When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow.
This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and Lady Edith, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. But what can they expect from the music?
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“Bigger, better, grander,” says Glasgow-born composer John Lunn, who scored all 52 episodes over six seasons and won two Emmys in the process. Fans will agree, particularly when they first glimpse England’s Highclere Castle on the big screen with Lunn’s new, richly scored recording of the theme.
“It’s not like a movie remake of a TV series,” says Lunn by phone from New York, where he attended Monday’s premiere. “It’s actually a direct continuation of the story, so a lot of the themes that were important at the end of the final season inevitably carry on into the movie’s storyline. I think it was the same for all us — director, producers, writer, actors: once we started getting back into it again, it was like we’d never left it behind.”
While there is also considerable new material, Lunn needed to revisit many of the character and relationship themes that became an integral part of the show. “The first 20 minutes is a continuous reintroduction of all the characters and their places,” he reports. “You’re meeting these people that you’ve known before and being presented with their situation in life, and music reminds you of all that.”
Before he started on the movie, Lunn — who has been away from the “Downton” scene for nearly four years, working on series like “Grantchester” and “The Last Kingdom” — watched all six seasons again. “We had a bigger budget, more time to experiment a bit and more time to record it,” by comparison with the usual rush of a TV series, he says.
So instead of 35 players, which played the weekly episodes, Lunn had the relative luxury of more than 70 musicians at the legendary Abbey Road studios. And, as he did throughout the series, Lunn played the piano himself. “I play a little like Elton John,” he notes. “Although there’s a veneer of classicism, you really need to dig in, and there’s an attitude to it that comes from pop music.”
Although the storyline revolves around the visit of King George and Queen Mary to Downton in 1927, most of the new music doesn’t involve the royals. “It’s more to do with all the other characters around them, and the way that they have to deal with the visit,” Lunn explains. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) gets much of the new material because of the mysterious character who follows him around, and a new romantic interest that appears midway through the story.
There is also some lively ’20s-style jazz heard in a secret speakeasy where Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds himself one night; sharp-eyed fans will spot Lunn as the pianist in the scene.
Most challenging for the composer (pictured above with actor Michael Fox) were the scenes involving the miffed Downton staff who discover that their dinner-making and -serving skills are unwanted by the snooty staff of the royals, and the rivalry that develops. “Most of the comic music is in a minor key,” Lunn points out, “almost Kurt Weill-ish, so you can take it seriously. But because of the way the instrumentation is done, you can’t really take it that seriously.”
Lunn, who performed his “Downton Abbey” music in a live concert June 22 at Highclere Castle, is already back to work on another Julian Fellowes-scripted television project, titled “Belgravia,” set in 1820s-era London.
Asked how his life has changed as a result of the worldwide success of “Downton,” Lunn says that “in one way, my life has completely changed, but in many other ways, it hasn’t, really. Obviously, it’s made me more famous. But I haven’t really changed my day-to-day work. I’m still mainly working in television.
“It’s great if somebody who doesn’t know you asks what you do and you say, ‘Well, I’m doing music for “Downton Abbey.” they go ‘Oh my God!’ Nobody ever says ‘What’s that?'”