Interview: Mark Ayres

Mark Ayres interview
by Earl Green

All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.

EG: I’ve seen many mentions in liner notes written by yourself and others such as John Nathan-Turner that you ascended from the ranks of Doctor Who fandom to actually scoring stories in the last couple of seasons – how did this come about?

MA: I trained as a composer and sound engineer and, yes, I was a fan of SF in general and Doctor Who in particular. Keith Barnfather (producer of the “Myth Makers” videos) and Kevin Davies (director of Doctor Who – (More Than) 30 Years in the TARDIS and Shakedown) were two of many people I met through fandom. When I was trying to break into film and TV music I wrote to many producers; I’d met JNT at a number of conventions and, of course, he was on my list. And he was kind enough to write asking me to go and see him. The rest, as they say, is history.

EG: How did the subsequent albums on Silva happen (i.e. who approached whom)?

MA: I already knew David Stoner at Silva Screen. When I scored The Greatest Show in the Galaxy I tried to interest BBC Enterprises (as they were then) in doing a record – I certainly felt it was strong enough. Their attitude was that they’d done a record (The 25th Anniversary Album) the year before, and that the market wouldn’t support another one. My opinion was that as there was a monthly magazine and a monthly novel, plus many other related books and souvenirs, all of which did respectable business, I thought they were wrong. But they wouldn’t budge. So I suggested to David Stoner that Silva might do it – and he jumped at the chance.

EG: Another thing you have mentioned often is your love of Dudley Simpson’s scores in the show’s first two decades. Do you feel that Dudley’s work is perhaps hard for younger fans – those who were perhaps first watching Doctor Who during the 1980s era when the Radiophonic Workshop was handling the scoring duties – to latch onto?

MA: Yes, Dudley Simpson was a big influence on me. Perhaps his stuff might be a bit more difficult for fans brought up in the eighties to get a handle on – but for me, as I watched the show all through the seventies, Dudley’s music is the “true” sound of Doctor Who.
What must not be forgotten is that Dudley and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and Delia Derbyshire in particular) were, in the sixties and seventies, largely responsible for the popularisation and acceptance of electronic music and synthesisers in popular culture. OK, now we may find the sounds they used very old-fashioned and unsophisticated, but back then no-one had heard anything like it. They were constantly pushing the boundaries of what was technically possible. The Doctor Who theme, as realised by Delia, was totally revolutionary – and even now if you don’t know how it was done it’s almost impossible to work out. Brian Hodgson’s TARDIS sound effect is another example. Dudley, and other pioneers such as the great Tristram Cary, were composing pure electronic scores for Doctor Who from the start, it was one of the things that set the show apart from the rest of the pack.

Mark Ayres interviewEG: And here’s the zinger – out of all of them, do you have a favorite Dudley Simpson score in particular?

MA: A favourite Simpson score? Tricky! The Brain of Morbius or Genesis of the Daleks perhaps. But some of the earlier electronic stuff was also terrific – Fury from the Deep and so on.

EG: I think my favorite Simpson music was from the Pertwee era – I can still distinctly remember the cue from The Claws of Axos where the Doctor tells the visiting bureaucrat to detonate the missiles. (Or with my luck, he didn’t even do Axos and I’ve just swallowed an entire foot here – better go check my own database!)

MA: Yes – Dudley did do Axos. As I say – great stuff, and it’s difficult to pick a favourite.

EG: Had Doctor Who continued, would you have continued your involvement in the series’ music to the same degree, or perhaps even a greater one?

MA: I’m pretty sure that, had the programme continued, I would have stayed with it. Although – if it had continued, another producer would have taken over and (s)he may have had different ideas. Who knows…?

EG: Were you ever contacted with regards to perhaps scoring last year’s movie?

MA: I was not contacted about scoring the movie (although I was contacted by a third party during post-production when they were having problems licensing the Doctor Who theme – they wanted to know who owned the rights, which I thought bizarre!).
I did try to get to see Mr Segal when I was in LA in early 1995, and offered my services as composer. He was always “unobtainable,” and did not return my calls. He wrote to me later, saying that they were “taking a different direction.” How true 😉

EG: Speaking of which, what did you think of the movie’s musical score?

MA: It wasn’t what I would have done! I did have a number of (I thought) very clear and exciting ideas as to what I would have done – but there’s no doubt that they would not have worked with the movie they made.
The whole movie, to me, was not “different” enough; Doctor Who became just another adventure film, losing so much of what made it so special and unique. John Debney did a very good job with what he was given – bits of Batman and Indiana Jones! – but I found the whole thing very disappointing.

EG: I remember thinking that Ron Grainer’s name was conspicuous by its absence in the credits, so I always wondered how they slipped by without crediting Grainer – or, for that matter, Brian Hodgson for the TARDIS sound.

MA: Grainer was not credited, which was a great shame. He was almost always credited on the “classic” series, and rightly so. The TARDIS sound is, IMO, as much of a recognisable “signature” for the programme as Grainer’s theme. Interestingly, it is registered not as a sound effect, but as a piece of electronic music, and Hodgson should be credited and paid royalties for its use. But he seldom is (something which annoys him a lot!).

Mark Ayres interviewEG: How did you become involved in such things as sound editing and effects on such projects as the BBC’s restoration of The War Machines and the More Than 30 Years special?

MA: As I said earlier, I’ve known Kevin Davies (who directed Doctor Who – (More Than) 30 Years in the TARDIS) for many years – he’s one of my two best friends! If he’d asked anyone else to work with him on Thirty Years that could have changed (very big grin).
I’ve also known Paul Vanezis and Steve Roberts (who coordinated the restoration of The War Machines) for years – partly through fan contacts and partly because they, also, worked on Thirty Years with Kevin, researching the library footage. Paul also edited Shakedown for Kevin and me. When they started work on The War Machines they contacted me and asked me if I was interested in being involved. Of course I was!

EG: What happened with Silva’s Doctor Who releases? One moment there seemed to be a definite push toward an ongoing catalogue, and then all of a sudden I heard several different stories which all seemed to hinge on the BBC taking back the license sometime after 1993, but I’ve never heard the same story twice.

MA: This is a bit of a sore point with me!
Doctor Who CDs were always going to be relatively small sellers, but sales were much lower than we hoped for or expected. There were a number of reasons for this: home-taping (or, less politely, “piracy”) being a major one IMO! On many occasions when I’ve done signings, I’ve been asked to sign cassette copies of my work, and I’m proudly told that “a mate let me copy his CD.” And it’s very often these same fans who complain that there haven’t been any more releases: they are, in effect, killing the market and then complaining that it’s dead. Perhaps the problem of home-taping was exacerbated by the fact that we did not release the recordings on cassette in the first place – but that was a marketing decision taken by Silva Screen.

EG: I thought I’d read in a 1993 issue of DWM that Silva was going to issue its Who releases on cassette, so I guess it’s sadly safe to assume that they never actually did this, or the damage, at that point, was already done.

MA: I don’t remember this pledge. The Radiophonic Workshop re-issues were done on cassette, and still didn’t sell too well. But then they’d been out on cassette (in their original BBC versions) previously. All the same, I know that fans who would not dream of copying a video (and although this is easy, relatively few people have two video machines), or photocopying a magazine, don’t think twice about copying a CD or a cassette.

EG: Though I’m not coming to anyone’s defense here – the scarcity of some Doctor Who episodes and related items in parts of the States (and other parts of the world, I’m sure) probably helped video and audio piracy become de rigeur in fandom. It might be a different story now that so many videos and other official items are being released…but then again, it might not.

MA: “Piracy” and copying of “unreleased” stuff, while still strictly illegal, one can understand. But the copying of released material is another matter entirely IMO. As I say – they are killing the market they love. If you want more, you have to support the existing stuff. It’s very sad when we have material we want to release, and which many fans are clamouring for. And this is also the problem with CDs and tapes. As people are not actually taking a physical object off a shelf and leaving a shop without paying, they don’t regard it as theft. But it is – both morally and in law. Much of my income is from royalties. In the case of the Dr Who Cds, I guess we covered costs – but made little profit. So where’s the incentive for the record company? A few years back I was happy to do things (Myth Makers and so on) on a cost basis. But now I have a family to support and I occasionally need to actually earn some money! 😉

EG: And it’s not really as if the BBC has exercised its option to do a lot of Doctor Who CDs since then, which I’m bitterly disappointed about because I really want a recording of the theme from last year’s telemovie one of these days.

MA: Around the time of the movie, I pushed to do some more, but it didn’t happen. And I think that there was a bit of uncertainty at the BBC as to how they wanted to proceed.
Personally, I’m still very committed to releasing more CDs – and I’m still pushing! I have some great stuff I want to release. You may see an interesting release very soon…(I can say no more!).

EG: How did you get involved in The Innocent Sleep, and what differences, if any, might one expect to hear between that soundtrack and your earlier work?

MA: Scott Michell (director of The Innocent Sleep) had heard my work, liked it, and asked me to score a short film he was making (Seeds) in 1993. We got on very well, so when he got The Innocent Sleep up and running he asked me on board.
It’s very different to my previous work – it’s a full orchestral score, for a start, which gave me a whole new canvas to play with. In some ways, working with an orchestra rather than synthesisers is very limiting, as you have only a limited palette of sounds. But it’s also very freeing for the same reason – as you don’t get bogged down with creating exactly the right electronically-generated timbre for every note!

EG: Am I correct in noticing, between the mention of a solo soprano in The Innocent Sleep score, and the “Worthy Enemies” track from the Shakedown CD, that you seem to be growing fond of operatic elements?

Mark Ayres interviewMA: I’m actually not a great opera enthusiast at all! But I do like the appropriate use of any sound, texture, or musical idea. For both The Innocent Sleep and Shakedown an operatic element was exactly right (I felt!). And writing for Lesley Garrett, especially, was very enjoyable.

EG: How did the current Silva projects such as Cult Files and Space and Beyond come into being?

MA: Silva Screen had already released a lot of my TV work, and I’d produced and compiled the Doctor Who CDs for them. They were branching out into making their own recordings of film and TV music for commercial release and licensing (the movie Twelve Monkeys, for instance, features Silva Screen’s recording of the Vertigo theme, which I edited).
In 1993 they recorded The Bride of Frankestein, and I was asked to play synthesiser on it. Then they decided to make an album of themes from the films of Sylvester Stallone and I was asked to arrange and record the synth scores (such as Cobra). And it built from there.
Silva Screen’s James Fitzatrick coordinates the releases, deciding on the albums we’ll do and the tracks we’ll need. Then we get to work!

EG: How hard was it to record the previously unavailable Star Trek material (i.e. Skin of Evil)? For the past ten years or so, with the exception of maybe one or two feature film soundtracks, the Star Trek music has been the sole domain of GNP Crescendo Records, so I was curious as to how these cues were available. And I also wonder if there are plans to slip any more Trek cues in – original recordings or not, the material on Space and Beyond was incredibly well done!

MA: Contacts with the composers, mainly. We’re getting a reputation for doing these things right (although we’ve discovered that there’s no pleasing some people!). We’ve had very favourable reactions from many composers as regards our recordings of their music, and they are happy for us to do more knowing that it’s in safe hands. Composers generally are very pleased to have their work recorded – it means more income and exposure for them (as a composer myself, I know the feeling!) – but of course they want it done well. We, IMO, do it well (most of the time – we all have our off days!).
I’m not sure what’s lined up for Space II – but I wouldn’t rule more Star Trek stuff out!

EG: And now Space II in addition to Cult Files II? There goes my music budget for the next few months.

MA: And after that – Cult Files III. (I’m not joking!)

EG: There’s nothing like forward planning! Good grief! Since these are all in the preparatory stages, I suppose the release dates are still some months away, then?

MA: Yes – no dates yet!

EG: This one is speaking strictly for myself, but I loved the Blake’s 7 theme on Cult Files. In fact, I must admit Blake’s 7 edges out Doctor Who as my all-time favorite British sci-fi series, and that name on the track listing was largely responsible for me picking up Cult Files in the first place!

MA: Glad you liked my Blake’s Seven – I wasn’t totally sure when I read your web page! I was very slightly worried about it as I changed the middle section (Dudley’s original middle section was a bit waffly IMO!) and recorded it on synths rather than with a small band. But I thought it worked. I had Dudley’s original score to work from, which helped!

EG: I think I was still recovering from the shock of the rather disco-ish section which I presume was the “extended single release” I read about in the liner notes. I’ve gotten a little more used to that now, but it stunned me when I first heard it – I was expecting the “single” part of the theme to sound more like the jazz arrangement used in the fourth series and on BBC Records’ ’45 release of the theme!

MA: Not at all, I’m afraid! That’s the bit I wrote to replace Dudley’s own middle section as used on his original single, which I thought was a bit waffly! I re-wrote that bit, although I used a lot of other ideas from Dudley’s own single. If I did it again, I’d probably be more faithful to the original – but most fans I spoke to in the UK prefered my version. As a matter of interest, I recorded the Blake’s Seven arrangement a few years ago for another album of SF themes that was never released. I dragged it out and released it “as was” on the Cult Files CD. Perhaps I should have redone it!

EG: I can see I really stepped in it this time – but don’t get me wrong, I was more than happy with the more “traditional” sections of the Blake theme, so I shall belabor this point no more.

MA: No problem. 😉 Look, I like all feedback, positive or negative, as long as it’s polite (which yours was :-)). I take it all on board for next time!

EG: Is there any chance we’ll ever see a Pyramid of Mars-like collection of Dudley Simpson’s Blake scores from various episodes?

MA: There’s not really the market for a dedicated Blake’s Seven disc IMO – at least not a market that would justify the time, effort and expense required to re-record all the music from scratch. If we could track down the original masters (and I’ve tried!!), that would be different! The Pyramids Of Mars disc was something of an experiment.

Mark Ayres interviewEG: That’s a pity – as much as I liked Dudley Simpson’s Doctor Who music, and this may just be my bias toward Blake overall, I always felt there was a more ominous feel to his Blake scores, that they were somehow “bigger.”

MA: I think he did have a couple more musicians on Blake, which would account for that. Dudley was a master of making the most of small resources, however.

EG: Since you mentioned Cult Files Volume II, can you reveal any of what we can expect on that album?

MA: I’ve got a list in front of me, but I think that Silva Screen would prefer I kept it under wraps for the time being! Lots of good stuff!

EG: Here’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask since first hearing the Fenric CD – what synth did you use for the “string” sounds on Fenric and Ghost Light? That may seem like an incredibly small detail to dwell on, but that string patch or sample, whatever it was, always struck me as having much more of a natural-sounding vibrato than most any other synthesized strings I’ve heard.

MA: The string sound was the factory “strings” multisample from the Roland S-550 sample library. Roland later re-used the sample on many other synths including the U-220 sample playback module. I think (it’s a long time ago!) that I mixed it with some strings from the Roland D-50 synth just to spread it out a little.

EG: On a similar note, on the subject of Shakedown, no soloist was credited for the vocals toward the end of the music – was that a sample? If so, color me impressed – that thing sounded real!

MA: Yup – it’s a sample! And a very good one, as you say. But one of the things about using samples is to use them carefully – that way you can make them sound real.

EG: Aside from the acoustics, what are the conceptual differences and/or similarities between scoring in an electronic medium as opposed to live orchestral instruments? Was it a big leap to go from largely synthesized work to scoring for a full orchestra?

MA: It’s largely just a question of working with a different palette of sound colours. That, and the fact that you have to make sure that everything is actually playable, of course! With synths you can get away with programming things that no real player or instrument could manage! I love both ways of working.

Some notes about this interview – I stumbled across Mark Ayres’ web site in April 1997 and dropped him a line asking if he’d be willing to do an interview regarding his work on Doctor Who and on several Silva Screen albums since then, to which he agreed, and the rest is history for your reading pleasure. Not ever having seen any interviews with Mark in DWM or any other forum, I asked some questions which might strike some fans as redundant, but Mark was patient with my seemingly endless stream of questions and it’s all quite fascinating! Mark had also perused theLogBook’s soundtrack reviews prior to our conversation, and I discovered that my infamous web site music reviews can occasionally come back to haunt me!

In the spirit of preserving the tone of the entire exchange, I have left all of Mark’s spellings and even his “smileys” intact. Some of my questions and answers have been rearranged from the original order in which they were asked to preserve the cohesiveness of whatever topic is being discussed at the time, but never to alter the meaning in any way.

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All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.