Scary Christmas

Scary Christmas

By Michael Pickard
December 22, 2023

Job Description

A Ghost Story for Christmas has become a festive tradition for the BBC – and composer Blair Mowat. He speaks to DQ about partnering with writer and director Mark Gatiss on the horror stories, including this year’s effort, Lot No 249.

Every year for more than a decade, Blair Mowat would host a bad Christmas jumper party at his flat to ring in the festive season. But though the Covid pandemic put an end to that yuletide tradition, he’s continuing another as the composer of the BBC’s annual Ghost Story for Christmas.

Following its original run in the 1970s, the strand was resurrected in 2005 and has returned to prominence in particular after The League of Gentlemen star Mark Gatiss became its custodian. He wrote and directed 2013’s The Tractate Middoth, and has overseen a further five episodes: The Dead Room (2018), Martin’s Close (2019), The Mezzotint (2021), Count Magnus (2022) and now this year’s offering, Lot No 249.

Blair Mowat

With the exception of The Dead Room, all of the recent ghost stories have been based on MR James works, though Gatiss found the inspiration for the latest tale in a gothic short story by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mowat first joined the series for The Dead Room, and has composed the original score to every instalment since. He also partnered with Gatiss for 2021 movie The Amazing Mr Blunden, and his other credits include crime drama McDonald & Dodds, biopic Nolly and forthcoming feature length drama Men Up.

“It’s kind of like a British tradition, isn’t it?” he tells DQ of the Christmas ghost story. “The MR James stuff goes back decades and decades – people would sit down and read a ghost story on Christmas Eve or listen to some of the radio adaptations – and I love the fact that Mark has brought back that tradition. And I’ve always loved Christmas and the tradition around Christmas.

“Getting to work on Christmas stuff is always is always a joy – and it’s Mark just as much as anything else that brings me back to those ghost stories. Despite the fact the budget is very challenging, it’s getting a chance to work with Mark. I’ve always been interested in genre stuff and musically, that allows you to push yourself to extremes when you’re working in that area. It can be quite fun as a composer to come back to that kind of material.”

Lot No 249 is a particularly chilling tale, described by Gatiss as a “full-blooded Victorian melodrama” and perhaps the “original mummy story” – one where supernatural forces conspire to lead a mummy to wreak revenge on its master’s enemies.

Lot 249 is based on the MR James short story

Opening in 1881 when Old College, Oxford, plays host to three different academics: Abercrombie Smith (Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington) is a model of Victorian manhood, clean of limb and sound of mind; Monkhouse Lee (Colin Ryan) is a delicate and unworldly student from Siam; and the strange and exotic Edward Bellingham (Freddie Fox), whose arcane research into Ancient Egypt is the talk of the campus.

But could Bellingham’s unnatural experiments bring life to the horrifying bag of bones tagged Lot No 249? Produced by Adorable Media for BBC Two and BBC iPlayer, the episode will air on Christmas Eve.

As a composer who seeks variety in the projects he works on, Mowat has found the Christmas ghost stories to be suitably diverse, allowing him to approach each one with a fresh perspective with no danger of retreading old musical ground – and Lot No 249 proved to be no different.

“You always want to approach it from a different angle,” he says. “The first one that I did was called The Dead Room with Simon Callow and Anjli Mohindra, and I went along to visit the set and Mark came up to me and he said, ‘I am very excited about the idea of no music.’ I was like, ‘What am I doing here then?’

“He went further to explain that he was talking about how, in the old days of things like Doctor Who, sometimes there wasn’t so much music and they would use everyday sounds and create music out of that. He was talking about approaching it from that particular angle, which was really interesting.”

That concept was very different to Lot No 249, which evoked conversations between Mowat and Gatiss about storied composers such as James Bernard, who worked on Hammer Horrors (The Quatermass Xperiment, The Curse of Frankenstein), and Alfred Hitchcock favourite Bernard Hermann (Psycho, The Birds).

“Then you’re aware of the Arthur Conan Doyle ghost there as well and the vibes of Sherlock Holmes, so you maybe want to lean slightly more into that world and the tropes that come with that,” Mowat says. “Of course, we’ve got the mummy element to it too, the Egyptianness of it, which also creeps into it. Given the ghost stories tend to be relatively traditional, especially when they’re adapted from old material, it felt important not to ignore that and to allow that to come into the fold musically as well. Over the years, it’s got more and more musical.”

Produced by Adorable Media for BBC Two, Lot 249 will air on Christmas Eve

But often, as Gatiss might have suggested, having no music can be just as powerful in a horror story as having a score in the background, rising and falling to suitably increase the tension.

“With horror, you need to be really careful in terms of where you put the music so that it doesn’t become just wallpaper and that when it comes in, it has an effect and it does scare people,” the composer notes. “The absence of music is just as important as the music itself in some ways in these types of horror thriller productions.”

In any case, creating the music for a Christmas ghost story is “hard,” Mowat admits, as the half-hour productions have a relatively small budget, meaning there is little opportunity to work with a full orchestra.

For last year’s Count Magnus – the story of an inquisitive travel writer who discovers a long-dead Swedish nobleman who does not lie easy in his tomb – Mowat bought a tagelharpa, a traditional Scandinavian bowed instrument, to utilise in the show’s musical suite.

For Lot No 249, strings are most commonly used, but he also included a duduk, a reed instrument traditionally found in the Middle East, and other instruments from that region.

“Usually I will come up with some main theme, and then everything is derived from that,” he explains. “So there’s a ‘mummy’ theme that comes in and out and then it’s full Iteration will probably be used for the end credits.

“For this one, I did actually get a chance to use a live orchestra. I was recording for another production, and so I was able to then add

on some time to be able to record some of these cues. To just book an orchestra for the ghost story, we didn’t have the budget to warrant that, but tacking it on to the end of something that already exists allowed me to then record some of this with a live orchestra, so in the last half or so, we have some live strings in there.”

Mowat worked remotely with the Budapest Art Orchestra, who he has partnered with a number of times since the pandemic. He also splits his time between London and LA, meaning in person sessions are rare.

The Mezzotint (2021), a previous Mowat/Gatiss collaboration

“I love doing the ghost story. For me, it’s not even really a job. It’s a Christmas tradition where I’m doing it because I love doing it,” he says. “I love working with Mark and I know he is in incredible demand. People love working with him.

“There will be other projects that are going to have bigger budgets like The Amazing Mr Blunden, for example, where we were going to have the ability to record with a live orchestra the whole way through. For this ghost story, because of the way that the timings went, I was able to record some of it with some live orchestra. But it’s challenging. It’s the tightest budget I work on every year by quite some margin so it’s an education in how to go back to making things sound good with a lack of resources.”

Though the money might vary, the main challenge composing music for the screen remains the same on every project: they all start with a blank page.

“It is almost painful at the beginning, sitting down and thinking whatever I come up with is going to carry us through potentially six to eight episodes, or in something like McDonald & Dodds, for example, four seasons of three, 90-minute episodes,” Mowat states. “Those themes are going to carry you on for episode after episode for years and years, so it is a lot of pressure.

“Once you come up with that and once it reveals itself to you, whether it’s sitting down at the piano or with the computer and a keyboard and trying out different instruments and stuff, that’s when the pressure starts to ease off. Then it’s a slow process between the start, where there’s more anxiety and more stress, and the end, where you’re all guns blazing and you’ve got all your themes, you’ve got all the arrangements and you’ve created this hopefully quite idiosyncratic template for how you want the music to sound. You want it to feel unique to that production.”

Mowat says his goal is always for someone to listen to a piece of score and know where it came from, whether it’s a catchy melody, the interesting use of rhythm or a particular instrument.

“For example, there was a lot of percussion in Nolly,” he says of the Russell T Davies drama about the former Crossroads star Noele Gordon, which debuted on ITVX in February and will have its terrestrial debut on ITV on December 27. “Russell almost has a rhythm to his writing, and I remember reading the scripts for Nolly and hearing music in my head. I needed to support that and find a way to create something that was somewhat of a percussive score to support the energy that’s needed to continue the writing style that he has there.”

He has also reunited with Nolly producer Quay Street Productions for upcoming ITV mystery thriller After The Flood, in which a body is discovered after a town is hit by a devastating flood. Furthermore, Mowat scored Quay Street and Boom coproduction Men Up, a BBC drama based on the true story of a group of Welshmen who take part in the trial of a new drug, which would later become Viagra. It debuts on December 29.

Mowat scored Quay Street and Boom coproduction Men Up will air soon

“I like to try and keep it as varied as possible, but the other thing is it’s just nice people. You just want to be working with people who are fun to work with, who respect you and who are open to the collaboration and the process of working together to just get the best results,” he says. “You come back to the people who just keep you in mind throughout the entire process and are just checking in with you and making sure, ‘Oh, we did this, we did that. Are you okay with it?’ That always means a lot.

“Mark, for example, is an incredibly fun person to work with. You sit down for a spotting session with him [to decide where the music will go] and at the end of it, you’ve had a laugh. It’s just like chatting to a friend.”

After a busy year in 2023, Mowat is now looking forward to taking a break over the Christmas period. “I can sit down and enjoy my Terry’s Chocolate Orange,” he laughs.

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