Season four of The Crown is the best yet— Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) struggles to bring the monarchy into the modern age, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) enters the political arena, with Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin)’s once fairytale courtship falling apart under intense public scrutiny,— The 80s were an incredible playground for the Netflix royal saga.
Musically, the new decade also proved ample inspiration for Martin Phipps. The Emmy-nominated composer continued to expand and evolve the sound established in earlier seasons.The introduction of Princess Diana gave Phipps the opportunity to infuse his compostions with 80s-inspired tones and melodies. As season four exposed the darker side of royal life, Phipps also used his score to further explore the mind of the charecters— the stirring chords echoing the darkness, isolation and bitterness within the House of Windsor.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, composer Martin Phipps discusses his work on The Crown, exploring the tonal shifts and new elelents of the fourth season, and what lessons audiences can glean from watching the drama unfold. Phipps also teases his return for the final two seasons, featuring a new cast.
Awards Daily: You joined The Crown in season three. Talk me through the process of weaving in sound elements from seasons one and two and now continuing to build upon that with season four.
Martin Phipps: Well, season three when we came on, there was always a question of carrying on what had gone before. But it was very much trying to do our own thing too. And with the reboot and the change of cast, it was about trying to create a new use of music. There was quite a shift in season three, I think, in the style of music carrying on from Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. So we really worked hard to set up that new sound and use the music in a different way. And Peter Morgan, who’s the showrunner, was really keen that when we got to season four, we don’t just start again and try a whole new sound approach, but we build on what we had done on season three. So it was very much about continuing with the same and also adding new flavors and bringing in new ideas. And of course, we’ve got these fantastic new characters of Diana and Margaret Thatcher, so there was obviously a lot of material there for me to work with, and we’re in the eighties, which is a fantastic decade to be in.
AD: What can you tell me about how the 80s influenced the score and the music for season four?
MP: The eighties was such an exciting decade and musically such a fantastic decade. And, I think it was well reflected in the source tracks that were used. I didn’t feel a need to suddenly create a bright, brash, sort of eighties disco, pop sound. You know, it wasn’t like I suddenly had to transform it into that. That was being covered in quite a lot of other tracks that were being used. But, I did want to capture an element of that. I deliberately put in some quite authentic original eighties synth sounds into the score. There were a couple of tracks that ended up on the album, The Diana Effect, and there are other little bits in a few of the other tracks. But I didn’t want it to overwhelm things.
AD: And what about the introduction of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana? What was your approach to scoring those characters?
MP: You know, we tried to keep the consistency. It was more like an injection of something new like the injection of a new character in Diana.
And Thatcher, it’s quite complicated to explain this, but I grew up in London in the eighties, so I’ve got quite a complicated relationship with Margaret Thatcher as a lot of people have. And it didn’t quite feel right that she should have her own theme. It’s not that I’m trying to sort of do a disservice through that; it was complicated. She’s not in the central Crown world, and traditionally, I don’t believe the prime ministers had their own themes in previous seasons; Wilson didn’t have one in season three. So it sort of didn’t feel right that she should have one now. But she gets some great musical moments, and it was a pleasure to score such a formidable character.
AD: What new sound elements and instrumentations did you introduce this season?
MP: I did bring in a touch of the 80s sound. That is in there. Beyond that, I think it was taking the sound that we had in season three, which was this very often sort of low but stirring emotional, but quite powerful string sound and just tweaking it slightly so that everything feels a little more modern. It’s just edging further away from that orchestral sound and into a sound world that you can’t quite tell whether it’s orchestral or electronic, so it’s a little bit more of a hybrid. There’s a natural shift as we’re sort of slowly coming into focus of the modern age.
AD: A much-discussed aspect of season four is how this season turns the show on its head and shows the royal family in a different light, a more negative light. How did you approach the themes of isolation and tension, and that shift in tone, within the score?
MP: All of these seasons, the whole show, is building up towards the breakdown of this family and the falling apart of this institution and, therefore, a massive emblem of British society and the monarchy that resonates worldwide. You know, everywhere that has monarchies, or has had them, has broken away from them. So it’s a very big subject to be looking at—This slow descent into this disintegration is something that we’ve been tracking over the seasons. It started much brighter and more optimistically in the fifties and began to disintegrate in the sixties and seventies. And now in the eighties, we sort of hit crisis point with Diana and the way that the family can’t handle her.
And yes, in the music, that was one of the major shifts that we started to do in season three—have more intimate music that resonated more intimately with the characters and took you inside their heads, got you wrapped up in their emotions, and gave you moments where you felt it was just you as the audience and them as the character. We’ve done that even more in season four. There were whole sections where you have practically no other sound except the music and the visuals, and the music is therefore taking you into the head of the characters.
AD: You touched on this briefly earlier, but how has spending so much time in the world of these characters changed your perspective on the British royal family and British society?
MP: Well, it’s really interesting. I mean, listen, when I first heard that they were going to make a series about the British royal family, about the Windsors—I just thought it was a terrible idea. What was possibly going to be interesting? How could we learn anything through a story like that? And personally, I have very little feelings about the royal family. I’m not a monarchist, but I’m not avidly against them either.
I think the real heart and the clever element of this show is how it tells you a lot about the society in which we live, certainly in Britain anyway, through this representation of the royal family. And whether it’s particularly accurate isn’t really relevant, I don’t think. It’s about what it’s saying. And what it’s saying is very truthful—we are very class-based, often quite snobby, but also generous and kind society. And musically to be able to score that is just fantastic. What I think is so great is that all the characters are complex and have their own vulnerabilities, and their own nuances, and contradictions— and that’s really great to score.
AD: Can I ask if you will be returning to score season five?
MP: Yes, I am doing seasons five and six, which is really great.
AD: That’s wonderful, congratulations!
MP: Thank you! I’m really, really happy about that. You know, they swapped out the composers at the end of season two with the change of cast. And we’re going to get another change of cast now. I was, obviously, a little worried. [Laughs]. So, I’m feeling really happy to be asked back for seasons five and six. I’m starting season five in the summer.
AD: Can you tell me anything about the work process when beginning a new season of The Crown?
MP: Traditionally, in these situations, they will film the season, do rough cuts, and then hand it over to the composer. And the composer will work with them from then on—when they lock picture, go into post-production, etc. Whereas what I do is I speak to Peter Morgan, who’s really the main guy, and then maybe some of the directors if they have time, but I speak to Morgan particularly, and he gives me a brief and talks to me about the characters coming up and, and then I’ll just go away and write it like an album worth of material for them. And then they use that when they’re editing, and they put it in the cut. Often where the music goes is where they’ve decided those tracks should go. And then I come back towards the end of the process and finesse it and add extra material. But, it’s a really good way of working. It feels much more integral and like things are much more organic between the music and the picture.
All episodes of The Crown are available to stream on Netflix.