Sanditon’s Surprising Sound: Interview with Composer Ruth Barrett
In scoring Sanditon, the adaptation of Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel, composer Ruth Barrett found inspiration in the wild decadence of Regency England, folk music, and…The Clash! In her Q&A with MASTERPIECE, she reveals the process behind the inspired and historically accurate soundtrack, and shares the eclectic inspirations that rocked her composition, in her Spotify playlist!
MASTERPIECE: How might Sanditon‘s score surprise viewers who might have expectations of it based on other Austen adaptations that they’ve seen?
BARRETT: Well, it might surprise them because it’s not going down the familiar classical piano-and-string led score. It focuses on something that was quite ripe in Regency days: folk music. Jane Austen was really into folk music—she had a big collection of standards in her repertoire. Also the style of dancing, and life in that time, was really quite decadent in the Regency period. It was quite wild on the dance floors, so the idea was that they would dance to music that was folk-inspired and quite wild—wilder than you’d see in a Victorian ballroom setting. And maybe, in some of these adaptations, we didn’t want to play it so safe. We wanted to push that angle a little bit.
So the starting point was, “what is this place, Sanditon?” Obviously, it was Jane Austen’s last novel, and she didn’t finish it, so there’s a slight bit of margin there for [writer] Andrew Davies to take it into a new territory, but also kind of remain faithful to the period. When we met up with Olly [Blackburn, director of episodes 1-3] and the production team, [to figure out] what kind of soundscape are we going for Sanditon, it was really like, Sanditon: it’s the Vegas of the South coast! Folk music is big in this time, but we want this to be wild, somewhere where people will go to get their kicks, the rich folk will go down to Sanditon. There’s an opportunity to explore that, but we’re going to stay in the time. So we’ve been faithful to the Regency times, they’re not using electric guitars or anything nuts like that.
I think the way we’ve done it will surprise people, in that maybe they haven’t seen it done like this before. But it’s completely faithful to what we think happened at the time. It might surprise them that we used a Gaelic singer in the ballroom, but it actually happened—musicians used to travel around from all over the country; they used to play music from all around the British Isles. We wanted to really reflect that, and also choose music had a real kick to it, a real vibrancy. “Intoxicating” was a word that we used in that first meeting we ever talked about the music. It’s just going to make you tap your feet, it’s going to draw you in, it’s going to make you feel like, “Oh, I want to be in this town. I want to be with these characters!” But, also have that sense of romance. The thing people love about Austen is, obviously, the romantic side, so we have romance in it, as well as all this kind of “folk and roll.” I don’t know, I just really love the idea of hearing rock and roll for the first time, what the effect that has on people, and trying to get that in our ballroom.
MASTERPIECE: Yes, that Julie Fowlis song at the Sanditon Ball in particular—my reaction was exactly what you were describing: It’s exhilarating and immediate and it makes you feel like you’re there, with sense of the drama escalating, and this feeling that this ball has been going on for a couple of hours.
BARRETT: That’s exactly the effect that we were going for. Exactly that, a feeling that the time had been passing, that things are getting heated, people are getting drunker down there on the dance floor, and whilst all that’s going on, our heroine is getting totally fried by this gorgeous hunk who is starting to lay into her, big style. Instead of using score in a traditional sense, we wanted the ballroom music to impinge on that, just kind of make you feel a bit restless, like “Oh my God, where is this going? Who is this guy? I want to see more!” That’s exactly what we were aiming for, that we said at the start. We were influenced by a film called Heaven’s Gate, and an amazing scene, not a ballroom, but kind of a shindig barn dance with the musician—I think it’s the violinist—on rollerskates, playing realistically, and [we] said, “Whoever’s playing needs to be playing this for real. It can’t be faked. We really want it to be authentic.” So I found these musicians—I went up to Glasgow with the incredible Gillie Mackenzie (who I worked with on Victoria) and made this kind of Celtic super group. With Gillie’s help I literally picked what I considered to be the best players on the scene and formed this band and then got them all to come and play on the set.
MASTERPIECE: This includes Ewen Henderson, whom you found up in Scotland? He’s the one who we seen playing in the tavern?
BARRETT: Yes. When he agreed to do it, I just fell on the floor because he looks like he’s from the Regency times. He’s got the cheekbones, and he’s a mental violin player, an absolutely astonishing fiddler, and he didn’t mind jumping around in the tavern and playing and acting and drinking at the bar. He loved all of that. He’s an absolute genius at finding tunes, he helped me to source all the material for the ballroom, and he’s just a brilliant guy.
It was a real coup to get Julie Fowlis down there, and to get her to sing on the soundtrack as well, was amazing. Then I thought, now that we’ve done the scene, let’s use the band to play the score. And so the whole soundtrack has this kind of homogeneity, where you’ve got this core group of instruments that will then be the sound. I recorded the first episode score with all of the band together in the studio. There was an incredible energy in the room—it was really collaborative and fun. A lot of improvisation and experimentation went on, with great moments captured on the fly. It was an amazing experience—they contributed so much to the music.
We had a good time recording the ball music, psyching up the tempos, speeding up as we went along. We rocked up the folk standards with the drum beat, driving guitar and Kraftwerk-inspired cello lines. The score itself does go from this slightly folk-inspired thing, to also a rock sound, and some other kind of more cinematic-y type of soundscapes as well. So, I hope that gives you that feeling that you’re in this place, that it has an identity.
MASTERPIECE: So after you established that wild Regency tone, what else figured in?
BARRETT: Then once we got going in earnest with the score, it was obvious we needed a lot of other tones in the score, so we’ve got characters like Lady Denham—she’s like a badass Bond villain. So there was a kind of John Barry ‘Moonraker’ idea being bandied around, but I also had the idea of using Vivaldi as an inspiration—powerful chord sequences that convey that go-getting feeling—characters on a quest for power and money.
We also needed a main theme that would give us a sense for Charlotte and her wide-eyed wonder. And Tom, our main entrepreneur, he’s like a pied piper, with the twinkle in his eye. So the main theme that we hear when you first go to Sanditon and there’s a carriage journey, is that, which is the salty sea air and the magical, expansive feeling that it has. Then when we reach Lady Denham, we kind of have a bit of the sense of the baroque landscape. Then you get a flavor of Sidney with the sexy guitars…And then for the romance between Sidney and Charlotte, Wuthering Heights was a bit of an influence. It’s a score I did many years ago with Tom Hardy as Heathcliff. It’s kind of rough and ready, a bit folky but with a wild heart, romantic but not gushing. We have the Jane Austen diehards wanting those big piano string chords. I don’t want them to be disappointed, but I feel like there are definitely those moments there in terms of the romance in the score.
MASTERPIECE: You shared a playlist of your influences and reference tracks for Sanditon, which includes some surprises, like songs from The Clash and The Pogues…
[Sample the songs below, or enjoy the full experience on the Spotify app when you log in—it’s free!]
BARRETT: Yeah, exactly! The Pogues—we really wanted that energy in the ballroom, that kind of wild feeling that it has, The Clash and T. Rex. Olly Blackburn, the director, he’s amazing, he throws all these crazy references at me. Like “The Way of the Dragon,” that’s a good one, a crazy one. To inspire this feeling of the lads who come from London, the rich boys, and their swagger, and Sidney, the incredibly good-looking lead, the Star is Born track “Out of Time” was a real influence. I was watching it on the plane and that track came on and I suddenly felt, “Oh my God, that’s him! ” It’s got that kind of sexy bad boy swagger to it. I was looking for that alluring, just want to love him, but he’s so rude, but you still want to love him [quality].
MASTERPIECE: Can you tell us more about the popularity of folk music at the time?
BARRETT: All of the tracks that we use in the ballroom, for example, were standards that were around at the day. “Mrs. McLeod’s Reel,” actually, was one of Jane Austen’s favorite tracks. So there are these little Easter eggs in the show—there’s “O Waly, Waly,” a song that she was very fond of, and that appears…in Episode Four. There’s “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”—I think that’s on the beach in Episode Five—that’s another one of Jane Austen’s favorites.
MASTERPIECE: Were these in referenced in letters, or did she have a library of sheet music?
BARRETT: She had a library of music in a collection, and there were also letters that she’d written where she mentioned pieces. There were some comments from British public who were saying, “Oh, isn’t a bit Irish and Scottish?” Actually, all of the musicians in the band are Scottish. Nathaniel Gow was a renowned Scottish conductor and bandleader at the time who traveled around the country. So I think we were pretty true to point. All the tracks in the ballroom, each one was from a different part of the British Isles—I think we’ve got a Welsh ayre, we’ve got an English dance, we’ve got a Scottish dance, and then we’ve got that amazing “Fionnlagh Ag Innearach,” the Gaelic song at the end.
We wanted the handclap, and we wanted the people to join in and make a circle around the musicians, that was something that used to happen. Hogarth’s paintings are another example of this…these people used to get down. They weren’t polite, and boots fly off; there’s lots of drinking that happened, and they used to kick up their skirts and have fun. We really trolled the archives for the best. There’s a bit of Appalachian influence in there as well. There were people who used to travel across the sea, trading back and forth, and music was coming over from there. So, it was definitely a thing, and there is quite a strong flavor of Deadwood‘s wild west in the show. One of the pieces that we had in the ballroom, “Glory in the Meeting House,” was an Appalachian tune that predated the music at the time, but would have been at Sanditon at the time. It’s really got that energy, and I think there’s something about music from the Americas where you kind of capture that entrepreneurial feel. The adventurers, the daring people that go out there and forge a new country. With the London Ball, we wanted to keep the rock ‘n’ roll vibe, but give it an air of sophistication, so I explored early Baroque music. Musicians used to improvise—there was a strong beat and a lot of repetition in the music—it has this raw and sexy feel. We used Baroque viola, cello, harp and drum for Sidney and Charlotte’s dance, intimate and earthy.
MASTERPIECE: You’ve composed and scored some of our other most beloved shows of recent years, Victoria and The Durrells in Corfu. Is there any surprising DNA that connects them for you, this show set Greece between the wars, this Victorian one, and then Sanditon?
BARRETT: Strong women: that’s a common link between The Durrells and Victoria for sure, and maybe even Sanditon as well, because Charlotte’s the heroine. I think maybe that’s what drew me into all three, definitely for The Durrells. Victoria was such a huge power. Lousia Durrell was an amazing strength and force of nature. In Sanditon, it’s Charlotte who is the heroine, who observes this town and changes people.