Home > Reviews > WILD ISLES – George Fenton

WILD ISLES – George Fenton

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For almost 70 years the BBC Natural History Unit has been, in my opinion, the world leader in making nature documentaries. Although it had been making smaller-scale programmes for quite some time, it was the groundbreaking 1979 series Life on Earth that truly cemented its reputation; further entries such as The Living Planet in 1984, The Trials of Life in 1990, and Life in the Freezer in 1993 built on this success, and then more recent things like Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Africa, Life, and their various sequels, have showcased the NHU’s spectacular wildlife footage to millions worldwide. However, despite how majestic and awe-inspiring these massive shows are – and they are tremendous – I have always enjoyed their smaller scale examinations of British nature and found them to be equally rewarding; Wild Isles is one of those.

Nature documentaries about Britain are, by dint of British geography and climate, less spectacular. We don’t have vast mountain ranges, verdant jungles, or scorching deserts. We have quaint fields and hedgerows, little babbling brooks, and rolling hills. We don’t have exotic birds, terrifying poisonous insects, big cats, herds of wildebeest, polar bears, elephants, or giraffes. Our animals are smaller and more unassumingly pleasant: hedgehogs and foxes, badgers, rabbits, bats, and lots of birds. But in the hands of the BBC and its veteran producer/narrator – the legendary Sir David Attenborough – even these most humble of animals can be shown in an interesting light. Wild Isles, attempts to do just that.

One of the other things that the BBC Natural History Unit has always done is commission excellent music for their documentaries. Right from the beginning the producers understood that having dramatic, compelling music accompanying their animal stories can elevate them to cinematic heights, and so the composers who were hired to score them regularly wrote broad-canvas orchestral symphonies of great skill and beauty. Most of those early documentaries were scored by BBC in-house composers and veterans of the British film industry; Edward Williams on Life on Earth, and Elizabeth Parker on The Living Planet, for example, among many others. On the other hand, the most recent successes – Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Seven Worlds One Planet, Prehistoric Planet, Frozen Planet II – have all been spearheaded by Hans Zimmer and his staff at Bleeding Fingers Music, who have actually written some genuinely outstanding scores.

However, for me, the greatest of all BBC Natural History Unit composers is George Fenton. His first work for them was The Trials of Life in 1984, and through subsequent scores such as Life in the Freezer, The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, and their big-screen spinoffs Deep Blue and Earth, he has written some of the most spectacular nature documentary music in the history of the genre. As such, I’m absolutely thrilled that Fenton is back scoring Wild Isles, and I’m even more thrilled to report that the music for it is just as good as ever.

This is a fully orchestral, lush, lyrical, expressive work, filled with charming passages, moments of fun, whimsy, and playfulness, but which also has a sense of drama and occasionally erupts into unexpectedly powerful action music. Fenton said that he wanted this music to sound like it ‘came from the British Isles,’ and so there are tonal references to some of the great British romantic composers – Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, to name but a few – as well as to classic British film music, and Fenton’s own scores, which was always been inspired by that sound. In addition, there are some elements which clearly reference British and Irish folk music, both in orchestration and style, which is a nice new addition to the palette.

On an album full of highlights, several cues stand out. The “Wild Isles Introduction/Front Titles” has a warm, appealing tone that slowly builds to a crescendo of subtle majesty, full of rolling strings and cymbal rings that conjure up mental images of a sparkling sea, and which then emerges into a memorable main theme. “Orca” has some lovely writing for elegant strings and harps, accented by pennywhistles, but then shifts sideways into darker and more ominous material that enhances the lurking threat these predators portray. The second half of the cue then becomes the first of the score’s main action sequences, written for an array of frantic, slashing strings.

“Birds Eye View” features a beautiful, elegant duet for violin and oboe that has hints of Irish folk music to it, and is just superb. “The Door Mouse” is small but expressive, little piano figures, quirky woodwind textures, and unexpectedly soulful string passages accompanying its nervous, whisker-twitching movements and solitary life. The tone of “Bluebells” is quiet and thoughtful, while the second half of “Pollenating“ is full of scampering, mischievous energy, as is the subsequent “Fox Cubs,” although here the light-hearted pizzicato textures are often replaced with a more graceful, perhaps even a little bittersweet, theme for solo violin.

The first half of “Barnacle Geese” has a soaring, majestic quality that perfectly captures the footage of these birds as they glide over clifftops, and out over the open water, but the second half unexpectedly turns into a bold, powerful action sequence full of intense, swirling string writing and rousing brass writing that brought back memories of his outstanding war-movie inspired animation score Valiant. I’m not sure what these geese are doing here, but it’s clearly pretty forceful! The subsequent “Damoiselles” has some equally powerful passages, but also feels free-er and more spirited and frisky, and ends with yet another gorgeous cameo from the solo violin.

“The Puffins” – the adorable, clumsy pandas of the avian world – also features a rather vivid action sequence attached to them, with heavy percussion that recalls some of the best action parts of Fenton’s Anna and the King, as well as some really superb large-scale orchestral passages underpinned with an unexpectedly diverse array of percussion textures and unusual, off-kilter rhythmic ideas. “The Message” – which accompanies Attenborough’s now familiar pleas to humanity to change their nature-destroying ways – packs an emotional punch in just 45 seconds, and the “Wild Isles Trail” is a terrific throwback to the earliest BBC nature scores and their more synth heavy-sounds, before the “Wild Isles End Credits” wraps it all up with a final flourishing statement of the main theme.

This is excellent music, wholly indicative of the kind of quality that George Fenton has always brought to his BBC nature scores, and very much on a par with some of the best BBC Natural History Unit soundtracks. It’s so good to hear Fenton back where, in my opinion, he has always excelled: writing bold, lush, expressive orchestral music that sparkles, floats serenely, and occasionally packs a real dramatic punch.

Buy the Wild Isles soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wild Isles Introduction/Front Tiles (1:42)
  • Orca (5:58)
  • Geology (1:43)
  • Birds Eye View (2:21)
  • The Door Mouse (4:29)
  • Bluebells (1:31)
  • Pollenating (2:32)
  • Lords and Ladies (2:43)
  • Fox Cubs (2:30)
  • Barnacle Geese (5:31)
  • Damoiselles (4:15)
  • Kingfisher (1:45)
  • Gannets (3:17)
  • The Puffins (4:04)
  • The Message (0:44)
  • Wild Isles Trail (0:26)
  • Wild Isles End Credits (0:31)

Running Time: 45 minutes 53 seconds

Shogun Music (2023)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by XXXX. Recorded and mixed by Matt Bartram. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by George Fenton.

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  1. March 17, 2023 at 10:25 am

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