Andrew Dickinson2By Jonathan Hamer

On meeting Andrew Dickson, the award-winning film and theatre composer, actor and playwright, I was immediately struck by his sense of calm and openness as he flung open the front door of his peaceful new home near the centre of Bridport. To talk at length to Andrew about his career was a privilege and education for me especially since I recently finished an MA in Composition for Film and Television at Bristol University and want to embark on my own career in composition.

Andrew’s first musical steps came with guitar and piano, which he had learned by ear as a child, leading his teachers to believe that he had been reading the music and as he put it, “sort of cheating.” He couldn’t be bothered with learning to read music, which put an end to his formal musical education. This DIY approach became a common thread through the interview, revealing the natural talent behind his flourishing careers in music and theatre.

Through his passion for skiffle and growing love of drama, Andrew started performing during the folk boom, in London and around Coventry and the midlands. He also began a life-long side-career in teaching by entering teacher-training college and later working at a college for maladjusted students in what he fondly looks back on as a time of, “education as it should be,” perhaps making up for his loss of faith in the formal musical education he had received in earlier life.

Andrew recalled the start of his writing career in drama during a two-year stint at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, where he combined his love of education and drama through writing plays for children and composing songs and incidental music to accompany the performances. From this opportunity, sprung many more in fringe theatre groups and poetry shows around England, including the celebrated People Show.

As he became more prolific as a composer his work led him to a particularly interesting play by John Burrows called War Time Stories, about what the threat of a nuclear war does to a family. This play prompted Andrew to begin writing his music down as he scored the play with a string quartet, which then led to him becoming more comfortable with an orchestral palette, learning the capabilities and sound of a huge range of instruments.

It was from this work in theatre that Andrew then got his break into the world of film when Mike Leigh attended a play in which Alison Steadman (his wife at the time) was performing and admired the music, which Andrew had written. Mike had just finished production of Meantime (1983) and after a viewing session, asked Andrew if he would like to score it. This was the beginning of a very productive partnership that saw Andrew write the music for six Mike Leigh films over the course of two decades, the most recent of which is Vera Drake (2004).

Mike is well known for his rigorous rehearsal schedule in which actors explore and develop their own characters until a script evolves from such improvisations together with Mike’s ideas and direction. Andrew’s collaborative process with Mike was clearly just as creatively rigorous for Andrew recalls Mike being very precise about his vision for the film and, “supervising every semi-quaver”, which although demanding, pushed Andrew to write music he hardly knew he could.

Andrew remembered a particularly intense period of writing for High Hopes (1989) in which Andrew would write some twenty tunes on piano or guitar for particular scenes and characters and Mike would then come down to Andrew’s old house in Eype to hear them and pick one out of the twenty. Despite the pressure that Andrew was under, they became close friends and the results speak for themselves as Andrew was awarded the European Composer of the Year and the BFI Anthony Asquith Award for his score of High Hopes and went on to write music for many television programmes and work with other film directors, including Goran Paskelavic and Noemi Lvovsky.

Strangely enough, Andrew admitted to not actually being a film lover or a great film goer. That is certainly unusual for a film composer, but Andrew believes it may have given him a slight edge as he wasn’t aware of the baggage that comes with film music and as he put it, “gave me a certain naivety that was useful and that I played on”.

When watching Leigh’s films, his use of silence and emphasis on dialogue and ‘kitchen-sink realism’ is very apparent and very reminiscent of the stage so here in could lie the secret behind the success of Andrew’s and Mike’s partnership.
Andrew Dickinson
In general, the main lesson for a budding composer to take from Andrew is that success lies in putting yourself forward and trusting your ability to learn and to adapt creatively. Andrew attributes much of his success to mere luck but he also recognizes that like his approach to learning and teaching instruments, which is just pick it up and go with it, success in larger and more daunting projects comes from this spirit of inquisitiveness and self-belief. The picture of his wall inside his music room shows that he practises what he preaches. As Andrew puts it: “It’s amazing what you can do if you assume you can do it.”