Sheena Napier: Costume Design Talk at the V&A

The last costume talk I attended was last September with Deborah Nadoolman Landis and the last V&A talk was with Jenny Beavan back in January 2012 – so this talk was well overdue.


Sheena Napier may not be a “household” name like Beavan and Landis but she has worked steadily in the industry (mostly designing for TV) for years and has been nominated for an Oscar (for Enchanted April), an Emmy and won a BAFTA (both for Parade’s End).

'Enchanted April' 1991

‘Enchanted April’ 1991

The talk started with Napier talking through how she got started in the costume industry. She went to art college to study theatre design but discovered that her poor maths skills (her words not mine!) caused problems with set design but, more importantly, she was much more interested in costume as social comment and social history. At the time costume was a vocational course rather than a degree so Napier left. She went on to work in the theatre and despite initial intentions to return to college she never made it back.

'Enchanted April' (1991)

‘Enchanted April’ (1991)

She started ironing for the opera and then worked for the wardrobe master at the Festival Theatre (I want to say Chichester Festival Theatre but I didn’t catch it – I’m sorry!). Napier said that John Bartlett was the greatest teacher she ever had and he taught her everything about costume. He was a perfectionist and wanted everything to be made properly – no shortcuts. He taught her tailoring, costume making and the importance of attention to detail.

'Backbeat' (1994)

‘Backbeat’ (1994)

Napier told us horror stories relating to time shortages and occasions of working for three straight days and nights to get costumes finished (we’ve all been there) but said that this camaraderie in the environment strengthened her love of costume and the industry.

'Ravenous' (1999)

‘Ravenous’ (1999)

She took over from Bartlett as wardrobe mistress for five years (making good use of the costume cutting books he bought her) and relied on his advice:

Tell them you can do the job, then you have to do the job and you’ll find that you can do it.

'The Heart of Me' (2002)

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)

After working in the theatre Napier took some time out and had a knitwear craftshop in the country until opportunity came knocking. A friend of hers at the costume department at the BBC told her how desperate they were for design assistants. Napier’s knowledge of costume houses and fabric sourcing locations gained from her work in the theatre meant that she was able to become a design assistant and completely jump the traditional previous step of dresser – with a little bit of tension from some members of the department. She signed a three-month contract and left three years later.

'The Heart of Me' (2002) [Going against Napier's wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams' dress later on in this post...]

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)
[Going against Napier’s wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams’ dress later on in this post…]

She knew that the BBC costume department was on its last legs so after some success working for the BBC (particularly her work on ‘Allo ‘Allo) she was able to leave to design Enchanted April. The film was made by the BBC in partnership with Greenpoint Films but when it was bought by Miramax it was widely distributed and became (in Napier’s words) a “proper” films. (This was the film that marks Napier’s Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.)

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003) [Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)
[Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

The success of Enchanted April led to designing Backbeat but then a critically unsuccessful film left Napier out of work for a while. Napier learnt the importance of saving money and to spend the time off in a positive way. The next film she mentioned was Ravenous which has gained a cult following but she’s not personally a huge fan of.

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003)

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)

Ravenous was then followed by The Heart of Me and then Poirot (the show Napier is most famous for). She told us that she wasn’t particularly keen on taking the job because the show had already been on the air for 15 years and she felt like it would be taking over someone else’s work. She was one hour late for the interview (and she’s never late) but she loved David Suchet and the director and their work process. They talked through every character’s life and story and she felt that this was something she would enjoy doing. Her first Poirot episode was Five Little Pigs and she thinks it is still her favourite (and mine).

I want you to be able to know something about [the character].

'Poirot' Death on the Nile (2004)

‘Poirot’ Death on the Nile (2004)

This was specifically important with the Poirot adaptations where a story must be condensed to such a degree that character details are inevitably lost but costume can be used to create the depth and understanding of the character for the audience.

'Wah-Wah' (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wah-Wah’ (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

Napier told us of the trials of late casting that she first became aware of when filming Death on the Nile. Besides Suchet the first actor was cast five days before shooting – frantic costume fittings became standard for most of the shoot. She also told us that she turned on a tv and found an old episode of Poirot playing and realised that they were using the same cardigan! Due to late casting, limited budgets and time constraints costume making was impossible (apart from for Suchet) and there was (and is) a limited costume pool for the 1930s. Napier made the decision to start buying and storing pieces and she has a 150 sq ft storage space that is filled. She loved working with Suchet and was able to focus on attention to detail (as taught by Bartlett) but also try to make each episode look different. She was particularly fond of The Labours of Hercules which she thought was the most stylish episode. [Napier thinks that is a little unfair.]

'Ballet Shoes' (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Ballet Shoes’ (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

[One fun note was a photo of a pair of cufflinks that were nicknamed the “murdered man” cufflinks and appeared on every murdered man. They were never seen but were a fun in-joke.]

'Wild Target' (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wild Target’ (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

Then we looked at Napier’s work on Parade’s End. She brought one of Rebecca Hall’s (Sylvia Tietjan) dresses with her that had been made based on an original dress. The dress combined some original very delicate pieces of beading (one of the few times when Napier allowed her maker to cut up an old dress) with modern fabrics. There was an original dress that she wanted to copy but all the modern fabric she found was too heavy to replicate the tiny pleats in the dress.

'Parade's End' (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

‘Parade’s End’ (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

We then moved onto The Village; the second series filming now. The budgets have gone down but expectations have gone up! There was another story of late casting – this time the day before shooting and the producers didn’t seem to be too interested in arranging a fitting.

'Parade's End' (2012)

‘Parade’s End’ (2012)

The last completed work Napier has designed is The Great Fire and this lead to discussions of costume authenticity. Although she appreciates the attention to detail that Bartlett taught her she also understands that the story is the most important factor.

We’re not curators, we’re storytellers.

'Poirot' The Labours of Hercules (2013)

‘Poirot’ The Labours of Hercules (2013)

If an actor isn’t comfortable in something or the shape isn’t as flattering as it could be things will be changed. It isn’t about Napier, but about the actor on screen. They need to be able to sell the character and can’t do that if they’re uncomfortable.

'Poirot' Dead Man's Folly (2013). The final episode of 'Poirot' filmed but not the final aired.

‘Poirot’ Dead Man’s Folly (2013). The final episode of ‘Poirot’ filmed but not the final aired.

There followed some questions:

It is possible to identify when period films were made (for example a 1930s film made in the ’70s). How important is it to be timeless?

The Heart of Me was made in the Merchant Ivory mindset where everything was meant to be perfect. This is no longer true. Everything is seen from a modern perspective and the director is the boss – what they say goes. For example, directors tend to hate hats (actors generally like them) but the directors are likely to get the final word. No matter how inaccurate.

'Marple' A Caribbean Mystery, designed by Sheena Napier

‘Marple’ A Caribbean Mystery (2013), designed by Sheena Napier

Favourite time period?

She was excited to do The Great Fire because it’s a period not commonly done but she loves all periods and contemporary. Her main interest is in characters. But if she could “wear” a period it would be the 1910s shown in Parade’s End.

'The Village' Series One

‘The Village’ Series One (2013)

So there we have a great talk by Sheena Napier. There are a number of films and tv shows that I haven’t seen but I would be seriously tempted now!

S x


Endeavour series 2: 6 reasons why you should definitely be watching it

This post first appeared on Metro Online.

Shaun Evans returns as Endeavour Morse (Picture: ITV)

(Picture: ITV)

Endeavour returns for its second full series on ITV tonight, which is great news for Sunday night telly.

The period drama, following the early years of Inspector Morse, is a piece of telly gold which ITV has wisely decided to hold on to.

Series two, set in 1966, will consist of four two-hour films, and star Shaun Evans (who is amazing in this – more on him later) as the titular character.

Writer Russell Lewis, who was a contributor to Inspector Morse, said of the new series: ‘Though offset by the possibility of love unlooked for, against a backdrop of a growing change in Britain and the wider world, Endeavour must face a challenge that threatens to take from him all he holds dear.’

If that’s not enough to tickle your fancy, here’s 5 reasons why you should tune in to Endeavour.

1. It isn’t your average Sunday night telly fare

Think of Sunday night telly and the likes of Where The Heart Is, Heartbeat and The Royal probably come to mind. While they were a decent way to wind down before work on Monday, they weren’t exactly high-octane and thrilling. The most dangerous thing to happen on any of those programmes was someone dropping half a Custard Cream into their cuppa. Endeavour is the opposite – laced with high-tension, suspense and even a bit of action.

2. The cases

Endeavour’s cases are intriguing and unique. In series one he had to track a killer who bumped off his victims in a similar fashion to the endings of famous operas. It sounds complicated, but even the less musically knowledgeable viewers could follow it. Series two looks set to have another brace of head-scratchers for us, including one involving a beauty pageant, and another which star Evans has described to Digital Spy as a ‘spooky, sort of horror story’. Intriguing…

3. Endeavour’s love life

Morse romances a nurse  called Monica in this series (Picture: ITV)

Morse romances a nurse called Monica in this series (Picture: ITV)

The young policeman’s constant search for a soul mate is one of this series’ most intriguing ongoing plot points. He came close a couple of times with series one, but with the detective set to strike up a romance with a nurse this series is the second time the charm?

4. The 60s, baby!

Endeavour is a period drama and accordingly, there will be plenty of nostalgia for those over a certain age. As writer Lewis said, there was a growing change in Britain at the time, and Endeavour – like similarly wonderful 60s-set detective drama George Gently – will have heaps of nods to the state of Britain at the time. Notably, ’66 was the year of England’s world cup win, so expect some football madness thrown in.

5. Endeavour’s relationship with Thursday

Roger Allam plays DI Fred Thursday (Picture: ITV)

Roger Allam plays DI Fred Thursday (Picture: ITV)

Endeavour and Thursday have represented two sides of the same coin when it comes to policing, with Endeavour being the new and Thursday firmly stuck in his old ways. Evans and Roger Allam are the perfect pairing, so it’ll be interesting to see their working relationship develop as times change.

6. Shaun Evans

Shaun Evans gives a fantastic performance in the titular role (Picture: ITV)

Shaun Evans gives a fantastic performance in the titular role (Picture: ITV)

There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Evans’ performance in this role, but here’s a few: beautifully understated, nuanced and enchanting. The Liverpudlian actor steals the show in every scene he’s in and says so much without saying much at all. Like another popular TV detective I could mention, Endeavour is dedicated to his work and fiercely intelligent, but Evans also manages to make him grounded and completely likable. Did I mention he’s quite easy on the eyes and ears? Because he is.


Costuming a Teenaged Private Eye

64 episodes and a 7 year wait later there came a Veronica Mars film (I’m British, I don’t like saying movie). Regardless of the Kickstarter backer facts etc, the film shows an eleven year development of characters seen in the first season (Veronica is 16 in season one, 15 in the flashbacks, and 28 by the time of the film). Developments that are very clearly shown in costume. Rather than looking at every character (there are loads) I’m going to look at this development in our favourite teenaged private eye – Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) herself.

Season One

Season One costume designed by Salvadaor Perez Jr.

For a season based so heavily on flashbacks we are shown two distinct Veronica’s throughout. There’s the pre-Lilly’s murder Veronica and ostricised Veronica. The personality changes are made clear and, as you would expect, these are referenced in her costumes. The first time we see Veronica she is clearly established in her outside status. She’s disgusted with her high school classmates, as are they with her. She is competent, unexpectedly considerate towards Wallace but, most of all, snarky.

Veronica Pilot

Then we get two quick flashes of “old Veronica”:

Veronica Pilot2

It would have been too easy and obvious to make Veronica go from light and fluffy to lots of black. But the change is still obvious. Besides the long flowing hair the colours are light and subdued. “New” Veronica hasn’t moved to leather but the fabric choices remain sturdier than before. Stripes became a bit of a classic costume touch for Veronica and here we see it established in the flashbacks that she’s always been a fan of stripes. As much as Veronica is ostracised she has no desire to blend in to the background. Her strong character comes through and she stands out much more now than she did when she was merely Duncan Kane’s girlfriend. This also marks the first appearance of Veronica’s pink and green colour scheme, the canvas messenger bag, hoodies and denim/military style jackets. These are Veronica’s trademark pieces whether worn as armour or for practical reasons.

Veronica Pilot3

The pilot also shows us Veronica at Shelly Pomroy’s infamous party. We can assume that after the events of that party old Veronica became new Veronica – she is clearly already on the way there but still clinging to the past. We have the white dress that signifies the final stage in Veronica’s loss of innocence. But then there’s the black choker – chokers being a common occurrence on Veronica throughout this first season.

And don’t forget the disguises:


(Yes, technically one of these is from S2 but you get the message.)

Season Two

Season Two costume designed by Salvadaor Perez Jr.

As Season Two starts the new mystery means that the flashbacks concentrate on the earlier summer (and the rest of the season) rather than a year earlier. We see characters in their current state (pretty much) and the sense of change is much less obvious. The main mystery arc is also much more far-reaching than the Lilly Kane murder. The economic differences in the town become more overt and dangerous, as does Veronica’s standing in the town following her rekindled relationship with Duncan Kane (and solving Lilly’s murder).

Veronica S2

The choker has gone, the messenger bag remains, as do the hoodies, jeans and jackets. Veronica may be more welcome in the 09er set but that doesn’t mean that she fits back in. Or that she wants to. A year on the outside and working as a private eye have changed her – much as the death of her best friend and her rape did.

Season Three

Season Three costume designed by Salvadaor Perez Jr until episode 5 ‘President Evil’ when Jennifer L Soulages took over. (They co-designed ‘President Evil’.)

Season Three has a different aesthetic to seasons one and two for a number of reasons:

  1. The characters have gone to college and so their environment (although still in Neptune) is different from high school.
  2. The series took a different approach to its standard mystery arc – more shorter spanning mysteries.
  3. Veronica Mars moved from UPN to the newly formed CW network.

After recovering from the shock of Veronica and Logan’s new cars, the other main change is Veronica’s messenger bag – moved on from a canvas bag to a leather studded bag.

V 3

The season also has some nice costume callbacks from previous seasons. The most regularly commented one being the blue argyle sweater, but there’s also the small silver star necklace Veronica was given by Lilly. The necklace is worn on and off throughout seasons 1 and 3 but specifically mentioned when stolen.


Lilly's necklace

The small crystal star from Lilly.

The other key aspects of Veronica’s costumes remain. We still have stripes, jeans, boots, denim and military jackets. But now we also have the introduction of cropped waistcoats – they were very much a fashion feature of the era. None of these pieces are “cute” though, the slightly tough aesthetic remains. A headscarf and headband also made a brief appearance but didn’t stick around.

New Looks

Veronica Mars Film


Film costume designed by Genevieve Tyrrell.

The key feeling for the film was the idea of addiction. Veronica is addicted to the lifestyle of a private detective and this is what draws her back. Say it’s Logan all you want but it’s more what Logan represents. Simplest terms it’s New York v. Neptune. Normalcy v. excitement, drama and danger.

V Film1

We start with the grown-up Veronica. It’s still obviously “Veronica” but there is a greater influence on tailoring and workwear. These are high quality suits and a world away from t-shirts, hoodies and denim jackets.

V Film2

Even her pyjamas are more grown-up and tailored.

Then things start to change. Being in Neptune changes her and although the voice over comments on it, the change is instantly noticeable when the season three messenger bag comes out. This is then followed with a stripey t-shirt, albeit in a much darker more subdued tone than we’re used to, jeans and a leather jacket. Leather jackets have taken over from the denim and military inspired jackets but they still work as a form of armour.

V Film3

A costume moment so important that it gets its own slow motion shot. (That’s not the main reason but I’m going to take it as that.)

V Film5

The clothes have moved back into softer knits and denim inspired pieces as her stay in Neptune extends and extends.

As her acceptance of the life as a private eye becomes more and more apparent the costumes continue to move into an adult version of TV Veronica. There are even small star studs to link back to Lilly’s necklace.

V Film4

We end with a fully immersed Neptune adult Veronica. Leather jacket, muted colours, black jeans, boots. This is the Veronica from the TV show with adult aesthetics and styles learnt from New York. Hopefully this won’t be the last we see of her and her interesting costumes.

[Check out this great interview with Salvador Perez Jr. about the series on mtv.

And Genevieve Tyrrell talks about the film’s costumes here.]

S x

Dressing a Priest: The Costumes of ‘Father Brown’

Father Brown

I’m a sucker for a good murder mystery. And a period one? More of a sucker. Father Brown is a show based on the stories written by G.K. Chesterton from 1911 – 1936. In much the same way that Poirot and Marple have been set in specific time periods (between 1936 and 1938 and the 1950s respectively), Father Brown has been set in the 1950s – don’t ask me why. But this time period allows for certain leeway with specific stories – such as divorce, affairs, even madness. I haven’t read any of Chesterton’s short stories but it does appear that most of the characters have been invented for the show and work in much the same way as detective “assistants” do. They are the audience’s way into the story and act as information retrievers. The characters have all been drawn very well and their costumes (designed by Giles Gale) emphasise this.

Father Brown (played by Mark Williams)

A slightly crumpled, shambolic and mild-mannered priest, Father Brown is, on the surface, easily forgotten. But his apparent innocence belies a playful wit and a razor-sharp intellect. His greatest strength – both as a priest and as a detective of crime – is his love and understanding of other people. The insights he’s been given mean he’s better placed than the police to decipher the criminal mind. However unlike the police, he’s not there to judge. When Father Brown solves crime, he isn’t meting out justice. He’s trying to save souls. [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Father Brown spends nearly all of his time dressed in his black cassock. Changes to this occur at funerals (most common), weddings and when he is seen at a church service. He mostly wears a long white robe (an alb) with appropriate vestments. The show has a priest advisor and I assume that, along with historical research into priests in the 1950s, he was helpful with the proper vestment colours. There have been a few occasions where Father Brown was shown in his pyjamas but I can’t recall any other costumes… Although it has been a year since I saw series one.


Inspector Valentine (played by Hugo Speer)

Head of the local police force and thoroughly decent human being, Inspector Valentine finds himself constantly torn between admiration for Father Brown and deep frustration with him. For Valentine, crime is wrong, full stop; he can’t fathom the Father’s subtle morality. He wishes he had the Father’s insights, and in an ideal world would like them to work together, but has been burnt once too often by Father Brown’s curious moral code… [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Inspector Valentine definitely dresses to impress. Or at least that’s how he views it. He tries. Whenever he is on the scene of a crime his suit always seems to be rumpled. His top shirt button is undone, his tie is slightly loosened and his jacket unbuttoned to show his waistcoat. He mostly sticks to grey and blue tones with his ties being used to brighten up the colours. Nothing is ostentatious about Valentine. And he is always shown wearing his trilby. As he should.


Mrs McCarthy (played by Sorcha Cusack)

The Irish parish secretary at St Mary’s is also Father Brown’s no-nonsense second-in-command. Full of opinions about the shocking state of the nation, she’s his ear to the ground on parish events (though rest assured, ‘she’s not one to gossip’) and his confidante on official Church business and everything else. Chief defender of Father Brown, Mrs. McCarthy lives to check facts for him, to protect him from the wrath of the diocese, to make sure he eats… [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Mrs M is the most old-fashioned character in the show. She reminds me of those older women who found a way of dressing and have stuck with that, fashion be damned. This is fairly authentic. That’s what my Nan did and my Mum sort of does the same thing. Mrs McCarthy is always well “turned out” but none of it would necessarily be on anyone’s vintage ‘to buy’ list. Everything is accessorised with a hat, gloves (usually), pearls (or similar) and a brooch. The fifties silhouette is still in evidence but is hidden much more under cardigans and jackets.


Lady Felicia Montague (played by Nancy Carroll)

A glamorous woman with a lively dress sense and manner to match. Wealthy, but bored, Lady Felicia is a socialite, constantly throwing charity functions, not so much because she believes in the cause, but because she loves a party. But despite filling her life with every distraction imaginable, underneath it all, the Countess is lonely. To fill the void, her behaviour is often hedonistic and impulsive as she seeks out drama and affairs. [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Lady F is the glamour of the show. Above she is described as “wealthy, but bored” and this shows through her clothes. She can afford the very best, the newest and the most daring and everything will be worn perfectly. Her only apparent concerns are how she looks but once you get to know her you realise that this isn’t quite true but it doesn’t make her love of fashion any less visible.


While Mrs M sticks to a similar overall shape for her costumes, Lady F has much more freedom. She has ballgowns with huge skirts and petticoats or a pencil skirt. She has been seen wearing sharply tailored jackets, fur stoles, cardigans, pretty much anything from the 1950s is fair game. But everything is fitted perfectly to her and the key area of the ’50s, the waist, is always highlighted. Always.


Lady F is wearing a fitted dress here and I love it. The lapels, the buttons, that hat and the hair. Perfect.

Sid Carter (played by Alex Price)

A mostly former small-time crook with contacts in the criminal underworld, Sid’s a bit of a grown-up Artful Dodger. Father Brown gives him some handyman work at the church to try to keep him on the straight and narrow – and out of the clutches of Inspector Valentine. He’s Father Brown’s go-to person when he needs help and information on criminal activities, and Sid is only too happy to snitch as long as he feels he’s getting something out of it. [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Unfortunately I couldn’t find too many photos of Sid, my favourite character (Lady F’s a close second). As he spends most of his time as Lady F’s chauffeur we tend to see him in his uniform much of the time. A uniform that looks very familiar to Branson’s from Downton Abbey


If not wearing his uniform he tends to be seen wearing half of his uniform – so we have vest, shirt and breeches with braces. There have been a few occasions where he’s been seen dressed in his “civvies” and these are seen to be very simple clothes. Just as you would expect. High-waisted trousers, wide collared shirts (usually quite bright but not patterned), single-breasted jacket (usually contrasting the trousers) and a pork pie hat. He fits the ’50s but HIS ’50s. You could never confuse him with an older man or a teenager.


Susie Jasinski (played by Kasia Koleczek)

Father Brown’s Polish housekeeper and church cleaner, Susie works part time allowing her to work in other houses around the village. A war orphan who lost both parents, Father Brown plays a paternal role in her life, spying the heart of gold behind the spiky exterior. Susie doesn’t like authority and clashes with Mrs McCarthy but is tremendously loyal to Father Brown. Susie and Sid are sparring partners and there’s a flirty dynamic between them – though both would deny it to their last breath. [Taken from the BBC Father Brown site.]


Susie was only in the first series of Father Brown and, as I only watched it once a year ago I amy not be quite on the ball with her costumes… As you can see from this image she has embraced the silhouette of the 1950s but her dresses are much simpler than those of Lady F. She wears more basic cotton day dresses and doesn’t have much call for elegant evening dresses. The increase of patterned fabric was very evident in the ’50s and this is definitely true of costumes used for most of the female characters in Father Brown.

Inspector Sullivan (played by Tom Chambers)

Chambers: “To Sullivan, Father Brown is like an itch that won’t go away. He finds him annoying, especially as he frequently outwits him. Sullivan bases his investigation on science and reason. He’s very into the forensics of his day. But he’s too busy looking at that to notice the human behaviour that Father Brown picks up on.” [Taken from Birmingham Mail.]


Inspector Sullivan took over from Valentine when Hugo Speer couldn’t film the series due to commitments to The Musketeers and we have a very different detective here. Once again we have three-piece suits in dark colours and a trilby but that’s where the similarities end. The slightly scruffy look of Valentine worked for his gruff demeanour but Sullivan is much more ‘by the book’ and his sleek, well-structured suits show that. He has patterns to his ties but they are in no way as “showy” (if they could be called that) as Valentine’s. His accessories include a perfectly positioned pocket square and a tie bar. This is where I have issues. Not only  does the tie bar look odd because it is so high up (necessary for it to be seen above the high-necked waistcoat) but it is superfluous. A tie bar is intended to hold the tie to the shirt but a waistcoat does that anyway. [How to Wear a Tie Bar by He Spoke Style] Tie bars have come back into fashion recently and this means that people are more aware of them…


The current series of Father Brown ends lunchtime today but should remain on iPlayer for a week or so. The first series is on DVD but nothing has been announced about the second series or whether there’ll be a third. I heartily recommend it if you, like me, have a fondness for this cosy English murder genre.

S x

Some images from

What’s The Score: Halloween Special – Insidious

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 00.26.21

Insidious is one of my favourite films from the last few years – for me, it ticks all the boxes that I want in a scary film; lots of jumps with classic set-ups, sustained tension and perhaps more importantly for me… NO GORE! And one of the cool things about Insidious was the soundscape and the music, which we’re going to look at in this post.  Again, I will be referring to the film for cues as well as the actual names for each track given on the soundtrack collection.

Joseph Bishara’s soundtrack is made up of many cues, ranging from just under 30 seconds to as long as 3 minutes, but you’ll notice right from the very start of this film – I’m talking about when the production company logos are twirling about – that this isn’t your normal kind of film score.  Clattering, heavily reverbed noises clash without any rhythm as the logo comes on to the screen, followed by a ringing that lingers over the image of the light shade with director James Wan’s name.  I like how the ringing effect combines with the rotation of the image to already give a slightly woozy effect, like something is off-kilter.

As the camera travels across the bedroom and round to what looks like a bathroom, we see a silhouette of someone in the window (this is at 1.01 in the video above).  This is when I thought maybe I should leave the cinema, because this is where it gets messed up – those signature strings are first introduced in this moment.  Strings hit screeching high notes and then tumble rapidly down only to start again, layered over one another and building up; these strings sound like screams or wails, and as the shot travels to the creepy old woman down the hall with the candle in her face and the light fades entirely, you think that’s it, the film is going to start.  But then the glowing red title fills the screen with more strings, louder this time, clashing and battling against one another.  I can distinctly hear the motif from the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz somewhere in this mess of strings.

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 16.29.22

Then we’re down to classic horror film territory with sustained, quiet strings – there’s an eery addition to this though; as the ‘shadows’ of the letters in the credits rise and evaporate, some background strings slide up, again like a distant wailing effect.  The film hasn’t even started and we already know many rooms of the house as well as the fact that there’s something very creepy about it.

Musically nothing much happens until the scene where Dalton wakes up from his fall,  but the use of sound is interesting here too – the creaking of the stairs is something we associate with old houses and it gives it that extra creepy edge.  There’s also the crying baby, the children’s computer games and a whistling kettle for Renee to compete with in the hectic morning kitchen.

Quite honestly I’d rather they left out this next part, but it exists – Renai’s song, “Lookin’ West”

Everything about it is awful.  Thankfully, the baby interrupts her song by crying, presumably because she can hear it. We get some weird house noises, drawing Renai up into the attic where the creaking sounds are a throwback to the noises we heard at the start. When Dalton falls and wakes up, we get an atmospheric, hollow sound along with the snapping, cracking noice associated with the demon later on in the film.  When Renai and Josh realise something is wrong, a few piano hits are heard, punctuating the scene.  These add a little to the drama, but in a more unconventional way because normally on these occasions in scary films, these hits are done by strings, and there’s some discernible chord (normally an augmented 4th) in there, whereas generally the scary moments in this film feature some wicked atonal music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 00.44.40The mushy bit between Josh and Renai, where he tells her things will get better in the house and to just ‘give it time’ has a musical cue, and it is fairly conventional.  Gently piano notes, sombre, slow-moving strings and proper harmonies.  I think the conventional music over this scene is a signifier, like dramatic irony or something; in a soundtrack where the music ignores most conventions, this moment of ‘normal’ film music is the exception, and we shouldn’t hope to hear much more like it in the film until everything really is okay.

When Dalton doesn’t wake up, there’s a return of those reverberating strings, lower this time both in pitch and volume, with a cue entitled ‘unawakened mvmt 1’.  Strings rock back and forth before the scene ends and shows that 3 months have passed since Dalton first fell into his ‘coma’.  A second musical cue starts basically straight after, called ‘unawakened mvmt 2’.  This has a more middling, repetitive piano ostinato and a mournful cello, with no particular melody or chord structure to it, atmospheric music to just add to the sombre situation.  Honestly, it seems like it was written by dragging and dropping notes into manuscript software – we’ve all been there, music students, am I right? I’m right.

A high sustained string opens our next music cue, ‘voices in the static’, where Renai hears, well, voices in the static of the baby monitor (the video above is in German, but the music doesn’t change of course). She walks into the hall as we hear the high sustained violin, which is followed by the violins sliding up and down in opposite directions which combines beautifully with the rotating camera work (again rotating around a circular light, like the opening credits) for a dizzying, wailing effect.  There’s something chilling and unnerving about this cue,  and 30 seconds into it as the voices get louder and climax with the terrifying ‘NOW!”, the music changes to the clattering, reverberating sounds we heard before.  This effect is made by using a ‘prepared piano’, which basically means taking a piano and placing crap on the strings and doing other stuff to it, then seeing what happens when you press the keys.  Bishara stated in an interview that he found an old ‘rusted piano shell’ and used it for the score, which sounds to me like he used a prepared piano.

Kind of a poor quality video, but this is the next musical moment in the film, when the baby monitor draws Renai into the baby’s room where she sees the creepy ghost behind the crib.  There’s no build to the musical hit, and that’s one of the reasons why this film works so well, the scares are not set up by obvious musical cues that audiences have become used to.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 19.23.17

We get some general incidental music reappearances from old themes and cues in the next few scenes; a slightly altered version of ‘unawakened (mvmt2)’plays briefly and quietly while Renai talks to the home nurse about Dalton, ending with an atmospheric build up as she notices the red hand print on the bedsheets.

Next, it’s window guy!

Another classic high sustained violin over low tremolos to build up to when he suddenly appears inside the room, followed by another of his prepared piano clangs and a screeching noise which I assume is meant to be him screaming.  As an audience, we’re thinking ‘how the hell did he – how did – what the?!’ and the music isn’t helping; it’s clattering, disconnected and erratic, meant to jangle our nerves like the scene just did.

There’s some forgettable filler music when we see the moving vans, and a repeated solo ‘wail’ from a string instrument when Lorraine looks at the picture of Josh – it’s so fleeting, but it’s enough to make us think at this point that there might be something significant about it.  The next scene features two pieces of pre-existing music, one of which features heavily and practically makes it one of the most memorable scenes in the films.

Starting with a slice of Einaudi, the musical equivalent of ready salted crisps, Renai walks through the house clearing up rubbish while listening to the gentle piano music on vinyl, but as she steps outside the record starts to scratch and skip, and  suddenly we hear the bizarre Tiptoe Through the Tulips by Tiny Tim.  When she looks through the window, a creepy-ass kid is dancing away without a care in the world. He disappears when she moves to another window, and there are only one or two bits of music in this scene, such as a held note as Renai looks through the bedroom door before the rocking horse starts to move on its own, and then very quiet high, sustained, dissonant static strings which gradually crescendo as she approaches the cupboard with a hockey stick.  There’s a stab with the strings as she pushes the curtain aside to find nothing, and then to catch us off guard he jumps out of the top with a bang and the quiet yet screeching strings return once more.

While Lorraine talks about when she first encountered the creature in Dalton’s room, ‘it said it was a visitor’ starts during the story; another high sustained string, with a brief whirl of strings and then some low tremolo strings build the tension, before a break in the music then another hit as that terrifying red-faced demon appears behind Josh. Another hit when they find Dalton’s room has been wrecked, with a sombre cello line leading to the end of the scene.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 21.24.38It’s worth mentioning again how the sounds in horror films can build suspense in the same way music can.  Footsteps, creaking doors and floorboards, and in this case even the rhythmic clicks and whirrs of the ‘ghost-hunting’ equipment.  Just prior to the start of ‘hallway twins’, Tucker clicks the filters on his device before he can see the two creepy girls by the door, and when they appear it’s a high string stab followed by some high tremolos and a build up of chattering, winding strings.

When Elise describes what she can see so that Specs can draw it, the ‘hooves for feet’ cue builds gently and steadily underneath.  Again, mid to low tremolo strings rising at the end of the phrase, followed by wittering high strings and then the spiralling, dizzy layered strings.  The fan on the light is spinning, and the shot alternates between looking up at the fan and looking down at Elise, adding to the dizzy, unsteady effect.  Elise’s explanation of ‘the Further’ has a cue of the same name, which is the longest cue on the soundtrack, and actually seems longer because it is more or less seamlessly connected to the piece that follows it.  ‘The Further’ features the clattering effects in the background, scuttling along as the trembling string motifs sway in and out while Elise describes how Dalton has been doing astral projection for many years. As she starts to explain to Renai the sinister aspects of ‘the further’, a fast, steady electronic bass pulse starts while two violin motifs drift around, before moving back into the rising, wailing strings.

An interesting thing to note is that much of the score was written before filming began, so Bishara’s music isn’t written to specific visual cues; instead, the music was recorded and James Wan editing the tracks into the final cut of the film. The soundtrack is scary enough in itself, but it also explains some of the more bland offerings such as the previous mushy bits and the part that follows here, where Josh sends Elise, Specs and Tucker home.  Josh realises the significance of Dalton’s paintings over the musical cue ‘broken open’, of which only the first half is used – more of the same generic slow-moving cellos and viola with gentle piano notes picked out.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 22.40.46

There’s yet more high sustained strings in this next part, where Elise is using a gas mask and somehow communicating with the spirits.  Amidst the noise that ensues in this scene,  there are three musical cues intertwined – ‘gas mask vision’, ‘muted whisperings’ and ‘leave this vessel’. Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 23.39.33

Bits and pieces of each are used accordingly; the pulsing electronic bass and guttural synths from gas mask vision’ lead into the whinnying, chilling dissonant strings from ‘muted whispers’ and then the harsh, shrill chords on the violin along with the rumbling from the prepared piano in ‘leave this vessel’ combine with the sound effects from the on-screen action to round off this claustrophobic, panicky scene.  Dizzy strings again (think zoom in/pan out but for music not video) when Specs and Tucker look at the photo of the demon behind Dalton; clearly Wan and Bishara meant for this to be the demon’s leitmotif.

Lorraine tells the story of Josh’s night terrors and the old lady from the photos, which is scored with ‘night terror’ – quiet screeching strings in the background, whirling around and building up with vibrato, and – yet again – a sustained string. We get a condensed version of the music from the opening credits when the title first appeared, albeit very quietly but it’s still a recognisable callback to those laughing strings.  When the ‘night terror’ cue finishes, another one starts immediately, entitled ‘bring him back’; this is a short piece for cello and piano which has a fleeting resemblance to a lullaby at one point, and there is a sense of yearning and hope in this music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 22.54.10

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 23.47.44‘Into the further’ is a much deeper piece than we’ve been used to in this soundtrack, which has been full of high pitched strings.  A rumbling, deep synth sound blares as Josh realises he is astral-projecting, and the music takes on an eerie, sci-fi quality with electronic synths and what I think sounds like samples of a man wailing or moaning mixed into it.  As Josh walks through the house, there is the occasional hit to punctuate a jumpy bit, and at one stage there is a improvised whistling to accompany him which is diegetic (remembeeeeeeer?), coming from the male ghost sitting on the couch.  The buzzing electronic synths return when Josh fights the long-haired spirit by the red door, and then we get to where Josh enters the lair of the demon, with a cue entitled, er, ‘into the lair’.  Another sustained high note in the strings is scratched out, with a rhythmic percussive accompaniment as the shot moves through the red corridors.  Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 00.03.50When Josh finally sees Dalton, the strings begin layering harmonies for the emotional reunion, with some dissonance as they aren’t in the clear yet – Dalton points out the demon to his father, and we hear ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ again. The next cue, ‘he’s looking at us’ corresponds to that line in the film, and the strings fall back into the old habits of the frantic, angry tumbling motion, building faster and faster and with the addition of some notes on the prepared piano to add more chaos to the already frightening scene as Josh and Dalton try to escape.

Back in the house, the spirits are starting to enter the house from ‘The Further’ and the numerous clangs and scratches add to the tension; more clatters from the prepared piano and the whirling strings make this even more unsettling, and the occasional rapid stabbing motion from the violins just makes this scene even more energetic.  All the music and noise keep building in texture and volume, creating a very overwhelming and claustrophobic sensation, and there isn’t really a climactic moment in this piece; instead, music just sort of peters out and leads into a cue called ‘the child awake’, with more schmaltzy strings and piano in another ‘drag and drop’ sounding piece.  Apparently there are two separate piece of music here but they are so similar and both so insipid, it’s hard to notice – the second is ‘a new world’, and it’s exactly like ‘the child awake’.

As Elise realises that everything is not quite right,  she takes a photograph of Josh just to be sure.  ‘Dark boundaries crossed’ reintroduces the whinnying strings and frantic, noisy nature from the previous moments in the film, as the tension and volume are quickly built up again around Josh and Elise’s struggle.  There’s a slow, deliberate string motif repeated over and over as Renai looks at the camera and we get a flashback to show us what Elise saw before she died.  The click of the camera breaks through the music, and after a moment of silence, we end with the clattering prepared piano, a short bit of dialogue and then one last burst of the screeching strings for good measure.

Thanks for sticking with me on this one, I love the film and the soundtrack and hope this has been an interesting read.

My Current Addiction

My “new” addiction? Rediscovering Veronica Mars. Being from the UK I’ve had the pleasure of seeing VM shown on TV… once? I think. On E4 when I was at uni. At stupid times during the day. And that’s it. Then there’s the brilliance of its lack of UK DVD release. So when I knew I was going to be forced to “take it easy” for a few days I thought, screw it I’m buying a VM R2 release on Ebay. Done. Granted it didn’t show up until after my rest period and it’s now considered “lazy” if I spend all day on a sofa watching VM.


Various DTSFTers have reservations over Kickstarter projects and I totally understand and to some extent agree with, but I am still a backer of the VM movie. But as far as I’m concerned my donation will pay for itself with the T-shirt, DVD and other stuff I got. Yes, I don’t get a profit from the film or a free ticket to its release but, who knows if the film will even get a release over here?


The best thing about the Kickstarter movie? The publicity VM has got. Especially in a country that didn’t really have it air or, if it did, in a very very low key manner. So how can I encourage people in the UK to watch VM? I don’t know. Illegal downloads? Maybe it’s on iTunes? Fix your Netflix to receive the USA shows? I really would encourage you to watch any way you can. I love it. I wish I were as cool as Veronica, Keith, Mac, pretty much any of them. And another show where you fall for the character against your better judgement? And the character rather than the actor? I won’t go spoiling but I’m sure you’ll get there too.


Want some “spoilers” for the show? You can watch the first look trailer for the movie (I don’t think there really are any here…):

And, you know, this is just awesome:

S x

What’s The Score? – Cabin In The Woods


I finally got round to working on a third What’s The Score, and I decided to look at a DTSFT favourite, The Cabin in the Woods.  The music for this film was consists of a compilation soundtrack for most of the first half and an original score by David Julyan, a composer who has experience with darker and horror film scores, having composed for The Descent and Eden Lake as well as a few Christopher Nolan films.  Plus he’s British – I love to hear about successful British composers having a great career in Hollywood! As ever, please don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film, because there will inevitably be spoilers right from the start.  Unlike with Hunger Games and The Godfather, I was unable to find individual Youtube videos for each musical cue in the film, but hopefully this embedded Spotify player will work for you.  If it doesn’t, then here is a link to three videos that contain all the tracks:

Tracks 1-7

Tracks 8-12

Tracks 13-18

Let’s go…

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