Isobel Waller-Bridge on the 'dream' of composing for Vanity Fair – and its 'weird similarities' to sister Phoebe's Fleabag
Vanity Fair’s composer Isobel Waller-Bridge discusses Olivia Cooke's Becky Sharp, battle sequences – and why she can’t wait to work on Fleabag series two with her sibling
For television composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, personality is everything when it comes to writing music.
Her favourite part is matching “the personality of the music” with “the personality of the character” onscreen.
“You just live with a character a bit… you have to weirdly get to know them and get under their skin,” she says. “[You have to be] looking ahead as to what their journey is.”
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It seems fortuitous then that Waller-Bridge has been given the opportunity to compose for one of the biggest personalities in the English literary canon: Becky Sharp, the spiky, mercurial protagonist of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, portrayed by Olivia Cooke in ITV’s upcoming adaptation.
“[Vanity Fair] was such an enjoyable thing to do,” Waller-Bridge tells RadioTimes.com. “Every bit of it was such a dream.”
The big-budget period drama is yet another coup for the 34-year-old composer, an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Music, whose CV credits include BBC1’s divorce drama The Split, the upcoming TV adaptation of The ABC Murders, starring John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot – and Fleabag, written by and starring her younger sister, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Given her sibling's tendency towards breaking with convention, it comes as no surprise that Waller-Bridge believes that her musical personality – there’s that word again – is quite distinctive. On being approached for The ABC Murders, she says: “I suppose they asked me to do it because… it would be instinctively quite different to anything that’s come before.”
When she begins putting music to pictures, she waits for the moment when she can begin “threading [her] musical personality through, seeing what works.”
For Vanity Fair, the challenge presented was greater than most, after Waller-Bridge was brought on at the last minute.
“They were still looking for the right tone, and hadn’t found it musically,” she explains. “They’d been searching for a while [for a composer].”
While in most cases, a TV composer usually has roughly a fortnight per episode, “the turnarounds for Vanity Fair were crazy fast,” Waller-Bridge says. “Sometimes I had a week to write an episode, which was quite ferocious.”
When deciding on the musical tone for the show, Waller-Bridge took her cue from Vanity Fair writer Gwyneth Hughes.
“Gwyn has done such an amazing job of keeping it absolutely period, but the way [the characters] speak is somehow much more relatable and accessible to modern audiences,” Waller Bridge says.
Modern tracks, like Madonna’s Material Girl and an acoustic version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, bookend the episodes, but when it came to the score, Waller-Bridge was clear that she wanted something distinctively period (albeit with a twist).
“Really” classical music “didn’t feel quite right”, says Waller-Bridge, but she felt “strongly that [the score] should still be using classical instruments” to avoid the distracting scenario of “looking at something that’s period and then hearing something that’s not”.
She looked to chamber music instead of employing a full orchestra, relying heavily on a string section and piano. The music for the battle sequence was the “biggest” the score got: “That was really exciting… I was like, 'wicked, I get to do a big battle sequence', which is the dream!”
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But it was composing for Vanity Fair’s iconic characters – Becky Sharp, trusting Amelia Sedley (played by Claudia Jessie), and long-suffering Captain William Dobbin (folk singer Johnny Flynn) – that excited Waller-Bridge most.
Becky’s more mischievous side is beautifully enhanced by the soundtrack – a short, tinkly motif plays when she indulges in a white lie during the first episode, for example.
Waller-Bridge loved capturing “the wheels turning [in] Becky[’s head], and her mischief,” in addition to composing for “someone like Dobbin, who’s deep as a well!”
“If a character goes from light to dark, it can be something as simple as playing their theme in a major key and then it goes to a minor key,” she says.
“Becky is really great to compose for – she’s so uncompromising,” Waller-Bridge adds. “I found myself… really rooting for her, when she’s at Miss Pinkerton’s, talking back. I thought, this is great!”
Asked about any similarities between composing for Becky Sharp and her own sister’s character, Fleabag, Waller-Bridge identifies “a pain” both characters experience.
“Becky just wants to get to the top of the tree… [while] I think Fleabag’s struggle is more day-to-day. But definitely I think there’s a pain in both characters,” she says.
“Becky feels like she’s given herself no choice but to pursue her ambitions, which does make her sympathetic.
“[But] I do actually think Fleabag is a bit more likeable than Becky. We feel for Fleabag a bit more than we do at the end of Vanity Fair.”
Universal themes “like love, grief and honour” meant that Waller-Bridge often forgot she was composing for a Victorian-era drama.
“Because the story of Vanity Fair is quite modern, I didn’t ever feel like I was writing period drama music. [Fleabag and Vanity Fair] weirdly felt quite similar.”
She adds that the emotions experienced in the early 19th century were “weirdly the same” as those felt today: “Fleabag is dealing with grief, as a really big theme in that show… And those themes come up in Vanity Fair.”
When it came to Fleabag’s musical motif, the sisters “definitely felt like it shouldn’t be in any way apologetic”: “We were like, she’s got to be badass.”
“Even though she does cruel things and she’s mean, we’ve got to like her,” Waller-Bridge says. “Then we were like, what about some heavy metal?”
Waller-Bridge found working on the show with Phoebe “the dreamiest collaboration”.
“I honestly can’t tell you how much fun it is to work with your best mate,” she says. "We’re thick as thieves. I love her more than the world and we have such a similar sense of humour."
She describes the unique "shorthand" they share when it came to communicating ideas for Fleabag: "She’d say, ‘I’d need it to be a bit, like this’, but she’d scrunch up her face or something."
Phoebe has previously referred to Fleabag as a “love letter” to Isobel, having been partly inspired by their relationship while writing the scenes between Fleabag and her sister.
Waller-Bridge says she “just wanted to burst into tears” when she read that. “It was deeply touching, because I think that [sister] relationship in Fleabag is really profound.”
During last year's Bafta TV ceremony, Phoebe also famously quoted her mum's advice: “Darling, you can be whatever you want to be as long as you’re outrageous.”
"She’s naughty, is mum," says the older Waller-Bridge. "That applies to the whole family really. [Mum's] a very provocative person herself, and loves practical jokes."
The family used to have an open-door policy for "huge" Sunday lunches, where Isobel and her siblings' friends would turn up. "These crazy things would happen, you’d just know that [it was] because Mum’s in the room."
Waller-Bridge often sees her own relationship with Phoebe played back to her during Fleabag – and admits that her writer sister borrows from their shared family anecdotes.
“There’s a tomato sandwich joke [in Fleabag],” she explains, “which also comes up in Killing Eve [Phoebe’s BBC America drama starring Sandra Oh as an Mi5 agent].”
The family joke spawns from an occasion when Waller-Bridge came home and announced that she was going to make a tomato sandwich.
“They were like, ‘Oh that’s so gross, tomato sandwich – the whole thing escalated so much! – I was in floods of tears, [saying], ‘The tomato sandwich is an underrated thing!’
“So now the tomato sandwich crops up in various shows.”
Waller-Bridge will be working on the soundtrack to the second Fleabag series, which will see Sherlock’s Andrew Scott join the cast.
Although sworn to secrecy, Waller-Bridge reveals that the night prior to our interview, Phoebe requested music for something “so brilliant and unexpected that I didn’t even see it coming”.
She has also just started scoring The ABC Murders – the BBC's latest Agatha Christie adaptation, expected to air at Christmas and starring Rupert Grint and Malkovich, who she describes as “unbelievable”.
“He’s got this very mysterious quality to him anyway, and that feels to me that casting him as Poirot is an absolute work of genius. He’s so expressive physically, and his face – he doesn’t need to do much to send a real shiver down your spine.”
Given Waller-Bridge’s almost Poirot-like enthusiasm for discovering a character’s quirks and motivations, it could be that hiring her as composer is another stroke of genius.
Vanity Fair will begin airing on ITV on Sunday 2 September at 9pm with episode two on at 9pm on Monday 3 September. It is will continue broadcasting the rest of its series (episodes three to seven) on Sunday evenings
This article was originally published on 2 September 2018