A miniseries created by Neil Gaiman—based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett—the series centered on an angel and a demon, coming together to prevent Armageddon, and enduring one comedic misstep after another in the process.
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A 2014 Emmy winner for his Sherlock score who received his latest two nominations for Good Omens’ score and title theme (personally wracking up a devilish 66.6% of the comedy’s noms), Arnold’s task with the series was to wrangle all its complexities, playing with the sounds of good and evil, while finding truth within a heightened television space. “You have to find the truth in everything in order to write truthfully for something; even if it’s Godzilla or giant spaceships, you still have to play the thing straight,” the composer tells Deadline. “You have to believe and convince an audience that what they’re seeing is happening. Otherwise, there’s no investment in the film, and music is the thing which generally opens those doors much more effectively than anything else can.”
What attracted you to Good Omens? Obviously, you had the opportunity here to reteam with Sherlock director Douglas McKinnon.
Well, I knew Neil Gaiman’s work, but I’d never read the book. Douglas was the one who sent me an email saying that he was going up for the job— and if he got the job, would I be interested in working with him on it? Doug is one of the loveliest carbon-based human beings you’ll ever find who happen to be a director, so that was a no-brainer, because it’s always fun with him, and it’s always honest. Even when you have problems, it’s never hard work trying to get it done with Doug. So, that was an easy choice.
Then the second thing was, when they sent me the script, I just thought, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I loved the Britishness of it, the absurdity of it, the tenderness of it, the honesty of it, and the imagination of it. The fact that it ran amok across centuries and galaxies, and heaven and hell. You don’t really get anything like that very often, to write music for.
Early on, what did Gaiman and McKinnon describe to you, in terms of what they were looking for in the series’ score?
Well, oddly, they didn’t. Sometimes you’ll be doing something for a long time, and you think there’s not really much left to learn, but a huge lesson was learned on this. This was probably the first time where I’ve genuinely been let off a leash and told to go where I wanted, and to go as far as I wanted, in whatever direction I wanted to go. When you are encouraged to do what you feel is right, it’s an amazing thing. Because a lot of the time, it’s a team sport, and there’s a lot of other things to consider. But they did let me consider what I felt the show should be, music-wise, and we oddly got into it right from the beginning.
The first thing that I had to do was a brass band arrangement of “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” which was a Queen song. There’s a certain sort of quirkiness to that. But then after that, there was, in the script, [the suggestion] that the show would open and close with a version of “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, and I was initially slightly disappointed, because I love writing title pieces. For me, it’s like the shop window of the show. “Everyday” is a brilliant song, and it created a certain sort of atmosphere, and at the end of each episode, there was supposed to be a different version of “Everyday.”
So actually, the first thing I did was record those versions. At the end of the first few weeks, while they were still shooting, I had these six different version of “Everyday,” each of them completely different to the other. Maybe that sowed the seeds of where we were going to go, but I did ask them if they would contemplate listening to an idea that I had for a theme tune, for the reason I said before. I love a theme tune, and I think it’s a sort of backbone of the entire piece.
So, I wrote the theme, they came up to my room, and I had that horrible moment when you have to play it for them and hope they don’t hate it. Neil just turned around and said, “Well, that’s Good Omens,” and I remember saying, “I’m glad you like it, because I haven’t got a Plan B.” From that point on, we were just flying.
Your title theme juxtaposes the sounds of heaven and hell. But what inspired you to write it as a waltz?
There’s always something ever so slightly devilish, isn’t there, about a waltz? It has that kind of carnival feeling. A carnival is the thing that comes to town; it’s full of strangers and strange, fascinating people, and your whole town sort of descends on it. Sometimes they’re a bit scary, sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes they’re lovely. So in a way, it’s conjuring up that feeling of something arriving that is fascinating but slightly scary. You’re not quite sure where it’s going to go, or how it’s all going to end. I like the way that it sort of thrusts itself onto the downbeat, a bit like when a parent twirls around with you and throws you up into the air—just a sense of the rush of it, and the energy of it.
Also, I know people talk about dance a lot of the time, when they talk about film music. But really, the whole thing is a love story—not about men and women, but just about people, or angels and demons. It’s above all that stuff, and it did feel like ultimately, a dance is a seductive, romantic thing, and you very rarely do it by yourself. There’s nothing stopping you from doing it by yourself, but ultimately, a waltz isn’t something that you would do by yourself. So, the implication is that whatever you were doing, you’d be doing it alongside someone else, and holding them while it was happening. But it also had that element [where] as you twirl around, it gets ever so slightly out of control.
How were you able to internalize the tone of Good Omens—a cheeky, playful fantasy—and translate that through the language of music?
Well, amongst all that, you’ve also got the crucifixion of Christ and the possible end of the world. There’s plenty of darkness alongside it, but it seems to tackle it in a way which is essentially about the best of us. The way that I attach myself to something is to feel what I feel emotionally about it. What is my emotional response to what it is that I’m seeing? How do I feel about this, and what music would recreate that feeling, [or] best illustrate that sense of feeling? Music’s a thing that you do when words aren’t working anymore, and it’s a thing that helps you go beyond what’s just in front of you. It gives you access to everything behind it; it turns the 2D into 3D, emotionally.
So, it was a very instinctive, emotional response to what was happening in the story, and I think that’s true of everything I do—even though some of the things I’ve done, I suppose, have been for films which you would classify as being a bit silly, some of the big genre ones where they’re obviously not morality tales, and they’re not great human dramas, but they’re a great spectacle.
What kinds of instruments made their way into your score? The nature of the series seems to open it up to sounds you might not hear in other projects.
Yeah, there’s a lot of different instruments, because we go from French Revolution and World War II, to ’60s London, to the crucifixion of Christ, to Noah’s Ark. So, the instrumentation is massive.
The main thing that I started with was the idea that whenever there was something nice—whenever you heard something that would traditionally be considered a ‘nice’ instrument—there would be an instrument which played alongside it, which was not nice. Whenever there was a sweet sense of a violin solo, there would be that same solo, synthetically reproduced two octaves underneath it, growling and spitting at you. So, there’d always be a sense of something else happening at the same time.
The same with the little keyboard figures in the opening titles. It was a good piano, and a bad piano, playing at the same time—one that had been very severely messed up, and one that had been very beautifully taken care of. So, there was a little bit of angel and a little bit of devil in everything that you hear.
The choir was a big part of it, the work that you get them to do—sometimes chanting, sometimes shrieking, sometimes doing things that you wouldn’t normally expect a choir to do. That sense of humanity adds a lot to it, as well.
Was your intention with the choral parts you mentioned to draw out a sense of operatic scale, or theatricality?
Yeah, in a way. I’d been a massive Queen fan when I was younger, especially from the age of about 12 to 14, those two or three years where I saw them live a few times and listened intently to the records, trying to study the way that they played stuff. There is a grandiosity to that music, which kind of informed what I was doing.
When you start off with a history of the universe and God’s narrating it, the idea of it being intimate or chamber is out the window. It is a universe-sized show, so you want to rise to the level that the show demands of you. Some of it’s massive, and some of it is actually very intimate and personal. It is very varied. Some of it sounds like folk music, some of it sounds like choral, operatic music, some of it sounds like film music, some of it sounds like records that were made in the 1960s, some of it sounds like film noir. It travels around a lot, but it has to have a core; it has to have a center. It has to have a place to which we always return, and I think those things are always in the music, in the actual writing.
Sounds are one thing. You can make a score out of sounds, which is fascinating and very effective, but when I go to film music, I’ll tell you what I think of quite a lot. I helped curate the John Barry Memorial Concert after he died. It was a two-hour concert and [around] 40 pieces of music were played. Every single one, you knew the tune, and you felt to the room lift up as they recognized a familiar melody. I think that’s something which is an incredible experience, and you don’t get that with sound design scores.
I like the communal feeling of melody. As humans, we sang before we spoke, and if you think about it, speech is just monotone signing, isn’t it? There is pitch involved, there is timing involved, there’s punctuation, we speed up, we slow down, we get louder, we get quieter. All the things that you do in music, we do in speech. That sense of having something musical, something which, if you took it away from the sound and played it on a piano, would still be recognizably Good Omens…I’m not saying that’s the only way you should score a show, but that’s the way that I scored this one.
How did you work through your choral arrangements, when you’re going to have a choir shrieking or doing something of that nature—something unexpected?
I was always interested in how would you notate that. How would you write that down, if that’s the sort of sound you want? The simple answer is, you just write it on the part: “Sing it like you are escaping from a giant” or something. I think you either get into the spirit of it, or you don’t. We did have a tremendous choir. When I was writing it, it was obviously just samples, so Neil and Doug could hear what it is that I was doing. But then, when we got into the orchestration aspect of it with [conductor and orchestrator] Ben Foster, we were able to say, “These are the sounds that we want to make. This is the vowel sound, and we need this to be very violent.” You write that in the score—“Spit it out violently”; “Sound terrified”—and every time they turned a page, it was a bit more entertaining for them. It was Crouch End Festival Chorus, and they were absolutely fantastic.