because he had a unique voice, which not all screen actors do.
Not formally trained, which manifests itself in a kind of instinctive form of acting, I think, he nevertheless earned his acting spurs onstage and in British 1940s melodramas and period pieces, and turned what you might call character-actor looks into leading-man stardom.
Although not as conventionally handsome as Grant, he was debonair and believable in romantic parts. He converted his national fame into Hollywood stardom – not least in the 50s remake of A Star is Born and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – but made interesting, challenging choices while maintaining a glamorous gloss: the baddie in North By Northwest, the tortured hero of Lolita, a man addicted to prescription drugs in Bigger Than Life. My favourite of his remains Odd Man Out, in which he plays an Irish republican leader on the run.
“Take the franchise forward”
And of course, Huddersfield’s own Jodie Whittaker is no stranger to the big screen. If Doctor Who ever returns to the big screen, who should pen the score and why?
In a fair world, Murray Gold, as he’s been the house composer on Doctor Who since it was revived in 2005. I see no distinction between composers writing for television and film and I’d like to see Murray write more film music.
Doctor Who is a distinctly British show, so it would have to be local composer to fit in with its playful, eccentric, complex ethos. Perhaps Johann Johannson from Iceland, whose mix of orchestral and electronic might suit the Doctor’s world. He was Oscar-nominated for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, so he can crowd-please, but it’s his ambient, synthesised music that recommends him for the Who gig.
York’s much missed John Barry is the undoubtedly the best Bond composer, but who should score the next 007 offering? Established talent like David Arnold or should a newcomer be given a shot?
Thomas Newman has injected his own brand of easy-on-the-ear, contemporary-sounding music to the last two Bonds, both directed by Sam Mendes, who’s been using him, brilliantly, since American Beauty – they have a Steven Spielberg-John Williams style collaborative partnership. But Mendes has confirmed that he’s not directing “Bond 25” as it’s still secretively known, so the job’s up for grabs.
I remain loyal to David Arnold, who only lost the gig after a five-Bond run – having been initially recommended by Barry! – so he’s in with a good shout as far as I’m concerned and his work’s modern and funky enough to take the franchise forward again. That said, mixing it up is healthy. So what about Michael Giacchino? A master tunesmith, he’s not averse to taking on an existing blockbuster franchise. He did it with Jurassic World, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible… I’m talking myself into it now!
“Williams is a touchstone”
No film concert should be complete without John Williams, who must be the most requested composer on your Classic FM show. Why do we have this Pavlovian response to those unforgettable scores?
He’s the king of the fanfare, for a start, having grown up in the 30s and 40s, when all movies began with one, played over the studio’s ident, followed without fail by the credits over a clear theme tune. That sort of showmanship is lost with today’s movies, which – even the big ones – are more likely to begin without music, sometimes without a title, or opening credits.
But if you just trace John Williams through Star Wars, you can see, or hear, a composer who has never stopped believing in the catchy. Leitmotifs, or signature refrains for characters or places, link Williams back to the operatic tradition of Wagner, who was also a big star! It’s not glib to say that Star Wars is Wagnerian, or operatic. Its theme is one of the best known, and most hummed, in the history of cinema, and it paints pictures in your mind. You hear it and you’re transported. Williams is a crowd-pleaser.
There’s never a bad time to play him on Classic FM. Because I immerse myself in film music, I can hum quite a lot of scores that most people can’t. But Williams is a touchstone. We like to dig beneath the surface on Saturday Night at the Movies, and enjoy playing lesser-known Williams, like The Terminal, or 1941, a flop of Spielberg’s whose military march is the equal of Bridge on the River Kwai, but rarely heard as the film was written off as a failure.
Who do you want to win the BAFTA or Oscar for Best Score?
My default setting is to want Carter Burwell to win any score category in any year. If pushed, I’d say he’s my favourite living composer. As we speak, we don’t know the Oscar nominations, but imagine they’ll follow the Golden Globes and Batas, so my first instinct is to say Burwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for both ceremonies. But 2017 was a watershed year for the soundtrack because of Dunkirk by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The music was so fused to the images the two were inseparable, and though scores are rarely mentioned in mainstream film reviews, Zimmer’s pounding, propulsive music forced its way into the conversation about what is an amazing film. Burwell will be back in the running next year.
And finally, what can we look forward to on Saturday Night at the Movies in the coming weeks?
We’re theming a show around animation, always a popular choice, to tie in with Aardman’s Early Man. There will be at least two Oscar shows, for the nominations and the awards. We’re also planning one about documentaries, having really enjoyed the music for Jane – about primatologist Jane Goodall – by Philip Glass, Thomas Newman’s score for He Named Me Malala, and, a personal favourite, Kira Fontana’s gorgeous, plangent music for Kedi, which is about the feral cats of Istanbul and never forces the emotion.