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Cracking The Code –

The Composer Behind Morse


Kim Smith

Interviews composer (and occasional actor) Barrington Pheloung

Think Inspector Morse and images of funfairs, winkle stalls and a 1.33 mile-long pier don’t immediately spring to mind. Instead, honey-coloured Cotswold stone, noble lawns and dreaming spires are far more familiar. But Southend-on-Sea, rather than Oxford, is where the phenomenally successful music to Britain’s favourite detective series was composed.

Its creator, Australian-born Barrington Pheloung, 45, carefully crafted each note in a studio at his Westcliff-on-Sea home, overlooking the mud, glorious mud of the Thames estuary. He spent 12-15 hours a day in the rooftop workroom, creating scores for not just television, but films, ballet and concerts.

Having written for Morse since its inception in 1987 right up until last autumn’s 33rd and final instalment, REMO. Barrington, who has since moved to Great Dunmow, is naturally an expert on the curmudgeonly copper. In fact, a little probing reveals that he and the John Thaw character have much in common.

Both have a penchant for good reading, fine wine and the classics. Like Morse, Barrington also enjoys puzzles, especially crosswords. And he too loves Mozart.

“Colin Dexter, the series’ writer had Morse down as a Wagner freak, but to tell you the truth, I can’t stand Wagner,” he says. “So over the years I gradually phased his music out.”

Barrington has been a professional composer since the early ’70s, receiving his first commission while still a student at the Royal College of Music in London. He made his television soundtrack debut on the 1985 Michael Elphick series Boon, which was produced by the late Kenny McBain. But it was Inspector Morse, also introduced to the small screen by McBain, that brought him international acclaim.

Initially there were no plans to release music from the series. Then viewers started to write to the composer asking if there was a CD available. Eventually, fed up with making cassettes for people, he suggested to Virgin Records that they should put it out.

The first of the eventual four Morse Cds (plus compilations) surprised everybody by climbing the album charts to number four. “Madonna was on one side of it and Annie Lennox on the other,” Barrington says, still incredulous.

Barrington Pheloung on location in Italy for SELF

Barrington certainly had fun with the show. It’s common knowledge that the opening notes of the theme tune spelled out the detective’s name in Morse Code. “It was just a little in-joke,” he says. “I put his name at the beginning and then it recurred all the way through – although a telegraphist wrote to The Guardian to point out that it actually spells ‘t.t.o.r.s.e.’ as I’d slightly lengthened the dots on the ‘M’. I mean, honestly, some artistic license please! Just because I asked the violinists to play a little more legato!”

Morse wasn’t the only name he dropped into the music. “Sometimes I got a bit cheeky and spelled out the killer’s name in the episode. In the episode, WHOK, which was a bit of an enigma, the culprit was called Earle. So he got plastered all over the orchestra.”

The mystery of Morse’s first name was what really hooked viewers though. Twenty million people watched the episode where it was due to be revealed and listened intently for clues in the music. A national newspaper even employed the Royal College of Signalling to decipher the notes. Barrington out-sleuthed all of them though as nobody guessed. It was left to the character himself to unveil the truth. “It’s Endeavour,” Morse reluctantly admitted.

Barrington also used his music to play down violence in the programme. “I don’t think car chases or shoot-outs should be glamorised so I aimed for sounds of terror rather than a drum-machine going dodo dodododo bum etc., which I’m afraid is what happens in most other cop shows.”

In the final Inspector Morse, Barrington was given a cameo role as a choirmaster. The excitement of this could not diminish his sadness at saying goodbye to a friend. “Morse had been a part of my life for 14 years, since before my eldest boy was born. I found REMO very moving because of this and there was a moment, despite the fact that I’d read the script and knew that Morse was going to die, where I shed a tear for his passing.”

The Inspector Morse link did not impress everybody though. Classical music purists have sneered at Barrington, claiming he’d sold out by working in such a populist field. But he answers: “The great thing about it is that I’ve reached millions of people. Inspector Morse got about 26 million viewers in this country alone, never mind the rest of the world, and that’s why I’ll always write for television and films. We are in this business to communicate and if you reach millions of punters through film or television then that is real communication.”

The list of Barrington’s other television credits is eclectic and endless. He’s worked on everything from a documentary on Soviet history called Red Empire, to Days of Majesty, a four part series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path, the mini-series Mosley and the Martin Clunes comedy, Neville’s Island. More recently he’s written for the show that perhaps could be deemed son of Inspector Morse, Dalziel and Pascoe.

Theatre-wise, Barrington composed the music for Arthur Miller’s After the Fall and The Ride Down Mount Morgan, Made in Bangkok by Anthony Minghella, Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and more recently The Graduate, which has starred everybody from Kathleen Turner and Jerry Hall to Amanda Donohoe. He has also written 50 scores for ballet and dance companies, including the Scottish Ballet’s internationally-acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

On the movie front, he’s worked on cellist Jacqueline du Pre’s life story, Hilary and Jackie, which he introduced at the recent Chelmsford Film Festival, and the tear-jerker Truly, Madly Deeply, starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman. The latter was notable because Barrington actually appears in it as the ghost who plays the double bass. It wasn’t until a year after the movie came out that he discovered Rickman’s character was based on himself, ‘the eternal party animal’.

Major players in the advertising world, like Robinson’s, Andrex, Sainsbury and Citroen have utilised him too, commissioning music for the U.K., U.S.A. and Far East markets.

So given the obvious demand for his talents, does Barrington find any time to relax with his wife, dancer and choreographer Anita Griffin, and their two sons, Anthony and Danny? “I love cricket and am a member of the Lord’s Taverners,” he says. Despite having lived in England since the age of 18, Barrington can’t quite bring himself to support our national side though. “It has to be Australia,” he laughs.

(This article first appeared in Essex Life & Countryside, October 2001, and is reproduced here with permission)