Murray Gold has come a long way from piano lessons in Portchester. The composer, who has written the music for every series of Doctor Who since its reincarnation in 2005, speaks to James Butler about his career.
Turn on your television on a Saturday night and there’s a good chance you will hear the recognisable melody that tells you the Tardis is on its way and Daleks are around the corner.
While Murray Gold can’t take credit for the iconic Doctor Who theme tune , composed by Ron Grainer and realised electronically by Delia Derbyshire for the original 1963 series, the next 45 minutes of music is his handiwork.
Since the show was resurrected by Russell T Davies in 2005, Murray – his long-term collaborator – has composed for the soundtrack of every series.
He says: ‘I was nervous taking on the job – not because of fans, but because Delia Derbyshire is such a gigantic figure in contemporary music. Her output wasn’t huge but her influence was. She was so uncompromising – she did the theme tune for popular television so she wasn’t totally hardcore – but it is a difficult show to tackle because of her legacy.’
Tonight, his music will teleport from the living rooms of households around Britain to the Wembley Arena, where it will be performed by a 100-strong group of singers and musicians. The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular features the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, members of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, and a host of the Doctor’s famous adversaries.
‘It’s going to be a powerful sound,’ says Murray. ‘Ben Foster, who has been our conductor on the show since 2005, is quite magnetic to watch.
‘Sometimes I play piano a bit at these concerts, but Catherine our pianist is a much better piano player than me.’
Murray, 46, now splits his time between New York and London, but he was born in Portsmouth and is still a fan of Portsmouth Football Club. It was in Portchester at the age of four that he started to play piano – the first notes in his symphonic career.
‘Until I was 12 I had my piano teacher in Portchester, Mrs Ayling,’ he says. ‘She taught my grandmother as well as me and she refused to budge on her prices. As in, she refused to put them up! She charged me 25p a lesson, and it was money well spent because I have never had any other music lessons. She used to rap my knuckles with a ruler when I didn’t play right.’
It was with Mrs Ayling that Murray was introduced to classical music, but he wanted a taste of something more rhythmic.
‘Every now and again I would come in with some rock and roll music and ask her if I could play it. If it was Christmas she’d let me play something that wasn’t Bach or Mozart. She would sit back and generally just shake her head at the loose timing and loose interpretation of what I was playing. So I think if she heard my music for Doctor Who, she would probably think to herself “It’s quite nice Murray, there’s some nice melodies in there, but it’s awfully loud!”’
Murray has always been a Doctor Who fan. He remembers that when he was at Portchester Northern Infant and Junior schools he would talk about the show with a boy called Gavin Fuller. Gavin won Mastermind in 1993 with the show as his specialist subject.
After graduating from the University of Cambridge, where he was the music director of the Footlights, Murray got his big break when he composed the soundtracks to BBC1’s period drama Vanity Fair and Queer As Folk, written by Davies.
‘I did this outragoues score for Vanity Fair – I was a bit of a punk and I approached it fearlessly because I just wanted to do something dramatic that made an impact,’ says Murray. ‘I wouldn’t be that fearless now, I tell you that.’
For these projects, Murray was nominated for two Baftas, and he says he has been working ever since.
During his tenure as composer on Doctor Who, Murray has seen doctors and their companions come and go. ‘It freshens up work every time. The costume designers are busy getting excited about new costume, the set people get to tackle new Tardis consoles, and I get to compose a whole new load of music right from the very beginning.’
Murray insists that the process of writing is ‘90% instinct, 10% technique’.
He says: ‘I’m not the best analyst about what i do because a lot of music and artistic stuff is very subconscious. I sometimes wake up and run upstairs to try something out on the piano that has popped into my head.
‘When I was composing music for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, I only had two episodes to go on which were Deep Breath and Into The Dalek. I had to look at him and his performance to get his sound. It is interesting because the director is concerned with getting the music for those episodes right, whereas I’m thinking I need to get the music for the Doctor right for all 12 episodes.’
There have been times where Murray has disagreed with the final dub.
‘You are always playing back the film as you write the music, and to be honest sometimes you can be a bit disheartened about how it has been used.
‘Sometimes it feels like the person dubbing the episode hasn’t really appreciated what the music is doing. Every now and again I’ll have written this big climax and when you watch it on TV, the sound of the door opening has been put in louder.
‘But then something like the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular comes along and all of my favourite music gets its chance to be heard with no sound effects in it whatsoever.’
Murray has also stepped in front of the camera on Doctor Who, appearing as an extra in the 2007 Christmas special The Voyage of the Damned, starring Kylie Minogue.
‘I was on stage playing guitar as The Titanic went down,’ he says.
‘I remember having my make-up done, and as I was having powder stuck on my nose the make-up lady said “have you met Kylie?” And there she was, having her make-up put on.
I said “no, no, I haven’t. Hi Kylie, I’m the musican on the show.” She said “hi Murray, I really like your music.” I think I decided to shut up at that point!’
A wild night at the proms
As well as his work on Doctor Who, another of Murray’s soundtracks will be given the orchestral treatment.
As part of the BBC Proms, his composition for Life Story with David Attenborough will be performed at the Royal Albert Hall on August 30, with Sir David himself presenting.
Murray says: ‘I did Life Story for the BBC last autumn and someone decided it would be a good idea to perform it on stage. The director for the 2015 Proms agreed and here we are.’
Alongside Doctor Who, David Attenborough’s documentaries are a childhood favourite of Murray’s.
‘I absolutely love David Attenborough. My Life on Earth and Doctor Who books are still on my bookshelf from the Seventies.’
Due to the nature of his work, Murray didn’t get to meet David Attenborough when the series was being produced, but he has had feedback from him.
‘I haven’t met him but the exectuve producer of BBC Earth rang me up one day and said “You’re all right, you’re safe Murray.”
‘I asked him what he meant, and he said “David Attenborough likes your music. He heard some today for the first time and he said he liked it.”
‘He is a big music fan and is very educated on the subject, so that is high praise.’