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Interview: Composer John Lunn on Downton Abbey concert

Downton Abbey Live arrives at Highclere Castle in June.

On Saturday 22 June 2019, the stunning Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, will welcome the Downton Abbey Live.

The Chamber Orchestra of London will perform live renditions of the show’s ever-iconic music, hosted by Jim Carter in character as Mr Carson, and with series composer John Lunn on piano.

Lunn, whose career includes celebrated BBC productions Little Dorrit and Waking The Dead – among others – has composed the music for each of Downton Abbey’s six acclaimed series.

His love of performing in palpable, when speaking of the live show and working on the multi-award winning production. Most recently, Lunn has travelled across Europe performing the Downton Abbey Suite – a collection of seven to eight-minute versions of most of the compositions from the first couple of seasons.

Downton Abbey Live is, however, his largest endeavour to date.

Ahead of the performance, putting the music of Downton Abbey against the stunning backdrop of Highclere Castle, John Lunn opens up about things to come, his life on the show, and the forthcoming Downton Abbey feature film.


How are you feeling about taking part in the live show?

Fantastic. We’ve been talking about it for years. For one reason or another it’s never quite taken off, but the fact that it’s now happening is brilliant.

It’s the type of music you can devise a concert out of. Not all film music lends itself to being performed live without the picture, but the Downton Abbey music definitely does.

How do you feel about performing at Highclere Castle?

That will be amazing, just to do it where the whole thing kicked off. It’ll be amazing, really.

What do you think the open air concert will offer fans?

It will give an opportunity to get closer to the music and realise what an important part the music is in the show. For those who haven’t seen the show, I’m sure it would make them want to watch the it.

A lot of the music does stand on its own without the show. I tried really hard to do that, and we’ll be rearranging some of the music to make it even more impactful, which we wouldn’t have been able to get away with on screen.

 

What’s your day-to-day involvement with Downton Abbey?

The music is virtually the last thing that’s added to the show. It will have been edited, and the episode will be basically finished. I’m given that and we discuss where we need music and what we need that music to do.

A lot of the music is about the timing, so I work to the picture itself. You have to fit it under the dialogue. I watch the scene four or five times and improvise to it. I can then tell what works, what gives the emotion more emphasis or clarity.

Once I’ve finished writing it, I’ll show it to the team and we go off to the studio and record it. We did that process for every single episode.

It’s all part of the storytelling. It’s not really about time and place. I’m not trying to make people think I’m in 1920s England, it’s much more about what’s going on inside people’s heads.

What first attracted you to Downton Abbey?

They’d filmed the first episode and asked me if it was something I’d be interested in. I watched it and thought it was rather good, so I agreed to do it.

To be honest, nobody had any idea it was going to be so big. I don’t think I even read the script.

What makes it unique compared to your other work?

I’ve done other things I’m equally proud of, including a lot of work for the BBC, but I think just the sheer popularity of Downton Abbey makes a big difference. I went to China last year and ended up giving two talks about the show. Nothing else I’ve done has ever quite had that massive appeal.

Did that add pressure as the series went on?

If I’d known how big it was going to be, I would have been a lot more nervous, but by series three we all knew what we were doing. There have been difficult moments, but we had cracked it so it wasn’t really an issue.

And you’ve got the Downton Abbey film in the works?

I’m just about to start working on that. I’m really looking forward to it. That might be a little more complicated because it’s a different format. They’ll have to be new music, but there will also be things in the movie that people will recognise from the TV show.

 

Is there any show you wish you had been involved in?

I would love to do something like True Detective or House of Cards. I like to vary it. At the moment I’m doing Jamestown for Sky, which is like an early western. I’m really enjoying it because it’s so different.

I really fancy doing a film noir because I haven’t done one of those for ages. I’m going be making the fourth season of Last Kingdom, and the music on that couldn’t be more different to Downton Abbey. That’s good for me.


Series composer John Lunn will play the piano at the Downton Abbey Live at Highclere Castle on the 22 June 2019.

Find out much more about the live event here.

Tickets for Downton Abbey Live are available now through Ticketmaster.co.uk.

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