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STIMULATING MUSIC THAT SUPPORTS THE FILM - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will always be remembered for its long title. The comedy drama by director Mike Newell about a young female writer who visits the Isle of Guernsey on a personal quest just after the Second World War is an extremely well-crafted film with a top cast with appealing actors both young and old, an intriguing story, a beautiful location, painstaking art direction and a stimulating orchestral score.

That score was composed by Alexandra Harwood who made an auspicious scoring debut for her first feature film. When she came on board of the project she too had a struggle learning to say the title of the film, she told Score recently.

                                   Alexandra Harwood (right) during the recording sessions at Air Studios, London.

Alexandra Harwood (1966) was classically trained at the Royal College of Music in London, and afterwards continued her studies at the Juilliard School in New York. Since 2010, she has written music for lots of mostly British short films. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is her first feature film as a composer. A big help came from her agent Maggie Rodford who put her up for the film, not directly with Mike Newell, but with the producers. They listened to her music from other films, liked it and sent it over to Newell and his editor Paul Tothill. Harwood: ‛They started putting my temp music on the assembly edit as they were shooting, and that was a really wonderful thing for me because I think, other than the fact that they liked my music, it meant that my music started to become part of the film, even though I hadn’t yet written to picture.՚ Finally she had a meeting with Newell and Tothill four weeks after they finished shooting, when they watched a rough cut of the film. Harwood: ‛Mike wanted to see not only if we got on but also to see how I responded to the film. It was very surreal for me to watch a big feature with my music all over it that I hadn’t yet written to picture. Luckily I had a very strong response to the film, so after we watched it I was full of things I wanted to say, which was good.՚

Looking back, Harwood is full of praise for Mike Newell: ‛We had a very strong working relationship. He was very trusting and very respectful and gives so much space for you to bring your own interpretation and creativity. Mike has the skill to make you feel that you are doing your best. Creating can be a struggle, so if you feel that you’ve got somebody embracing what you do, it helps you do better, I think, because you have room.’

In his long career as a director, that started back in 1964, Mike Newell has worked with many different film composers. Among them were female composers like Anne Dudley and Rachel Portman. Did he want another female composer for the Guernsey film? ‛In general I think Mike seems not to really think about whether you are a female or a male composer, but whether you are the right composer. But I think he did feel a female composer would be important for the Guernsey film, because it is predominantly about a woman called Juliet. She is the female protagonist and he thought a female composer would have a sensibility and an understanding of her character. Whether a man could have that same empathy? Of course it would be a different empathy. I definitely had a connection with Juliet. She is a very modern character. For a film set just after the Second World War and flashbacks into this war she really is a modern day feminist: she is standing up for herself, and even though there is romance in the film that’s not what defines her. What defines Juliet is the quest to rediscover herself again through her passion for writing. At the beginning of the film, she’s lost that passion, she’s lost her parents, she’s come out of the Second World War and it’s her journey to Guernsey that helps her find herself again. I think that is the predominant story. For me my writing is my passion and my saviour, so that’s why I connected with Juliet’s character so strongly. Whether that helped me write for the film, I don’t know. I have to get inside the story and inside the heads of the characters in order to do my best and to help tell the story. And ultimately that is what all composers are trying to do: to help tell the story.՚

Lots of music

At two hours long, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has quite a lot of music. ‛Indeed, there is actually quite a lot, but it’s not dominant. I like music when it supports the film and you’re unaware of where it comes in or out. I pursue doing that the best I can. Regarding the amount: that did evolve gradually with this very odd process of my temp music being used very early on. As Mike and Paul were in the editing process, they were constantly working with my music, the amount evolved with the edit. I think it sits well with the film, and give enough breathing spaces without smothering. Obviously there are moments where music should come to the foreground and certain films need music like that. I adore films that have such music, but this film didn’t demand that kind of score. It would have been really wrong if it had been too prominent. I didn’t want to lead the audience too much, but hopefully the music was supportive.՚ Being a dramatic film with two likeable characters played by Lily James (as Juliet, the young writer) and Michiel Huisman (as Dawsey, the farmer on the island) the film has a romantic ending, to say the least. ‛I found writing a big romantic cue a challenge because I wantsed to avoid cliché. Because romantic endings in themselves are cliché, we didn’t want the music to over milk it. There is a real ebb and flow in that last scene: they are running toward each other, then stopping to talk and then the final climax ..… It was so stop and start and musically that was a real challenge.՚

                                                              Lily James and Michiel Huisman in the Guernsey film.

In a film that has so many characters and is so full of emotions, a couple of themes might be very helpful to move along with the story. ‛We were talking about themes early on, but even if I predecided on them in concept, in the way I write, it’s a little bit more organic than that. When I compose I am generally not too conscious of my decisions, so themes evolve and emerge as I’m writing.՚ Harwood points out how one of the key themes came about: ‛One of the important cues for Mike, was when Juliet is first taken to her bed and breakfast in a horse and cart, with a shot of the cliffs in the distance. He explained: ‘Alex, those cliffs are the center of the film.’ That was such a helpful direction because I realized what he wanted to say: it was really about Guernsey. That really is the center of the film. It’s the beginning of her journey, and this Guernsey theme appears is in the film a lot.՚ What can you tell about the other themes? ‛The typewriter cue for whenever Juliet is typing ,was written early on. It has a different musical colour to the rest of the score, and was really to convey her energy and obsession with what she was trying to write. Then there was a love theme and a theme for Kit, the little girl, which was woven in a few times quite subtly.՚

The main part of the film takes place on Guernsey with its beautiful nature and breathtaking landscapes. Did Harwood reflect the scenery in the music? ‛Not consciously or directly so, nobody asked me to do that. I think the only places we were very conscious of the nature in discussions, was for the cues we called the ‘mystery’ cues. This was used for whenever Juliet was trying to put pieces of the story together; when she was going through the woods looking at Elizabeth’s cottage or often with the shots of the sea. These quite atmospheric cues were the only ones where I think I was really aware of the nature.՚

Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. Harwood used lots of percussion like the marimba which was used in some of the Nazi cues. And then there were various cymbals, metalic drums, bass drum and side drums that were also used for these cues. Prominent instruments that can be heard in the score are the piano, harp, lots of strings and woodwinds.


One of the highlights of the score is the typewriter theme. Tenor sax, trumpet, oboe, bassoon, clarinet and flute can be heard in this theme along with strings. Did Harwood use any electronics in the score? ‛Yes I used these for the atmospheric cues, such as the mystery cue. For this film I predominantly used the sample library Omnisphere. I like using these sounds when they are called for as they can give a slightly other-world feeling.՚ The orchestra that performed the original score during the recording sessions consisted of 56 players. That’s quite impressive for a film score. ‛Yes. I am a classically trained composer and writing orchestral concert music is part of my background. The moment I am in a recording session with an orchestra that’s the one thing I never feel scared or intimidated by because for me it is like coming home. It was so lovely to have the budget for an orchestra, it’s such a treat. There was often not a big enough budget on smaller films I’ve scored before so I’m really happy to be getting more opportunities on bigger films now and to be able to embrace what I love and have had in my life as a classical composer.՚

                                                                              Lily James in the Guernsey film.

Harwood orchestrated the score with Geoff Alexander. ‛I’ve always orchestrated, it’s something I’m very familiar with and don’t have to think about too much. This was the first time I’d worked with Geoff, but we had met before and I knew all about him and the films he had worked on and I just had a sense he’d know exactly my language and grammar, which he did.՚

Will the score be released on CD or as a download? ‛Yes, it’s being released by Decca and will be my first album, which is exciting for me. It is only being released.՚ What about future assignments? ‛Another film I co-composed the score on last year, The Escape, with Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper has just come out in France and will come out in the US this month (May) and in July in the UK. I am presently writing the last of four commissioned concert pieces for the chamber group iMusicanti, for their St John’s Smith’s Square concert series and this last concert is on June 3rd.’

Would you like to work for American films? ‛Yes, my real ambition is film predominantly. I have always loved films. I have watched so many films it would make anybody cry! I’m obsessed with them and if I turn on TV I generally choose to watch a film, rather than watching programs made for TV. My ambition is to score films as much as possible and that means: yes, I would love American films, British, French … any! Luckily, thanks to the internet and ease of travel, the world has become a very small world now, so it’s possible to work from home in the UK and not necessary to move to America. I know British composers who still live here and do Hollywood movies. Perhaps being there would have an advantage for more accessibility, but my father who is in the film business has always said to me : don’t go to LA, let LA come to you. I could go there but then maybe I’d become a very very little fish in a very very big pond. I feel quite a little fish here to be honest and I’m in a little pond!՚ We haven’t heard the last of Alexandra Harwood yet. There’s no doubt about that.

Paul Stevelmans