Composer Patrick Doyle at Belfast Film Festival

Belfast Film Festival welcomes Kenneth Branagh's film score composer to the Waterfront Hall on March 31

Back in the old days of Hollywood, director Alfred Hitchcock frequently managed to find a cameo role for himself somewhere in his films. But how many composers can claim to have acted in movies for which they wrote the music?

Scottish composer Patrick Doyle can. In his first big hit for the silver screen, Henry V, he had a walk on part, and he also appears fleetingly in five subsequent movies, all directed by the Belfast-born, all-round thespian superstar, Kenneth Branagh.

Doyle graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and, as a result, was always aware of the co-existence, the correspondence, between the two artforms. He came from a large musical family where both parents were natural singers, although he himself initially gravitated towards the tuba.

But as a young man in Glasgow, he was an enthusiast for the type of cutting edge theatre that developed during the 1970s at the Citizens Theatre in particular. Doyle’s theatrical sensibilities were awakened by the work of Robert David MacDonald who, also a trained classical musician, combined his multi-faceted artistic expertise to become one of the larger than life figures of the theatre in late 20th century Britain.

It was via the stage that Doyle got his first big break, as musical director for the Renaissance Theatre Company, which Branagh had co-founded in 1987. His music for Twelfth Night ended the season that year and, two years later, as Branagh made the move from stage to screen, Doyle was given the task of scoring Henry V.

A huge critical success, it was clear that Doyle had found his true métier, and he still describes the experience as a career highlight. But perhaps the real highlight, the life-changing moment for Doyle, was actually meeting Branagh.

'I knew instantly – instantly – that this guy was an extraordinary person,' Doyle says of Branagh. 'He is someone who literally visualises something and then executes it exactly as he visualised it. He is incredibly well organised and a great people person who can lead gently but can be quite stern as the occasion demands it.

'Sometimes you have to pull focus for the best reasons,' he adds. 'But Ken creates as nice and as fun an atmosphere as he possibly can, against a backdrop of a lot of tension, like financial concerns and deadlines for the future of the project. He has an incredible facility for keeping a situation calm and he can be completely inspiring. He is an extremely witty guy. It’s part of the Celtic background, I think. No-one has any time for pretension. It’s a blessing of our culture.'

Certainly, Doyle is as much an advertisement for lack of pretension as Branagh. He has a huge respect for Branagh as a friend and, as he puts it, 'I’m going to give the best I can possibly give. Give my all,' with regards to future projects – no resting on laurels for this composer. No doubt that is why Branagh has used him in nearly all of his films.

However, with typical self-deprecation, Doyle humorously realises that the career of the film composer depends on the whim of the director. 'As I tell my students,' he says. 'Directors hire you because they admire you, but they can also fire you!'

It can sometimes be the case that many directors have a high opinion of their abilities, believing that they have made a great movie even without the music. Doyle, however, recognises that the making of a movie is the outcome of teamwork, and he likes to get in on the act early during the proceedings.

This is not always possible, of course, as some directors bring in the composer as the last phase in the production process. Doyle’s particularly theatrical background, however, gives him special insights into every aspect of the narrative, and he sees his job as being practical as well as diplomatic when offering opinions.

'Each film is unique. Sometimes personnel change and opinions change. The most difficult thing is very often not the music but dealing with other people’s directions and anxieties, often both artistic and financial. You are part of the profit-making potential because, after all, film-making is a commercial enterprise.'

Maybe as a result of that, Doyle feels that some of the organic side of writing music for films has diminished over the years. He looks back on the heyday of the silent movie with some nostalgia, to a time when the whole accompanying score would have been improvised by the film theatre pianist.

But, strangely enough, Doyle finds that the ever-expanding new technology now available to composers has re-introduced an element of this improvisation, this immediacy, regenerating the concept to an extent.

He cites a computer programme he uses, which allows him to watch the movie and at the same time capture his musical thoughts and ideas as he goes along. That is a very sophisticated and, no doubt, expensive programme, complementing others that synthesise orchestral sounds – any sounds – at the touch of a button. Such advances have considerably removed the unenviable chores of film composition.

'For the music of Henry V, for example, I had to map out the entire score by hand before I actually wrote a note,' Doyle explains. 'I worked out the tempi, the bars, all the hit points. That took two or three hours a day on its own.

'Computers do all that now, so your work is halved in one sense and doubled in another, because now you have to present fully blown up, detailed facsimiles of all the orchestral cues. But it cuts out all the anxieties and neuroses around what it will sound like at the recording session.'

So the technology can, in Doyle’s opinion, support and stimulate the visceral, immediate response of the composer and he, for one, has no intention of going back to the 'old days', as he terms it.

Doyle is a man of considerable personal charm and warmth who knows how to engage with an audience as much with his repartee as with his music. Fans will be able to hear both at the Belfast Film Festival, when the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic perform his music at the Waterfront Hall on March 31, under the baton of James Shearman.

Tim Burden will interview Doyle at 6.45pm in the Waterfront before the concert and on April 1, the composer will lead a workshop entitled 'Concept to Screen' at Queen’s Film Theatre from 12pm to 3pm. For those interested in the mechanics of film score composition, these are two events not to be missed.

The Belfast Film Festival takes place in venues across the city from March 27 to April 5.

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