While Phoebe Waller-Bridge celebrates the Emmy success of her incomparable comedy drama Fleabag, another of the Waller-Bridge family can revel in her own role in making the series a global phenomenon.
Isobel Waller-Bridge, a composer and Phoebe’s sister, scored both seasons of the BBC/Amazon hit, being responsible for its soundtrack and, most notably, the title card’s chaotic scramble of sound that perfectly reflects the show’s protagonist.
She has worked in film and television for more than a decade, initially scoring short films and documentaries before partnering with award-winning composer Martin Phipps on BBC historical drama War & Peace and then taking on Fleabag in her first solo composing role.
She has since written music for BBC legal drama The Split and Agatha Christie adaptation The ABC Murders, as well as ITV’s Vanity Fair and a season five episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, namely the Miley Cyrus-starring instalment Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too. She also worked on Vita & Virginia, a 2018 film about the love affair between socialite Vita Sackville-West and literary icon Virginia Woolf, starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki.
“With drama, I always approach music from the internal,” Isobel tells DQ at France’s Série Series festival. “The external stuff, we get with the picture and dialogue. It’s the moments in between I find interesting because you rarely do heavy scoring under dialogue, so you want to be able to carry a feeling from moment to moment. If it is underscoring dialogue, you’ve got to be very aware that the most important things we need to hear are the words, so I find a really minimal approach is best. Then once you’ve set your parameters in that way, it becomes really interesting in terms of how to create a feeling without it being too noticeable. It’s an atmosphere.”
In an ideal world, Isobel would join a production prior to filming to be able to read scripts and sketch some ideas, so that by the time she can see some of the picture assemblies, she is already writing scores. “Then by the time we get to the edit and we start cutting, we don’t really need a temporary score,” she continues. “That feels like a really rewarding process for everyone because when you start using temporary scores and everyone falls in love with it, the composer has to come in and do the same but better. Ideally I’m in early enough that we can temp with my music.”
Isobel credits fellow composer Phipps with honing her minimalist style and teaching her that making just a few music choices can be stronger than throwing a whole orchestra at a score. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she says. “War & Peace was a masterclass from Martin, with his choice of having just a choir, a piano and a couple of strings. It was brilliant.”
Then came Fleabag, created by and starring Phoebe, who based the series on her stage show of the same name. In season one, the aforementioned crash-bang title sequence was designed to mimic the main character via sound – music with a sense of humour but that was also a “total mess.” Rock-inspired guitar music was also used to amplify the title character’s confidence. “It was just really important that she never apologies for her choices and her life. She knew she was making mistakes, it was just a journey she was on.”
In season two, the arrival of ‘The Hot Priest,’ played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott, brought with it a church-inspired score complete with choir.
“The choral thing, I keep talking about it as a Greek chorus because we’re dealing with these huge themes of betrayal, grief, family, love and forgiveness,” Isobel explains. “But also there’s something about the human voice that has a vulnerability to it, and it felt like an interesting way to connect through another voice. Because Fleabag looks at the camera less because of her relationship with the priest, the music really wanted to do what the camera was doing in season one, really speaking her mind. It comes from her, and that felt like a good switch.”
In Black Mirror’s Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too, real-life pop superstar Cyrus plays a fictional singer whose life begins to unravel. Tracks from US rock band Nine Inch Nails are used in the episode alongside music from Waller-Bridge, who says she was initially interested in weaving Cyrus’s voice into the score but then decided not to, as it would have put too much focus on her character, Ashley O, rather than the two sisters at the centre of the story.
What Fleabag and Black Mirror have in common is that they both come from creators – Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Charlie Brooker, respectively – with clear visions of the show they are making. That suits Isobel, she says, because she can then work within set boundaries of the show, which can fuel creativity.
“When you’re working with someone who has a very direct and confident vision for their work, you immediately know what the parameters are and it makes it much easier to be creative,” she says. “If you’re working with people who sometimes aren’t totally sure what they’re aiming for or what they want, it’s harder because you’re second-guessing them. If you know what it is, it makes your job easier so it’s really thrilling. I love working with people like that.
“Weirdly, with Black Mirror, it was quite hands-off. I had one spotting session [where the composer joins the production team to go through the episode and choose the placement of the music] with the director Anne Sewitsky and we were all in there for that meeting, which is page one of the process. Then usually what would happen is, at the end of each week, I would meet with the same group and present the music I’d done that week. It was very relaxed. That level of trust makes you feel taller and you get to flex your muscles a bit.”
Isobel compares pitching for jobs to the chemistry tests between actors, where she will meet the director to find out if they connect over the project. “I’ve had meetings where I’ve not felt that connection is as easy. The jobs where I feel I’ve done the best work are those meetings where I’ve gone in and it’s immediately absolutely amazing.”
But scoring film and television projects can feel like working in completely different countries. “You need different muscles,” she says. “On multi-episodic TV, the turnaround is so much faster, so it’s intense and you keep going and going. It just feels really different to film. Film and theatre feel really connected. When you’re scoring, you have in mind that you have your audience from beginning to end and you get to tell them this story, which makes it feel slightly different.”
Despite coming from a traditional, classical background, Isobel adds that she isn’t afraid to experiment with music if it serves the project. “There is a bit of me that likes the big, sweeping, beautiful, classical scores, though the projects I’ve been doing are all asking me to be challenged and I absolutely love it. If anything, it keeps me interested as a composer.”