SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS – Ilan Eshkeri
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Swallows and Amazons is one of the most beloved of all English children’s adventure stories. Written by Arthur Ransome and published in 1930, it chronicles a summer in the lives of the Walker family, who are holidaying on Lake Windermere. One day, while sailing a boat named Swallow on the lake, the Walker children meet and befriend the Blackett sisters, who have a boat of their own called Amazon, and are staying with their uncle, a crotchety author named Turner. As the summer unfolds the children concoct a series of wonderful imaginary adventures, involving great sea battles, pirates, and more. The whole story is a love letter to an idealized England of a time gone by: the innocent adventures of the children, the wholesomeness of their relationships with each other and the adults, and the beauty of the English countryside, where carefree sun-dappled days melt into vivid sunsets and sparkling twilights. The book has been filmed several times; first as a popular 1963 BBC TV mini-series starring Susan George, and then as a 1974 feature film starring Virginia McKenna, Ronald Fraser, and Suzanna Hamilton. This latest cinematic retelling is directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, and stars Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald, Jessica Hynes, and Harry Enfield.
The score for Swallows and Amazons is by Ilan Eshkeri, a former protégé of Michael Kamen, who impressed many with his score for Stardust in 2007, and who has written several outstanding scores in the decade since then, including The Young Victoria, The Snowman and the Snowdog, Justin and the Knights of Valour, and last year’s Shaun the Sheep movie. The score has that indefinable, but immediately identifiable sense of ‘Englishness’ to it, a classical sound that feels like a Turner or Constable painting given voice through music, like Elgar or Vaughan-Williams or Holst filtered through the modern cinematic sensibility of a George Fenton or a Patrick Doyle (who I know is Scottish, but you get my point). I don’t know quite how to describe it, in musical terms – it could be something in the key, the chord progressions, the harmonies, the voice leading of certain instruments – but, more than anything, it’s something I feel, a personal connection that comes from deep within my DNA.
Eshkeri weaves a tapestry of three major themes to create his score. On his work for Swallows and Amazons Eshkeri commented: “The book’s great sense of adventure and imagination recalled the games I played in my garden with my brother as a child. Writing the music for this film was like scoring my own childhood adventures,” and you can really hear that in his work.
There are two themes for the two groups of children. The Swallow theme is bright and bold, while the Amazon theme is initially ‘different’ and a little scary, but eventually becomes fun and playful, with a prominent pizzicato string motif. In the opening cue, “Swallows and Amazons,” the Swallow theme takes center stage, a stunning blend of gentle harps, dainty strings, and elegant woodwinds, full of life and good-humor and a sense of boundless adventure, which slowly swells to a glorious fully-orchestral statement. The Swallow theme returns in several subsequent cues, including the lovely “Darien Peak,” a cheerful, open piece which conjures up imagery of laughing children running through fields and splashing through streams, with the wide vistas of the dramatic Lake District countryside as a majestic backdrop.
The Amazon theme, on the other hand, doesn’t make its presence felt until the cue that bears its name, which opens with some dark and sinister textures, daring pizzicato runs, and a 5-note woodwind motif that sounds a little wild and ragged, like a feral scavenger on the loose. Bizarrely, the woodwind motif reminds me a great deal of a specific section of Skeletor’s theme from Bill Conti’s 1987 score for Masters of the Universe, but this is clearly a completely unintentional coincidence. The Amazon theme continues to emerge as the score progresses, through cues such as “Manoeuvres in the Dark” and “Wild Cat Island”. In the former the Amazon theme jumps around within a series of verdant string textures, and dances through a caper-like sneaking-around sequence, while in the latter a lighter version of the theme for woodwinds and undulating strings gradually emerges into a lovely new theme for the island where many of their adventures take place.
The third theme is the Sailing theme, the melodic and structural base of which comes from various British sea shanties from the 19th century that Eshkeri researched for this purpose. Sailing is the cornerstone of the adventures within Swallows and Amazons – the entire work is named after two boats, after all – so of course it makes sense for there to be a positive nautical aspect to the score. The theme is first introduced in the romantic, sweeping “All Aboard,” and continues through “Walker Island,” a warmly nostalgic piece for oboes and flutes offset by a calm, sweet variation on the Swallow theme, and “The Next Morning,” which showcases a prancing, playful duet for pizzicato strings and woodwinds. Later, both “Man Overboard” and “Saving Jim” offer slightly more urgent variations on the Sailing theme, with tremolo strings and brass pulses that turn them into brisk action sequences.
There are in fact several wonderful action sequences – some serious, some more child-like and playful – which really showcase Eshkeri’s talent for writing powerful and memorable orchestral action with a great deal of panache. “Escape from the Train” is dark and energetic, filled with propulsive string rhythms overlaid with swooping, trilling woodwinds. Later, the second half of “All Aboard” generates a head of steam, while “Race to Rio” is a wonderful collision of the Amazon motif, a deconstructed version of the Swallows motif, and the Sailing theme, all together, in a full and lush cue which gives depth to the scope of the life-or-death passions children show when competing with each other for fun.
The score’s big finale is “The Flying Boat,” an enormous set piece for the full orchestra, filled with majestic action that is at once energetic, lively, and playful, but also has a serious underbelly that addresses the sinister secret agent whose presence lurks around the periphery of the entire story. It all builds to a wonderfully vibrant finale, highlighting a gorgeous, heartfelt statement of the Sailing theme, before concluding with “Jim the Pirate,” which presents a lively statement of Amazon theme, and a buoyant, optimistic final version of the Swallow theme to close the score.
There is so much joy and life in Swallows and Amazons, I feel like I’m in danger of writing a review that is less a critical analysis than an obsequious gush, but I can’t help myself. I absolutely adore scores like this, where the orchestra shines, where the themes are strong, and where there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in its portrayal of wholesome childhood adventures. If you enjoyed Eshkeri’s vibrant and magical action writing on Stardust, or the inherent classical Englishness of something like The Young Victoria or even Austenland, then Swallows and Amazons will be just the score for you, as it combines the two styles into a warm, appealing, effortlessly enjoyable whole.
Buy the Swallows and Amazons soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Swallows and Amazons (3:55)
- Escape from the Train (2:06)
- Darien Peak (2:52)
- Swimming Lesson (3:06)
- All Aboard (3:19)
- Walker Island (4:03)
- The Next Morning (1:52)
- The Charcoal Burners (2:01)
- Amazons (1:49)
- Race to Rio (2:29)
- Manoeuvres in the Dark (2:39)
- Man Overboard (1:35)
- Wild Cat Island (1:21)
- Saving Jim (2:02)
- The Flying Boat (6:11)
- Jim the Pirate (2:25)
Running Time: 43 minutes 52 seconds
Globe Soundtrack and Score (2016)
Music composed by Ilan Eshkeri. Conducted by Andy Brown. Performed by The London Metropolitan Orchestra. Orchestrations by Julian Kershaw and Jessica Dannheisser. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by John Warhurst and Kirsty Whalley. Album produced by Ilan Eshkeri.