By: Timmy Fisher
TV music is a little like a secret character – a patchwork of familiar themes and textures, weaving in and out of the drama unseen. At least, that’s how Carly Paradis describes it. For the Canadian composer, the best TV music is inseparable from the show: "I find a strong, memorable theme so incredible," she tells me over Zoom. "That it can connect emotionally with people. That, when they hear the tune, they instantly know what it’s from: I love that."
Paradis knows a thing or two about memorable themes. She’s the composer for BBC One’s hit police drama Line of Duty, which returns for a sixth season on Sunday 21st March. When the Line of Duty trailer was released, much of the subsequent excitement centred around her music: that unmistakable melody, circling round and round, whipping up tension like a Kansas twister. ("When those piano keys hit you know s**t’s about to go down," wrote one Twitter user.)
The story behind the theme is a little more prosaic: "When I’m scoring, especially with themes, I’ll be thinking of lyrics in my head," Paradis laughs. "So, for the end credits – this is so weird! – I was thinking of the words 'line of duty, line of duty'." I grin back, reminded of James Bernard’s bombastic main theme to the 1958 horror Dracula, for which he did the exact same thing.
There’s more to her process than that, however. "I’ll dig really deep into the script," she explains, "sit with it, try to get into the characters’ heads, then go to the piano and start what I call 'trawling', like when you throw a fishing net out the back of a boat and just let it go… Once I find something that I emotionally hit with, I’ll take it to my studio setup and start messing around with instrumentation."
And are there any specific touchstones for her Line of Duty music? "I wanted to touch a little bit on the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s, so that it sounds contemporary but still harks back to cop series from the past." She cites Emeli Sandé’s 2012 track ‘Heaven’ as an influence, with its faintly nostalgic, "is it '80s? is it '90s?" feel, but also the dark, authoritative brass heard in Bond films and House of Cards.
It’s hard not to hear a sci-fi element too, which figures. Growing up in a suburb of Hamilton, Ontario, during the 1980s, Paradis was raised on a diet of epic sci-fi scores: Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future, Danny Elfman’s Batman and The X-Files. "I was a huge X-Files fan," she explains. "I watched it every week, and the music – Mark Snow’s opening theme – was a big influence."
She began writing small pieces on the piano aged nine – "expressing things that I didn’t know how to express with words" – but it wasn’t until starting university that she began to consider a career in film and TV. "I was already writing instrumental music, so pairing that to picture was just an organic progression," she says.
After a period playing in local bands, working as a supply teacher to pay for recording gear, she got her break when the British film composer Clint Mansell unexpectedly responded to a message she’d sent him on Myspace. The pair met for coffee, began swapping music, and in 2009 he asked her to play piano on his score to Duncan Jones’s masterful space drama Moon. Following a move to London the next year, Paradis began picking up more film and TV work – the BBC’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Sky’s Sick Note and Netflix’s The Innocents – all the while performing in Mansell’s concert tours.
Mansell also helped get her the Line of Duty gig. He’d worked with the show’s Executive Producer, Simon Heath, on the 2011 football drama United. When Heath mentioned he was looking for a composer, Mansell put Paradis’s "name in the hat", opening the door for an interview and the chance to demo some scenes. Heath and the show’s creator, Jed Mercurio, were impressed with her fresh approach, and so here she is, a decade later, still loving every minute.
"It’s so weird how you get jobs," Paradis muses. "Somebody passes your name on, or somebody’s heard your music. It’s that bit of luck, timing and being prepared." It must be tough when things don’t go so smoothly, I venture. "It’s a full commitment, man!" she responds. "If this is something you love you just have to persevere. It’s a lifestyle!"
That word, lifestyle, comes up several times in our conversation. A composer’s working life is, by necessity, solitary, and Paradis has grown used to spending long hours by herself in front of a keyboard. "In order to create something that has a sound you kind of have to be on your own," she explains. "The more time you spend, the more chance you’ll have of finding that little nugget. It’s all about exploring and sketching and seeing what the picture accepts and what it refuses." I point out that, throughout the UK’s lockdowns, she must have felt more prepared than most for the long bouts of isolation. "I kind of have a superpower," she laughs in reply. "Sad times!"
One thing she has missed is meet-ups with the ‘Film and TV Music Girls’, a cadre of friends and collaborators Paradis formed on moving to London. "I was really keen to connect with other female creatives," she tells me when I ask about the group, "so I started asking around, doing little brunches, see if there’s a collaboration, grow a community." Among these "dear friends" is composer and organist Claire M Singer, DJ Kate Simko and Derek composer Anne Chmelewsky, all of whom Paradis has now worked with.
But is the group representative of the wider industry? "Women have been creating music forever, and visibility is getting better, but there’s a lot of work to go," Paradis says. She’s right. A 2019 report by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that of the top 250 films at the domestic box office in 2018, just 6% were scored by women. There isn’t a single female nominee for Best Original Score at this year’s Oscars.
So, what’s being done to fix the problem? Paradis cites the work of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, founded in 2014, which offers events, networking and advocacy for women in the industry. She also says that, at least here in the UK, TV is doing better than film. And by working on a cult show like Line of Duty, Paradis is giving women much-needed visibility: "I hope that an uber-talented 16-year-old might look up, see myself and all the other amazing women, and see that it’s a career for them too." But, inevitably, the lion’s share of responsibility lies with producers of big-budget pictures, who must look beyond their comfort zones and affect change from the inside.
Before signing off, I tell Paradis to enjoy what’s left of the early-spring sunshine. But she’s heading straight back to her studio. What could be so important to have her labouring on a Sunday? "Line of Duty Six!" she replies with a grin (I had assumed it was all done and dusted). Better not keep her. The show won’t be the same without its secret character.
Line of Duty airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One from 21st March. If you caught the first instalment, you can read our Line of Duty episode 1 recap here. Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out what else is on with our TV guide.