SHERLOCK AND KEY: An Interview With Michael Price
The BBC’s SHERLOCK is unquestionably the station’s most celebrated, most loved original drama series in decades. Viewers don’t just love it, they hang on every word, every beat, every melody and are rabid for when the next instalment might be coming their way.
It is a coming together of minds of the best kind, with Stephen Moffat (DOCTOR WHO, TIN TIN) and Mark Gatiss (DOCTOR WHO, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN) taking the legendary sleuth and placing him in our modern world, crucially without changing any of his characteristics or foibles, and simply letting him do what he does best; solving crimes and acting superior.
With so many iterations of the Sherlock character being displayed on screen recently, all trying to attempt something different to stand out, it is Moffat and Gatiss’ version that strikes the hardest chord. Simply put, they didn’t change the characters of Holmes and Watson. They merely made them current.
As a huge fan of film and television music I became slightly obsessed with the music for SHERLOCK, composed by Michael Price and David Arnold. And I was fortunate enough that Michael agreed to take time out of his insane schedule, especially since winning the Emmy this year for the SHERLOCK score, to answer some questions for me…
IAN: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’m a huge film/TV score geek, so it’s a big honour for me.
MICHAEL PRICE: You’re very welcome.
IAN: How did you first come across the project of SHERLOCK?
MICHAEL PRICE: Mark Gatiss had known David (Arnold) for ages before SHERLOCK, and when they were trying to find a musical voice for the show, at the pilot stage, Mark asked David to have a look. David asked me, and we took a shot at it.
IAN: What were the initial directives from Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss as to the tone of the stories, and therefore the score?
MICHAEL PRICE: We did discuss some of the theoretical aspects of the updating, but really everything we needed to know was on screen – in the script, the storytelling, and the performances.
IAN: How is the working relationship with David? It sounds seamless in the score, but what did you each bring to the table?
MICHAEL PRICE: We’ve known each other for many years now, and worked together on all sorts of projects in all sorts of ways, so we find it very easy to work around each other. I guess we both have strengths and weaknesses, but the most important thing is that we trust each other enough to be able to make suggestions openly without feeling that the other is going to get the hump.
IAN: The score has an almost Eastern European vibe to it in places, mixing with current trends and a huge cinematic scope. Almost playful. Was this intentional, or just a mashing of cultures as that is how Sherlock’s brain works?
MICHAEL PRICE: We were trying right from the outset to find both internal and external ways of drawing the audience into Sherlock’s world, which is a varied and sometimes theatrical one. The palette of sounds has developed through the three series’, driven by the different stories, into a pretty eclectic selection.
IAN: How does a typical day of co-composing work? I can’t think of a composing duo that fit so well together since James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer on the first two Nolan BATMAN films. Do you write together, separately, or tag-team?
MICHAEL PRICE: David works from his room at Air Studios, and my room is out in the sticks in Hertfordshire, so we exchange files, sing down the phone at each other, and gossip a lot. It’s great to have someone else who totally gets it, and I think the combination of the two of us produces an interesting result.
IAN: Is it a different process writing for SHERLOCK than, say, THE INBETWEENERS films?
MICHAEL PRICE: THE INBETWEENERS films are so fundamentally different from SHERLOCK in terms of what the music needs to do, that sometimes it feels like a different job. With SHERLOCK there is usually 60+ mins of score in a 90 min episode, and with an INBETWEENERS movie there’s usually less than 10 mins of actual score, that isn’t a track. They’re wonderful to work on, though, as the people involved are great and very funny themselves, and sitting in a big cinema with an audience really laughing is a great experience.
IAN: Who would you say your film composer heroes are? Who inspired you?
MICHAEL PRICE: The first film and television composer who I ever met was Nick Bicat, and he was and is an absolute gent. Michael Kamen, with whom I worked for 5 years, was a great inspiration. But my musical heroes tend to be from classical work, like Arvo Part.
IAN: Obviously BBC budgets are limited (not that they sound like it), so what size and type of orchestra do you and David use to score SHERLOCK?
MICHAEL PRICE: We always record live strings, between 10 and 20 in the group, depending on the episode, and lots of the guitars and percussion are live thanks to the amazing Rael Jones. We also pick and choose our soloists (whether instruments or voices) to try and not rely on the samples too much.
IAN: And what, if anything, can you tell us about series 4 and the specials?
MICHAEL PRICE: We’re always the last to know!
What Michael and David have managed to achieve with their work on SHERLOCK is a score for a music-heavy, cerebral BBC show that at once is both cinematic, unique and, most importantly, has become a character in its own right with episodes. Of course, to keep referring to it as a “BBC show” is doing it somewhat of an injustice. It is clearly without doubt that the BBC – one of the best, if not the best, broadcasters in the world – has put their faith in a stellar creative team to make SHERLOCK that rare beast; a smart, funny, razor-sharp programme that never once panders to the audience.
But SHERLOCK has gone beyond just being a BBC show now. It has truly gone global, with international audiences salivating at the prospect of new installments. So much so that Peter Jackson delayed the start of filming THE HOBBIT to accommodate Martin Freeman’s SHERLOCK schedule. And let us not forget Michael Price and David Arnold’s recent win at the Emmy Awards for their musical triumph. It seems that the people behind this wonderful creation cannot make it fast enough to keep up with the demand for it. But as long as the stories, performances, production and music maintain the incredible quality they have thus far, I personally think it’s worth the wait.