Barely five minutes in, we’re already onto political correctness in Thomas the Tank Engine. ‘In the American version, you can’t have the ‘Fat Controller’ – he’s called Sir Topham Hatt over there,’ says composer Robert Hartshorne. ‘I think it’s the reference to the fatness that they don’t like. In Britain we’re a little less sensitive than that. We can take it.’
I consider admitting that I don’t remember the Fat Controller. It’s been far too long since I watched Thomas the Tank Engine, and even then I only did it to impress my ‘boyfriend’ at nursery school. For Hartshorne, however, Thomas the Tank Engine is a specialist subject. He is the man behind the music of the television series. And he can also count himself responsible for Thomas & Friends™: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure, the latest film inspired by the grinning steam locomotive.
In two weeks, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will play music from the soundtrack in four concerts at Cadogan Hall, accompanied by a screening of the film. ‘It wasn’t designed ever as a single piece to be played by the orchestra,’ says Hartshorne, ‘so I’ve had to transform it.’ Does that involve a lot of work? ‘Yes,’ he says, in the voice of a man who is drowning, but trying not to show it. ‘Yes, you could say that.’
It’s a good job he likes Thomas the Tank Engine, though not to a worrying extent. ‘I can confirm that I’m not a trainspotter,’ he tells me. He got to know the books by reading them to his children. Though, at the time, he didn’t nurse dreams of setting them to music. His degree was in chemistry, and the extent of his musical qualifications he tells me proudly ‘was Grade 4 piano.’ But he had always loved music, despite not being allowed to study it at school (‘basically I wasn’t good enough’). So, after getting a ‘proper job’, as a Personnel Officer for BP, he taught himself composition, eventually getting commissions for corporate productions and cheap commercials. It was a happy, if terrifying day that he quit his job at BP – more than thirty years ago now – to devote himself entirely to music.
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that he began composing for Thomas the Tank Engine, a job that he now shares with his son, Peter. At that time, the music for the series was well and truly ‘stuck in the seventies and eighties,’ he says. Part of Hartshorne’s mission was to yank it up to date, which he did, by drawing on all sorts of musical influences: jazz, country, pop, rock, classical music and even Andrew Marr’s History of the World series, for which Hartshorne also composed the music. His opinion is that ‘there’s no such thing as children’s music. There’s just music. My wife led me to believe that, because she teaches four-year-olds and has played them things like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They liked it.’
Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure has allowed Hartshorne, more than ever, to put that philosophy into practice. For one thing, it was the first Thomas the Tank Engine movie to use a real orchestra, as opposed to synthesized sound. ‘Composing for orchestra is hair-raising if you’re not doing it on a daily basis. You think “is that going to work? Have I got enough strings?” Then you get in to the studio and you think, “Oh yeah, I got away with it”,’ he says.
What he particularly loved about the experience was the chance to play with ‘a broader palette’, as he puts it: ‘In the film, there are mountainsides falling down, trains escaping through valleys, rivers flooding. The disasters are bigger and longer than in the series, so we had the chance to build bigness into it.’
And he’s not afraid to push the sense of danger: ‘My own personal view is that you can go as dark and dangerous as you like, but as long as it ends on a moment of ‘phew’, then it’s alright. Kids will take being scared. And I don’t want to worry you.’ He adds, ‘It does all come alright in the end.’
Written by Hannah Nepil
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs music from Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 August, accompanied by a screening of the film.