Your Disco Needs You: Why we need better music in TV Drama

Drama and music should go together like sugar and spice. So why is the taste starting to sour…?

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Recent BBC drama The A Word came into its own in its final episode. Not just because of the fine dialogue from writer Peter Bowker, superb acting from greats like Morven Christie, but because of the music. Bowker, writer of musical extravaganza Blackpool, has already proven his flair in this field, but The A Word was something else…

The six-part drama about a boy, Joe, who is found to be on the Autism spectrum knew precisely how to utilise music. Music is often important to those with Autism, who sometimes feel they can seek comfort in the sounds; it fulfils the desire for communication without the pressure. Throughout the series, music has a strong presence – skilfully-chosen tracks inspired by the music Joe’s father would have grown up with, 80s pop/punk rock. Every episode began with Joe belting out an upbeat tune while walking through the Peak District, and he was always on hand to switch the iPod dock back on if anything in the drama got too heavy. In episode six, (spoiler) Joe goes missing, and the way for his family to get him back is to wander the countryside blasting music. They end up scream-singing “going underground (underground)”, Paloma Faith’s Upside Down and more, holding up catchy pop words like a beacon. It was, simply, one of the most brilliant sequences of drama I’ve seen in a while. Moving, clever, fun but also, underneath that, tense and tragic.

That is what music in TV drama can achieve at its best, and it doesn’t have to perfectly match the moment. The very reason that that sequence was so incredible was it extrapolated everything that Joe stood for in the last six episodes and brought it to the fore when he was gone. The irreverence of the catchy chart hits was the point, and the fact that the sentiment behind some of the lyrics did not have any relation to the drama’s events just helped further the pathos. Yes it was great when Joe was singing World Shut Your Mouth and “Another planet forever holding you down” – but that link was obvious. In the finale, as a viewer your instinct is to smile and sing along – and then you remember why they are singing. A beloved child is missing, maybe dead… and the song takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly the singing is less funny and more desperate, especially as dark starts to set in…

TV should do more of this. Like anything in art, culture, it is important wherever possible to subvert the clichés to try and find something new. Sombre strings when someone dies is a cliché now. Power ballads or love songs for love stories. Rap music when youths are on; classical music when you see pensioners. Pounding action music is the cliché for a search or a chase. How much less effective would that A Word sequence have been if it had been backed by Hollywood action music instead? The very fact that calling upon Paloma Faith in this instance is unusual, gives it more impact. Sometimes, when a drama picks either diegetic or extradiegetic music that seems at first to push against the story, it ends up revealing something more interesting. Drama is built on contrasts after all.


Another good example of this is everyone’s favourite gangster show Peaky Blinders (2013-), returning for its third series on BBC Two this month. Eyebrows raised when the period drama was soundtracked entirely by Nick Cave and other dark, soulful anthems, but it is the perfect marriage of song and visual. The pre-titles sequence usually consists of a scene inter-spliced with the clanging malevolence of Red Right Hand. The harsh bell clanks and drums, like chains and footsteps, synchronise perfectly with the titles flashing up, and then it’s that gravelly lyric that builds in intensity as we head towards the main title:

“a tall handsome man in a dusty black coat AND A RED RIGHT HAND – ”

It is hard to switch off from a sequence as bold as that. It also ties in to the show meaningfully and thematically, as it is an allusion to the Irish symbol the Red Hand of Ulster; the conflicts in Ireland are a key theme in the Birmingham-set show. The entire soundtrack is selected with precision to echo the spirit of the piece rather than for historical accuracy. Why should period dramas stick to music that sounds faithful to the music of the period? After all, however faithful a period song choice might be, it is ultimately coming out of a TV set in 2016. Well-selected music helps build the world of the drama. Nick Cave is the world of the Peaky Blinders. (For a review of Series 1 click here.)

Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10) were great examples of dramas built on a foundation of their soundtracks: 70s and 80s pop respectively, to evoke the worlds our protagonists had unwittingly landed in. The shows are even named after the key David Bowie songs of the era! There is a lovely sense of completeness in Life on Mars, which sees Sam Tyler transported to the 1970s while said song plays on the radio, and sees the first and second series dutifully bow out to the same song. But arguably Ashes to Ashes does something more interesting with its source material – which is arguably a less affecting song in isolation.

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Ashes to Ashes does play during episode one of Ashes to Ashes, but it is only properly heard on one other occasion in three years of the show: in the Series 1 finale (spoiler) in which Alex’s parents die in a car bomb. The use of the song, when it comes, is momentous because we have been practically teased it for eight weeks. When it starts, we feel the impact of the strands of the series starting to come together and we know that Alex’s parents are about to die. Therefore the song is lending gravitas to the show, and vice versa. It’s not a song about parents dying, or a sad song, or even a particularly tense song – but the fact it is blithely playing on the car radio cuts through the scene, and makes the drama feel more real as a result. The explosion doesn’t happen at the predictable point (the chorus, or the climax), but ungainly midway-through, with the lyric “one flash of light – ” Then we see the flash of light and the car explodes. The song simply cuts out, never to be heard again, rather than fading or swelling under the following scene. Do we need another meaningful, emotional fade out? The more we have them, the less emotional they will become.

It is something that generally avant-garde E4 drama Skins (2007-13) did excellently. By selecting up-and-coming raucous pop music – not necessarily the best fit for the dramatic moment, but the best fit for the audience and the character – the music managed to construct a lot of provocative episode endings where the scripts couldn’t always.

Similarly, Idris Elba’s Luther (2010-) is backed with a catalogue of music that the character enjoys (music he even uses to solve crimes if the clip below is anything to go by!) Luther can claim credit for another unusual quirk of music and editing, as the ‘song of the episode’ starts during the last scene, and plays out through the ‘next time’, which is interspersed with credits. That means any chosen song builds up a relationship with the story, the ‘next time’ footage and the final titles. For instance, the choice of Muse’s Feeling Good in Series 1 episode 3 uses the dramatic turning-point in the song to provide a punchy cliffhanger moment. (For an array of Luther reviews click here.)

The fact that the music choice always played through the credits helped the drama really manifest its point. It drives me mad (common in tightly-edited US dramas) when a good song will get going towards the end of an episode before clumsily cutting it to play the theme tune, whether or not said theme tune works with the moment.

ABC’s Mad Men (2007-15) is an exception to that rule – but then what would you expect from a show that thrives of subverting cliché? What Mad Men does well, as an intensely well-thought-through production, is it often allows the viewers to join the dots themselves. There may be one more stage of mental deduction before you ‘get’ the link between the song choice and the story, but when you do, the song will resonate so much more because of it. The first episode is a case in point – it opens with Band of Gold, and it is revealed at the end of the episode (spoiler) that Don Draper is married. It is at this realisation (perhaps on second viewing) that it becomes clear that the whole story has been, in effect, an exercise in showing off Don’s philandering, building to this revelation that was signposted from the off.


(For an article about moving on and up in the business world of Mad Men click here.)

Then there is the perfect neatness of Mad Men Season 2 (set in Summer 1962) kicking off with Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again, when Checker’s preceding hit, The Twist, had featured in Season 1 (set in Summer 1960). Has there ever been a more rousing ‘second series, here we go again’ feeling than that song heralded in Mad Men?

Admittedly, these ideas are nothing new. The greatest TV dramatists of our time – Dennis Potter and Russell T Davies to name two – have been using popular music in interesting ways for a long time. Potter invented a unique usage of music, which saw characters lip-syncing the words to well-known hits of yesteryear, notably in Pennies from Heaven (1978), The Singing Detective (1986) and Lipstick on Your Collar (1993). By invoking this technique – often in full musical-number style – Potter tapped into the collective race memory and the emotional realm of nostalgia. He knew that pop music is evocative for people – we claim and store songs alongside our experiences. How many times does a track come on and someone says, “Ohhh, this is our song”? Often the songs Potter uses are unrelated to the main thrust of the plot. But the songs emotionally resonate, and tell you something about where the characters are and where they want to be. Take the various numbers at the start of Lipstick on Your Collar, which are all the hallucinations of the characters in the office who simply don’t want to be at work today!

(To find out more about Dennis Potter click here.)

Russell T Davies meanwhile exhibited several bold choices in music during his time on Doctor Who (2005-10). There is an excellent sequence at the start of Last of the Time Lords (2007), where the crazed Master has taken over the world – and pauses to sing I Can’t Decide by the Scissor Sisters! It may seem like a mad idea, but the Master is mad, and if he conquered the Earth then he would have a triumphant dance “like a kid in his bedroom”, Davies argues. Actually, the villain seems all the more callous because he’s dancing around and singing while people on Earth suffer.


A more recent Davies gem came in the first episode of Cucumber (2015), in which scenes of Henry dancing in the shower to the remix of Kylie’s Your Disco Needs You was intercut with scenes of peripheral character Sunil committing suicide. It is an exhilarating and funny sequence because of the mess Sunil has got himself into – but then you check yourself, because the poor man is dead! As a viewer, you feel guilty for laughing. The fact that the well-placed use of a Kylie song can inspire that level of conflicting emotional judgement in a viewer is just incredible.

When music is picked well, it lifts the story. The beauty and sadness of Christopher and His Kind (2011) was lifted by the unfortunately tuneless singing of Jean Ross. Martha Costello’s moral raging against the world in Silk is exaggerated by her careless, rebellious dancing in Series 3 episode 1. Programme-makers need to trust their viewers and let their viewers uncover and garner their own emotional response to something. We don’t always need a sad song to show us what is happening is sad – a happy song might leave us sadder because it would seem the sad event is being neglected. The lower notes of the song might come through more, and they might start to reveal a new sadness.

Drama should be a heady cocktail of emotions. And when the music and the images come together in a strong partnership, then the drama quite literally sings. 



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