The opening notes of Downton Abbey‘s theme song are as transportative as any in TV history. The piano keys begin and you know you are about to enter a world filled with opulence and beauty, with heartache and romance, with characters that are as familiar and affirming as an evening under a blanket with a warm cup of tea—irresistible and hard to forget.
Thankfully, we now have Downton Abbey: A New Era, a second feature film that allows us to revisit our much-missed Crawleys once again.
John Lunn, the two-time Emmy-winning composer of Downtown Abbey, returns for A New Era, following the aristocratic family as they travel to the south of France to visit a mysterious villa bequeathed to the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) by an old flame. Meanwhile, a film crew comes to Downton to make a new silent picture, leaving Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) with a fascinating new career prospect. These adventures provide an avenue for more of Downton Abbey‘s signature charm and they also provided Lunn with a unique opportunity to expand the scope of the now-iconic score he first created for the lauded TV series. Inspired by French melodies and the music of the early days of Hollywood, Dunn’s score is a perfect blend of new and familiar.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Lunn revisits Downton Abbey‘s beloved theme song, and how the ever-evolving relationships at the center of Downtown influence the music.
Awards Daily: Well, first of all, let me tell you that I love Downton Abbey; I have seen the series probably six times from start to finish.
John Lunn: Oh my God. [Laughs].
AD: How many times have you seen the show? Do you go back and watch old episodes?
JL: Because there was a big gap between the first movie and the end of the TV series, I went back and watched the whole series before I started work again on the first movie. But that’s the only time.
I’m kind of watching Downton when I’m working on it. I’m watching things over and over and over again. So it’s not as if I’m watching it once and then making the music; I’m kind of going all back and forth over it. So I do know it pretty well.
AD: I want to start at the very beginning of your Downton Abbey journey— your original ideas for the series, your original compositions, and how the music we know so well came to be because I think that will lead perfectly to where we are today. How did you initially approach the series and that now-iconic theme song?
JL: I was asked if I wanted to do the job after they’d already filmed the first episode. And I can’t actually remember if I was sent a script or not. I suspect I probably wasn’t because they already had the first episode in the can. I knew it was going to be a costume drama, and I’d been doing quite a lot of those leading up to Downton Abbey. I did a couple of Dickens adaptations. I did Bleak House (2005), and Little Dorrit (2008), which were eight to 10-hour TV series and costume dramas. I approached them with quite a kind of modern sound. And the people from Downton wanted something modern as well, although they didn’t really know what they meant when they said that. [Laughs] But when I started working on it, I listened to a bit of music from the period, like Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams, but that really wasn’t quite the right music for the show.
It was too overwrought at times. I needed to move quickly from one thing to the other. I could see that. I started thinking about Philip Glass, to be honest, I thought something in that vein might work.
The very first queue in the very first episode started off with this train. It didn’t start with the title captions we decided to use later on; it actually started straight into the drama with a train. And so, I just started kind of mimicking the energy of the train, ta ta ta ta…So that was the beginning of that. And then cut to Bates (Brendan Coyle) looking out of the train window. I mean, nobody knew he was called Bates or anything about him at this stage. I picked out a piano solo and that went, da da de da da…So that was that. The train was following a series of telegraph poles. There was a telegram on its way, right to Downton that contained the information that the heir to Downtown had drowned on the Titanic. Now, of course, the audience doesn’t know any of this, but I’m trying to imbue the telegraph pole with some kind of meaning, to point to its importance so that you’ve got this rising tune in the strings. Then you eventually end up with a fantastic shot of Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey itself. And that’s when the harmony expanded. All those four elements— the energy of the train, the rising string tune, the solo piano, and the expansive cords at the end— all just worked for the show. I started using those elements in different places in the show, and it all worked. When it came to episode two, they asked me if I’d do a 30-second version of that tune, which I did, which became the title sequence for the show. And then they put the pictures to the music, which is quite unusual. You know, usually, you actually get the photos or the graphics first, so that’s kind of how it came about.
AD: And how do you feel about the fact that the theme has become so iconic? I mean, even with the trailer for the new film, the first thing you hear are those opening notes of the theme right before you even see any of the cast. I hear those notes, and I know immediately that I’m back at Downton. What is it like for you as the composer to know that this has become such a beloved and lasting legacy of yours?
JL: Well, it’s great! [Laughs]. I mean, I do think it does work really well, I think it sums up Downton Abbey really well. And of course, the show itself has been so popular, and it’s played so many times that it’s become iconic. I think if the music had been written for something that wasn’t nearly as popular, it clearly wouldn’t be as iconic.
AD: How did you alter those original musical elements heading into the first film? Did you change your methods and instrumentations?
JL: Much of the method hasn’t really changed. I’ve always thought of the music as being about the relationships between people in the show so that’s tended to change as people’s relationships change. Those four elements I was talking about from the title, however, have stayed pretty constant throughout; you can hear them in this second movie quite a bit.
The orchestration has definitely developed. Not so much in the first movie, because everybody was very keen that we didn’t change too much for the first movie from the TV series. We didn’t want it to feel like suddenly, ‘Oh my God, we’re doing a movie now, and we’ve completely changed the concept of the whole thing.’ We didn’t want to do that. So, I had a bigger orchestra for the first film, but I kept to the orchestration we’d used in the TV series. However, I’ve massively expanded the orchestra with this second movie partly because of plot lines and locations.
It’s no secret that the family spends quite a lot of time in the south of France in this movie. So that needed an entirely different kind of music. So I’ve really expanded the orchestra, even using an accordion at one point, using a lot more woodwind instruments.
The other storyline, which is quite big, is that a film crew comes to Downton to make a movie. And it’s just in that crossover period between silent films and talkies. And it’s also the era when that original sound of Hollywood music was really beginning to take shape, so I’ve taken that on board as well. So, at times it does sound like a really luxurious Hollywood movie score from the thirties. And then, at the very end, it’s very moving, and in fact, we ended up using a small female voice choir for the ending, which we’d never done before in Downton. I think the thing I’m probably most pleased about with the second movie is just the sheer contrast with the music. There are quite a lot of different things going on. I’m really happy with it.
AD: How did you decide where to bring in those new elements and when to stay with Downton’s traditional music?
JL: At the end of the final series [season], there were a few relationships that got sorted out, and their music has tended to carry on into both movies. The actual theme tune itself has to do with the house. The house is our constant. So that is undoubtedly there. There’s music to do with the relationship between Violet and Lady Mary; there’s also music that’s already associated with Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern). We have Tom and Lucy (Allen Leech and Tuppence Middleton) getting married at the beginning of [A New Era], the music is actually carrying on from the end of the first film, so you get the feeling as if it’s just going from one film into another. I’d say there’s probably about 50% of it is new and 50% is reworked from before.
AD: I wanted to dig into two elements that you mentioned a little further. I’ve read that for the storylines that take place in the south of France, you brought in many French influences and listened to iconic French composers. Can you tell me more about that? Did you bring in any other new sounds in addition to the accordion?
JL: Yes, I used a lot of harp and celesta. I’m a big fan of [Maurice] Ravel and [Claude] Debussy; I did a little bit of research, although I didn’t really need to because I knew their music so well. I also listened to things like Charles Aznavour as well because the music needed to be upbeat at times and more sort of French and luxurious, really. Also, we’re just about hitting the jazz era as well; we’re in the late 1920s. I wanted to keep an element of that as well. And, also the fact that it’s called A New Era implies that things are going to be slightly different.
AD: What was your approach to composing the silent film within the film?
JL: It was all about the harmony. The way I built the harmony up was slightly different from Downton. It was like the film scores from the thirties and forties, you know, where the harmony is constantly changing and was kind of reflecting every sentence, almost. So it was just an attitude in the way I decided to write it, basically.
AD: And what was it like to return to work with Julian Fellowes and with a team that you’ve known for so long? Has anything changed?
JL: Oh it’s wonderful; it is a great team. I mean, Julian, to be honest, doesn’t get that involved in the music. He knows how important it is, but he’d probably be the first to admit that it’s probably not his specialty. I worked very closely with the director, Simon Curtis, who I had worked with before on a couple of other things, so, I knew him well already. I worked with the executive producer, Gareth Neame a lot. And the producer, Liz Trubridge, and between the four of us, we worked out where the music needed to be and what it needed to be doing. And then nobody else really got a look. Which is great, you know, because sometimes in a movie you can have like eight to 12 people, all of whom have something to say about what the music should be like, but really it was me and three other people, all of whom I’d worked with in the past. And the director was very good at recognizing that we knew the show incredibly well. He was very sensitive about allowing us to suggest things that he probably wasn’t aware of. And he happily took those on board—he was a bit of a dream director, actually.
AD: What are you working on now?
JL: I’m just about to start work on the Netflix show, The Last Kingdom. We’re doing a two-hour movie version of it. We just did series [season] five. I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m just waiting for it to arrive so I can work on it. What’s great about it is that it’s so different from Downton Abbey. In fact, it couldn’t be more different.
AD: And lastly, I have to ask you, Julian has talked about the fact that he wants to do more with Downton Abbey— would you come back? Is this something that you want to continue to explore?
JL: Oh, yeah, it’s my baby. No one is going to take it away from me, no, no, no. [Laughs].
Downton Abbey: A New Era is out now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and DVD and is available on all digital platforms.