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TO OLIVIA – Debbie Wiseman

February 23, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s something of a forgotten fact these days, but for thirty years between 1953 and 1983 the great British children’s author Roald Dahl was married to the Oscar-winning American actress Patricia Neal. While they were together Dahl wrote many of his most acclaimed novels (including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, and The BFG), as well as film screenplays such as You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Meanwhile Neal simultaneously enjoyed the peak of her acting career, appearing in movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Harm’s Way, and The Subject Was Roses, and winning an Academy Award for Hud in 1963. However, their private life was marred with tragedy, the most significant event of which was the death of their eldest daughter Olivia from measles in 1962 when aged just 7. This new film To Olivia, directed by John Hay, explores the life of the couple around that time, how the tragedy of Olivia’s death inspired them both to their greatest professional work, and how Dahl went on to become a staunch pro-immunization campaigner for the rest of his life. The film stars Hugh Bonneville as Dahl and Keeley Hawes as Neal, features Sam Heughan and Geoffrey Palmer in supporting roles, and has a sublime score by composer Debbie Wiseman.

It’s been a quiet few years for Debbie Wiseman in terms of her film and TV output. Although she has been a remarkably busy composer elsewhere – acting as composer-in-residence for the British radio station Classic FM, writing acclaimed classical albums such as The Musical Zodiac, The Glorious Garden, and The Mythos, accepting commissions from numerous soloists and orchestras, and writing music for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday celebrations in 2016 – the last theatrically-released film she scored was Edie back in 2017, and most of her recent media work has been for TV series such as Father Brown and Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators. This is why it’s such a delight to have To Olivia appear now; it marks her return to the lushly emotional sound that typified much of her most beloved 1990s film works – Haunted, Wilde, Tom’s Midnight Garden – and makes you realize just how much her voice and her style has been missed, not least by me.

As befits the subject matter, To Olivia is a score about love, but for the most part it tends to dwell in the realms of the beautifully tragic, underscoring the inexpressibly painful love parents have for their children when they are in need, or hurt, or worst of all close to death. Everything is anchored around the magnificent main theme, which is given a concert arrangement in the opening cue, “To Olivia”. The theme emerges out of a tentative piano solo, gradually picking up a mass of strings, and then eventually the entire orchestra, with each statement more ravishing than the next. There are two different melodic ideas contained within the theme – the initial melody heard on the piano, and then a second idea heard for the first time at 1:09 for strings and warm horn harmonies – and throughout the piece they move around and play against each other, often being linked by a cascading bridge that reminds me a little of James Horner’s Braveheart. It appears likely to me that the two melodies represent Dahl and Neal individually, but the fact that they are usually presented together is likely a reflection of their united grief in losing their daughter, and is intelligent structuring on Wiseman’s part. I also love some of the touches in the orchestration, from the subtle use of guitars behind the strings, to the lightly magical use of xylophones and chimes in the percussion, to the spine-tingling cymbal rings that usher in melodic statements, especially in the second half of the cue.

The two melodies that make up the theme dominate the rest of the score, receiving especially notable refrains in the playfully inquisitive and magically child-like “An Everlasting Gobstopper and a Shivery Smile,” the romantic and glossy “The Film Star and the Fairy Tribute,” and especially the sensational “Sorry a Second Time,” which contains some of the score’s richest crescendos and strongest moments of emotional power.

However, To Olivia is by no means a monothematic score, and there are delights to be found elsewhere. “Gus, the Giant and the Peach” has a sense of slightly playful trepidation, with tremolo strings underpinning plucked harps and more xylophones, as Dahl comes up with the basic story ideas that would eventually become James and the Giant Peach. The cue also features some lovely textural combination writing for strings, piano, and woodwinds – a Wiseman trademark that has permeated her entire career – as well as summery guitars that speak of warm days in the English countryside. “Only Trying to Be Nice” is a slightly more downbeat piece for a solo piano backed by strings, with the section split between a broad wash and more edgy pizzicato textures. “You’re An Idiot” contains one of several variations on the main theme, which takes the basic sound and some of the chord progressions, but emphasizes different aspects of them to give the score a different feeling.

Quite a lot of the middle section of the score – from “A Message for the Kids” through to “You Fix Things, Roald” – is much more serious, as it deals with Olivia’s illness and death, and the fallout this event has on the family at large. To emphasize the tragedy inherent in these events Wiseman takes her orchestra to darker places, making the strings more morose, making the piano lines more grievous, adding in solemn harp glissandi, and writing in a key which verges on the heartbreaking. Not only that, in cues like “An Emergency Like Now,” Wiseman increases the percussion aspect of the score – literally hammering home the impact of Olivia’s death – while also making use of some very subtle electronic textures, which add to the overall tone of desperation. Some of these abstract, glassy electronic sounds also underpin the drama in “Gone For a Walk,” which is perhaps the score’s ‘low point’ in terms of abject misery. “You Fix Things, Roald “ is notable for its more prominent reliance on woodwinds, for the agitated string writing and tremulous percussion Wiseman uses to add to the gravitas of the scene, and for the lyrical statement of the main theme during its conclusion, representing a turning point in Dahl and Neal’s relationship.

The finale of the score returns the main theme to prominence, with noble and stately performances in “People Always Say That at the End” and “We All Become Stories,” and then with a sweepingly uplifting tone in “Rough on Everybody,” where the theme is supported by notably prominent flute trills and a warm horn countermelody, and is interrupted by a sprightly dance-like rhythmic section that is really lovely. The conclusion of the score, “And the Oscar Goes To…,” underscores the scene where Neal receives her Academy Award for Hud, and has a lush and appropriate Hollywood sheen – even though Neal was not there to accept the award, as she was heavily pregnant in London with her fourth child, Ophelia, at the time.

To Olivia is a tremendously effective score, emotional and heartfelt, and at times truly heartbreaking, with a superb main theme that stands easily with some of Debbie Wiseman’s career best. Looking at things objectively, it’s perhaps not too difficult to understand why Wiseman is not as in-demand as she once was; she is a composer whose music is lyrical and thematic, who writes in the rich classical orchestral idiom, and who intentionally pulls at the audience’s emotions. This type of music is, at least in today’s contemporary mainstream, considered somewhat old-fashioned, and is even scorned by some as being too manipulative. For me, however, this is the type of film music to which I gravitate the most. I *want* to feel these emotions, to connect with the characters on a deeper level, nd to feel for Dahl and Neal as they suffer every parent’s worst nightmare. As such, I thought To Olivia was outstanding, and is a welcome reminder of what a truly wonderful composer Debbie Wiseman is when she is given opportunities like these.

Buy the To Olivia soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • To Olivia (3:10)
  • Gus, the Giant and the Peach (3:13)
  • An Everlasting Gobstopper and a Shivery Smile (3:43)
  • The Film Star and the Fairy Tribute (1:14)
  • Only Trying to Be Nice (1:41)
  • You’re An Idiot (1:09)
  • A Message for the Kids (1:21)
  • An Emergency Like Now (2:29)
  • Not Allowed to Say Her Name (2:49)
  • Everybody Hold Hands (1:48)
  • Gone For a Walk (2:52)
  • You Fix Things, Roald (4:03)
  • Sorry a Second Time (5:18)
  • Twisted in a Good Way (2:16)
  • People Always Say That at the End (3:19)
  • We All Become Stories (1:36)
  • Rough on Everybody (3:51)
  • And the Oscar Goes To… (3:28)

Running Time: 49 minutes 30 seconds

Decca Classics (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Orchestrations by Debbie Wiseman. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Album produced by Debbie Wiseman.

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