Composer Evan Jolly tells DQ about his work writing the music for long-running murder-mystery series Midsomer Murders, creating its quirky English soundtrack and his favourite moments from the show so far.
After working on big-screen blockbusters such as Wonder Woman and Aquaman, composer Evan Jolly has spent the last few years moving into television to score series such as The Split and Agatha Raisin.
Since 2019, Jolly has written the music for Midsomer Murders, the long-running murder mystery drama, having replaced original composer Jim Parker in the role after he retired.
The series is set in the beautiful, verdant, fictional county of Midsomer – full of quaint villages and eccentric English folk who seem to do a lot of murdering. Based on the Chief Inspector Barnaby novels by Caroline Graham, it originally starred John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby when the show launched in 1997. Neil Dudgeon, playing Tom’s younger cousin DCI John Barnaby, then took the lead in 2011.
Produced by Bentley Productions and distributed by All3Media International, filming has just finished on the collection of feature-length episodes that will comprise season 24. The ITV series is also one of the UK’s biggest television exports, airing in more than 180 territories worldwide.
Here, Jolly speaks to DQ about his work on the series, his favourite instruments and how music is used to set the show’s darkly comedic tone.
How did you come to join the team behind Midsomer Murders?
I was working on another show for All3Media (the humorous detective series Agatha Raisin) at the time when the great Jim Parker, the original composer for Midsomer Murders, retired. The producer who was working on both shows at the time asked me if I’d be interested and, of course, I jumped at the chance.
Generally, how is music used across the series?
Jim’s work on the series really set the tone. The music covers a lot of ground, adding atmosphere, drama, comedy and occasionally the odd misdirect! Basically anything I can do to help the storytelling. I like to try and give each episode its own identity through the use of themes and motifs.
And what are your thoughts on how and where music should be used in television?
Well, it really depends on the show, of course. I generally always think that using the least amount of music you can is the best approach – not that you’d know that if you ever saw Agatha Raisin. In Midsomer, we generally have about 40 to 45 minutes of music per episode, which feels like the right amount for that show.
What was your initial approach to taking on the show and inheriting the music previously scored by Jim?
Really it was about continuing the style that Jim had set over 20 years of working on the show. We didn’t try and re-invent the wheel: simple, effective music with a quirky English feel to it. Unashamedly camp in places. The title music stayed the same, but the score for each episode is different each time. One of the unique sounds in Jim’s title music is the theremin – the eerie sound that became part of the language of early horror movies. We still use it occasionally in the score but reserve it for episodes where we can get the most out of it, often where there’s a ghostly or deliberately eerie element to the plot.
Tell us about the process of writing and recording music for the show – how early are you involved, what conversations do you have with the production team and what are the various stages of your work before an episode is locked and delivered?
I get involved after filming and editing. The director and editor for each episode use a temporary score, usually of music from previous episodes, to show where they think music should go and give a rough idea of the feeling they want from each cue. Then me, them and our producer have a spotting session, where we watch the episode together, discussing each cue – what is working about the temp, what isn’t and what they want from it that they’re not getting yet.
Sometimes I’ll have suggestions about start points, end points or areas where I think we could add (or more often do without) music. We also talk about general themes and feel for the episode at this point. Then I’ll go away and write the episode.
I usually send a few early ideas to check we’re all on the same page, but it’s pretty much head down and get on with it. About two weeks after the spotting session, I play back the episode. The director and producer give me any notes they have, and then I start prepping for recording. This involves orchestration (the making of scores for the musicians to play from) and a lot of file preparation. This normally takes a week or so.
After that comes a day of recording with our small orchestra, which is my favourite part of the process, as suddenly all the demos that you have made with sampled instruments come to life. Then finally I mix the episode. The whole process takes about a month. Then it’s on to the next episode.
With each episode telling a different story, what opportunities or challenges does that present you as the composer?
It’s great, because it really allows you to keep it fresh. There are recurring themes, particularly for Barnaby’s comedy moments, but generally it’s new themes for each episode. But because they are coming from one composer, they all feel part of the same world, which is important, and the style of the music is an important part of the show.
When it comes to writing themes, I try to find something in the character that I can latch on to – maybe they are a bit pompous, or there’s an underlying sadness. It’s often the same for locations as well. In one particular episode, we wanted to suggest a sense of possible magic in the air to help the general atmosphere of the episode. The downside of this approach is that it makes it quite hard to re-use music from previous episodes, but I like a challenge.
Are there particular instruments you use on the show, and how are they used?
The palette is a simple one. Small string section and a few winds – flute, clarinet, bassoon – sometimes a French horn. Piano and harp make an appearance, as does the occasional special effect.
The bulk of the score is a very small string section. Strings are so adaptable and can cover any mood you can think of if used in the right way. You’ll hear a lot of tremolo strings in the dramatic moments, which is where the players use their bows in a really fast movement; it really helps add to the excitement.
I like to use alto flute, bass flute and bass clarinet a lot, as they have a slightly more unusual sound that can really add to the atmosphere. Woodwinds in general have a very bucolic feel to them; they help to put you in an English countryside setting as soon as you hear them. I use bass clarinet a lot for tense and dark moments – it has a weight and bite that can be really useful. Alto and bass flute I love for emotional or nostalgic themes.
The bassoon has a (slightly unfair) reputation for being the comedy sibling of the woodwind family, but does make a great choice for quirky or pompous themes, of which there are many. In some episodes, a character may get a theme assigned to them on a specific instrument, but in reality it doesn’t always work out like that – you have to use what is appropriate for each scene. For example, a flute melody may be too obtrusive under dialogue, whereas playing it on the clarinet blends a lot better.
Have you had any favourite moments from working on the series?
I had to write a big drag show diva number for an episode last year – that was fun. Also, the episode we did with the Gilbert and Sullivan storyline (the acclaimed creators of the classic English operettas such as The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance), as we were able to do some clever things intertwining the Gilbert and Sullivan music and the show’s score.
How do you strike a balance in the score between Midsomer Murders’ comedic yet dark tone?
It’s a fine line! The hardest thing is where a cue needs to make a fast change from one to the other. I find that trying not to overdo the comedy moments helps the balance – the difference between the extremes is less than it might be if we were doing an all-out comedy show. With the dark parts, particularly the murders, I often ask in our playback meeting, ‘Are you sure it’s not too much?’ It hasn’t been so far.
Is there much difference between working on a series or a feature film?
TV is much faster. There’s basically two weeks to write 45 minutes of music for an episode of Midsomer. I’ve been on movies as part of a team where we have been on it for over two years. I quite enjoy the fast pace of TV but it can be exhausting.
How did you become a film and tv composer?
I was interested in film and TV music from an early age, ever since I saw the movie ET and that incredible scene with the bikes taking off. I think I liked how the music helped to tell the stories, as it was a language I understood. A big part of my interest is because of English detective dramas like Midsomer, and particularly Poirot and Miss Marple. I remember watching them as a child and teenager and loving the music.
It was kind of a no-brainer to go to university and do a music degree, which I did at Southampton and started studying commercial composition more formally. After that, I did an MA at the National Film and Television School. When I graduated, I was doing some work on computer game scores and commercials. My break into TV came via working for Rupert Gregson-Williams on the first two series of Netflix show The Crown. I eventually took over from him on the show Agatha Raisin, which led to me working on Midsomer Murders.
Which other composers do you admire?
I’m a huge fan of the classic film composers. Top of the list are John Williams and Bernard Herrmann. My background is in jazz, so I also have a real love of that music – Duke Ellington and Winton Marsalis are writers I really admire.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a stage show that is a celebration of dancers from around the world, which is opening in Sydney next summer.