Home > Reviews > DEBBIE WISEMAN: LIVE AT THE BARBICAN – Debbie Wiseman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Despite me having been one of her strongest and most vocal supporters for the past 20 years, the music of Debbie Wiseman is still grossly underappreciated. For those who don’t know her, Wiseman was born in London in May 1963. She studied at the Trinity College of Music, and took lessons in piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying with the noted Hammer horror composer Buxton Orr. She began her career writing for British television, including popular shows such as The Upper Hand, and made her first foray into film in 1994, with her score for the Oscar-nominated drama Tom & Viv. Since then, Wiseman’s career has encompassed such successful and acclaimed films as Haunted, Wilde, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Arsène Lupin, and Lesbian Vampire Killers. She also remains prolific on television, having written music for numerous popular and critically lauded series and TV movies, notably the acclaimed dramas The Death of Yugoslavia and Warriors (both of which were nominated for Royal Television Society Awards for their music), Othello, Judge John Deed, Jekyll, Land Girls, Father Brown, and Wolf Hall.

Away from the world of film, Wiseman’s album of music to accompany the fairy stories of Oscar Wilde, Wilde Stories, was nominated for a Grammy Award and was then made into a trilogy of animated films for Channel 4. In 2008 she composed a new “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” piece called Different Voices, with narration by Stephen Fry and solo vocals performed by Hayley Westenra, which was premiered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their 60th birthday celebrations. In 2012 she composed “Jubilee Gigue,” which was commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II. In addition to her work as a composer, Wiseman is a visiting professor at the Royal College of Music, and regularly gives lectures to schools and universities about the art of composing for picture. She is also a familiar face on British television and a regular voice on radio; in 2011 she presented a Radio 4 programme on the composer Joseph Horowitz, and appeared on the long-running music-themes interview show Desert Island Discs. In 2012 she presented the Channel 4 TV series Backtracks, examining the role of music in film and television productions, while in 2013 she presented Scoring Father Brown for Radio 4, which followed her composition process through the various stages as she scored the music for the BBC drama series.

The reason I’m going into so much detail about her history is to demonstrate what a multi-faceted and versatile composer she is. Equally comfortable with small ensembles or huge orchestras, intimate dramas, comedies, historical action adventures, or wildly inappropriate sexy horror films, Wiseman is a composer who can turn her hand to any genre she sees fit with equal success across the board. This fact is emphasized further by this new compilation album, Debbie Wiseman: Live at the Barbican, which was recorded live in concert with members of the Orchestra of the Guildhall School, conducted by Wiseman herself. Before I talk about the music itself, I should point out that the album is not perfect; as it was recorded live, there are occasional flubs from the orchestra, with the brass section being notably under-powered in places. Each piece also concludes with a few moments of applause from the audience which gathered at the Barbican in London to watch Wiseman perform. However, these issues are trifles in the bigger scheme of things, because the music itself is sensational.

The album opens with two pieces from her 1997 masterpiece Wilde, director Brian Gilbert’s film starring Stephen Fry about the life of playwright Oscar Wilde. The first, “Wilde West,” is a jaunty piece of Americana cowboy pastiche which accompanies the film’s misleading prologue sequence of the foppish Irishman regaling grizzled cowboys with stories from the old country. The subsequent “Suite from Wilde” remains one of her most astonishingly brilliant works, and one of all-time favorite pieces, a tapestry of lush, sumptuous thematic writing that simultaneously celebrates Wilde’s wit and joie de vivre, but also the deep sadness he felt at never being able to truly express his love. The oboe writing, and the surging string crescendos, are especially superb.

The “Suite from Tom’s Midnight Garden” is from a 1999 British fantasy film, a light and whimsical piece for the orchestra that has that indefinable English quality to it, but also a sense of playful inquisitiveness. The film is about a young boy in 1950s England who, after he discovers a magical grandfather clock that strikes 13, is transported back in time to the 1880s; elegant woodwind writing, magical chimes, and rich strings allow the fantastical elements of the story to breathe beautifully. Following on from it, the “Suite from Wolf Hall” features the popular, rhythmic theme from the 2015 BBC mini-series about the court of King Henry VIII, and sees Wiseman’s minimalist string quartet arrangements fleshed out for a fuller orchestra, although the central melodic core for strings, cello, and cor anglais remains at the forefront.

The “Suite from The Truth About Love” comes from one of Wiseman’s rare forays into mainstream Hollywood, a 2005 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a woman who gets involved in a four-way game of marital one-upmanship between her husband, her boss, and her husband’s mistress. The score is surprisingly large and sweeping, with a dance-like tango rhythmic element, and an unexpectedly rich brass-heavy finale, and is a lot of fun. The subsequent “Suite from Flood” could not be more different, being a 2007 action movie about a tsunami that threatens to engulf London. Broad, powerful strokes from the orchestra and Alan Silvestri-style action riffs are underpinned by a vein of string-led tragedy and impending danger.

Lesbian Vampire Killers remains the most shocking title of Wiseman’s career – an homage to classic 1960s British horror films which combines the broad comedy of James Corden with slapstick violence, an overload of lesbian-related sexual double entendres, and boob jokes covered in buckets of blood. The score is a huge, Gothic powerhouse, especially the opening sequence “Centuries Ago,” but it suffers here somewhat due to the lack of the choir that was so prominent on the original soundtrack recording, and some from terribly shrill and grating wrong notes from the brass section. Also, the problematic Alan Silvestri/Danny Elfman temp track issues will remain a mental block for some people. Meanwhile, the “Suite from A Poet in New York” is moody and understated, perfectly capturing Tom Hollander’s performance as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas during his fateful final visit to the Big Apple in 1954. The longing solo violin captures the loneliness and desperation of the man as he drank himself to death.

The “Suite from Haunted” is another one of my absolute favorite Wiseman scores, written for a 1995 romantic ghost story starring a young Kate Beckinsale; from the dark, mysterious woodwind opening, to the lush and swooning romantic theme for strings and piano, everything about this score screams quintessential Debbie Wiseman. The “Suite from Father Brown” captures the whimsy and quirkiness of the popular BBC TV series about a crime-solving Roman Catholic priest in 1950s England with its combination of misterioso strings and jaunty nostalgia. “The Whale” was the only piece with which I was previously unfamiliar: it’s a 2013 TV movie about the crew of a whaling ship which is shipwrecked. The music is vaguely nautical, with its prominent flutes, and is action-packed, with a tempestuous sequence for rumbling percussion and swirling strings, but also has a sense of tragic lyricism, including a noble horn refrain that runs through the entire piece.

However, by far the best is the four-movement suite from her 2004 masterpiece Arsène Lupin, a stylish French action-adventure swashbuckler about an aristocratic jewel thief who becomes embroiled in a plot to take down the French monarchy. I was fortune to be present at the world concert premiere of her score, which at that time comprised only the 1st Movement, and is actually the scintillating action cue “Arsène et Beaumagnan,” an explosion of flashing string runs, call-and-response brass phrases, and fluid movement. Wiseman has since expanded the suite to encompass three more movements; the 2nd Movement is an extended statement of the stylish, magical main title “Arsène Lupin,” which segues into another breathtaking action sequence, “The Needle of Etretat,” a vivid combination of roiling, bubbling piano lines and huge brass crescendos. The 3rd Movement is “Fooled by a Newcomer” on the CD, a cheeky, mischievous setting of the main theme for frivolous woodwinds, while the 4th Movement comprises the bulk of another superb action sequence, “The Eight Star Will Be Divine,” which is filled with more boiling, thunderous brass writing, and builds to an enormous finale.

The album is rounded out by an encore performance of the showstopping “Jubilee Gigue,” which Wiseman wrote in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant. It’s yet another superb piece, and is surprisingly bold and wide-ranging considering it was written for an 86-year-old woman. It moves from a tempestuous opening sequence for tribal drums and heraldic horns, through a flurry of militaristic snares and regal trumpets, to baroque folk-like fiddles, and florid brass fanfares, all underpinned by the formal six-eight time rhythmic undercurrent that strictly defines the classical gigue form.

This is the third Debbie Wiseman compilation to be released, after the now ultra-rare 1998 live album Every Note Paints a Picture (which included music from many of her early scores including the BBC TV series Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story, the feature film Tom & Viv, and the nature documentary Born To Be Wild: Operation Lemur), and the more widely available 2003 release Something Here (which also features music from Before You Go, Judge John Deed, Warriors, My Uncle Silas, Simon: An English Legionnaire, and Othello). These two samplers, in conjunction with Live at the Barbican, provide a wide-ranging and comprehensive overview of Debbie Wiseman at her very best, and anyone who is for any reason still on the fence about her is encouraged to indulge. I simply cannot express strongly enough what a wonderful composer Debbie Wiseman is: she excels at action, luxuriates in romance, and puts the vast majority of her contemporaries to shame with her thematic prowess, dramatic sensitivity, and mastery (mistressy?) of the orchestra.

Buy the Debbie Wiseman: Live at the Barbican soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wilde West from Wilde (2:01)
  • Suite from Wilde (5:39)
  • Suite from Tom’s Midnight Garden (4:19)
  • Suite from Wolf Hall (4:13)
  • Suite from The Truth About Love (8:35)
  • Suite from Flood (4:49)
  • Suite from Lesbian Vampire Killers (7:10)
  • Suite from A Poet in New York (3:44)
  • Suite from Haunted (6:42)
  • Suite from Father Brown (4:12)
  • Suite from The Whale (3:54)
  • Arsène Lupin Suite, 1st Movement (2:22)
  • Arsène Lupin Suite, 2nd Movement (4:44)
  • Arsène Lupin Suite, 3rd Movement (3:02)
  • Arsène Lupin Suite, 4th Movement (5:29)
  • Jubilee Gigue from The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant (7:37)

Running Time: 78 minutes 48 seconds

Silva Screen (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Performed by The Orchestra of the Guildhall School. Album produced by Debbie Wiseman.

  1. March 23, 2017 at 3:41 am

    It is really weird that I have never seen a film that had her music in it, which shows how underused she is in mainstream cinema. Therefore, I have never heard a note composed by her. I have got to change that now! I already ordered “Arsene Lupin” on CD a few minutes ago after giving a few titles from this album on iTunes a try. I really wished they hired her for “Wonder Woman”. I hope she gets a chance to compose for a big blockbuster, putting her on the radar of more people. Thank you so much, Jonathan, for introducing her work to me.

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