Fans of Neil Brand will know the magic he brings to TV documentaries: sitting at the piano and deconstructing songs and themes. It’s like lifting a curtain on something you thought you knew well, only to discover a whole new world of meaning.
We could all do with a sprinkle of magic right now and Brand, the music teacher you wish you’d had at school, is the man to provide it.
Having explored cultural touchstones from Vertigo to Vangelis (in his 2013 series, Sound of Cinema) and from Showboat to Hamilton (Sound of Musicals, 2017), Brand now turns his attention to television in his fifth series for BBC Four.
“We spent eight months structuring this one,” explains Brand, 62. “Rather than going historical, which is what we’ve done in the past, we decided to split TV up into three separate areas in which music is used in specific ways, the first being themes.
“Then everything that goes on between the programmes: idents, adverts, library music, the branding of channels themselves.
“And the third episode is about underscoring, and we look at where music has been used in TV situations where you might not expect them, things like wildlife programmes, and the ethical debate as to how far you should allow nature to take its course without the need to turn it into a piece of drama.”
Fans of Doctor Who will love the first instalment of The Sound of TV exploring themes. Part of the programme analyses the Who tune written by the prolific Ron Grainer and “visualised” by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, with the help of Dick Mills, who talks to Brand. And it briefly shows how the theme has evolved over the years.
But what are Brand’s personal highlights? “As always, I’ve been a kid in a sweet shop. I’ve met so many people who’ve meant so much to me… chatting with Matt Groening about The Simpsons and its development of music… being able to drive a police car around Everton talking about Z Cars… sitting down with David Chase, the showrunner on The Sopranos, and getting him talking about a world in which popular music is driving people’s everyday lives.”
Brand also talks to the Grammy-nominated Ramin Djawadi about the challenge of creating a TV theme – for the epic Game of Thrones – that lasts nearly two minutes: “It was a good thing,” Djawadi smiles, “because you get a chance to develop and tell a story. The key word that was said was it needs to be like a ‘journey’.”
The “Proustian rush” of a familiar theme tune is conjured in an instant, from the melancholy brass of Eric Spear’s Coronation Street to the dramatic shifting moods of Ron Grainer’s The Prisoner – Brand plays the latter on a red upright in Portmeirion in north Wales, where The Prisoner was originally filmed.
“So much TV music is a trigger. It’s like re-reading a book you loved, actually hearing a theme. When I heard that rather groovy version of the Dixon of Dock Green theme in the early 1970s to close the credits – to me that meant bath time! These things influence us at a low level for years and years.”
And it was another popular ’70s theme that persuaded Brand – as a young pianist – of the power of performance. “Quite early on I was hearing stuff on the telly and wanting to sit down and work out how to play it. One of the things that obsessed me was the opening chords of John Barry’s The Persuaders! I’ll never forget the day I went into our school assembly hall and started playing the chords on the grand piano. Literally, heads started appearing round the door. And that was when I kind of went, ‘Ah! OK!’ ”
But then music has always mattered to Brand, like “a worm gnawing away at me”. Though he initially gave up formal piano lessons and studied drama at university, “I felt that music had been deep in me for a long time, and I set out to do work that demystified music as a storyteller.”
The opening episode of The Sound of TV latches on to this beautifully, with folk musician Sandra Kerr revealing how she suggested the idea of Bagpuss waking from his slumber by playing a glissando on the autoharp.
But ask him for his favourite themes and Brand finds it hard… “My first favourite was definitely Barry Gray’s Thunderbirds theme, later Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible, John Barry’s The Persuaders!, Laurie Johnson’s Avengers and Professionals themes, Geoffrey Burgon’s Brideshead Revisited, Patrick Gowers’s Sherlock Holmes, David Arnold’s Good Omens… the list really is endless.”
Brand’s improvisational gifts (“When I was very young, I picked out tunes at the piano, and my parents would say, ‘Play a windmill… play a snowy day!'”) led to continual work from the 1980s onwards.
“Everything that has come my way has come from being a silent film accompanist at the National Film Theatre… Every time I sit down in front of a film, I’m hoping it’s going to take me to places I haven’t been before, even if it’s a film I’ve played 50 or 60 times. And it usually does.”
It’s a skill that has also taken him around the world, and led to scriptwriting work – he wrote a Radio 4 play called Stan, starring Tom Courtenay. It chronicles Stan Laurel’s last moments with his stroke-afflicted comedy partner Oliver “Babe” Hardy, and carries particular resonance for Brand: “My dad died while I was playing a silent movie festival in Australia and I never got a chance to get proper closure.”
The play later became a BBC Four film with Jim Norton in the title role. Adds Brand, “The line from Stan’s wife, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are to get this time with Babe’ – that was from the heart.”
Then came composing work and even appearing on film – he’s seen playing the piano at a newsreel screening in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, directed by Ken Loach. “If you were to ever dream about having a day working with Ken Loach in which he was phenomenally nice to you and he gave you loads of space, it was that.
“He was astonishingly clever about dealing with people and was a wonderful director. He gave me the impression that I was the most important person in the room, which absolutely would not have been the case… then he put me in a car with Cillian Murphy. I could not have had a better time.”
Brand believes that the quality of music that we consume in film and on television is climbing all the time, and that viewers bring their own experience and knowledge of music to bear on what they see. “Music’s always going to tell you what to think up to a point, but it can do it far more discreetly. This is one area where audiences are very canny now – they still get the complexity and the discreetness of a well-written score, which means that a score does not have to be standing up and shouting from the rooftops!”
But these are serious times for showbusiness. Although London-based Brand has had time to compose without restrictions in lockdown, he adds, “The bulk of my work is live, and that has disappeared entirely. It’s very worrying.
“The jury is out as to how far the theatre, cinema and music worlds I love will survive these dreadful times, and in what form, but I fear that the arts and culture as we know them will be changed irrevocably. The only way to keep them is for the public to support local venues and groups, and make your voice heard to maintain a vibrant culture, or it will be lost.”
As for music in schools, Brand says, “It’s not taken seriously enough by the Government, certainly, but by the powers that be in terms of its job as a subject.
“Music for me was always therapy. I sat and played stuff out of the piano because it was therapeutic. And that therapy was hugely responsible for any kind of confidence I got in my teens.
“Now not only is music undervalued, underused, being cut back, it has been consigned to a kind of specialist world within which musicians are born, they’re not made… and this is what I was fighting back against 30 or 40 years ago.
“I think that music is such a central part of everybody’s everyday lives that the teaching of it should be properly funded and assigned within a school curriculum, and its value for the wellbeing of kids should be markedly more recognised.
“Whatever you’re dealing with, you will tend to turn to music as a little bit of a help or as a background or a security… Music in all its forms is a salve for everybody.”
The Sound of TV with Neil Brand starts on Friday 4 December at 9pm on BBC Four – check out what else is on with our TV Guide