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Wild Isles

It’s been a long time coming – so long that I assumed it wasn’t going to happen – but one of my favourite musical partnerships has finally been reformed, with George Fenton making the return to BBC natural history documentaries. It’s been 12 years since the last one (the incredible Frozen Planet) and it’s fair to say that these years have been somewhat barren, musically – there have been some great exceptions, but I still remember the shudder I experienced when I watched Planet Earth II with its jaw-dropping visuals being accompanied by crass trailer-style music that couldn’t have been less graceful.

That’s what Fenton brings to these things, more so than anyone else – grace. He just gets it – clearly as inspired by the natural world as all the other filmmakers, and indeed the audience, everything seems so perfectly in sync with what’s on display. One thing that’s changed a lot in those 12 years is the way soundtracks are released – curated albums become much rarer, with more and more projects seeing every last note released, even for television. So for Wild Isles we get five different albums, one for each episode – I understand that for streaming this might work quite well, but I’m a bit too much of an old fart for streaming music and it’s an expensive game indeed if you have to buy five separate albums. Oh well – in this case it’s worth it.

George Fenton recording Wild Isles

The first episode, “Our Precious Isle”, is a sort of summary of the British and Irish natural world. While we don’t have elephants or giraffes or tigers, there’s still a huge amount of diverse wildlife on and around our islands. David Attenborough – still doing introductions filmed on location even though he’s almost as old as the BBC itself – remains the perfect host and the “Wild Isles Introduction” is an immediately reassuring piece of music that leaves us in no doubt that Fenton also remains the perfect composer. Elegant string lines underscore the introduction before the ear worm main theme kicks off in the final 30 seconds, a rising two-note motif being stretched into a magical theme.

Other highlights on this one include “Orca” (we do have some magnificent larger creatures!), featuring some epic action material which do incorporate a variant on the series’ main theme (a surprising rarity for these Fenton scores, whose underscore tends to function as a set of standalone vignettes). Later, “Barnacle Geese” offer a less expected source of grand action material, but that’s exactly what they inspire. There’s a truly delightful celtic solo violin in “Bird’s Eye View” – along with some exquisite trademark strings-and-winds writing. That celtic sound – which recurs a few times, in different ways, through the five episodes – is one way Fenton makes the music sound British – he does it in slightly less direct ways at times too, such as the beautiful domestic sound he generates with the piano in “The Door Mouse” or the lovely jig of “Pollenating”. Perhaps my favourite track of the whole episode is “Kingfisher”, in which the composer conveys both nobility and beauty in equal measure, stirringly so.

The second episode is “Woodland”, perhaps where the British Isles’ most famous animal residents live. The pastoral Britishness is heard perhaps most clearly in “Robin’s Friend”, a comical little slice of countryside life with fluttering flutes and occasional great slices of dramatic movement from bassoons and tubas. My favourite piece on this one is “Capercaillie”, a beautifully sweet little ballet to accompany a great bird through its highs and lows, including a great jig-like sequence midway through.

“The Ants” – one of the sequences I couldn’t quite believe was taking place in my own country – is a great piece, with an appropriately martial-like quality to it, building up to a grand climax. Also martial, but in a different way, is “The Emperor”, which opens with a regal fanfare and then proceeds through some great pomp and circumstance. “Strange Love” accompanies a sequence I’m not sure I can quite describe in words – it involves intertwined penises and that’s as far as I can take it – and it more than lives up to its name. “Red Squirrel” has a Mission: Impossible feel to it – heist music – quite delightful. Something very different is the more electronic “Fungi”, which showcases an incredible underground network of connections between plants (the science behind The Last of Us, perhaps). It’s an ethereal, mysterious piece of music.

Episode three covers “Grassland” and offers plenty more highlights. My favourite is the early “The Hares” which opens with gentle harp before exploding into a delightfully bouncy jig and then calming down again for its soothing finale. “Wild Horses” is not the rambunctious western piece you might imagine from the track name – instead, it’s a gorgeous piece with a haunting, ethereal female vocal; but then the equine protagonists do spring into life in “Battling Horses”, a dark and gritty piece of action music that could come from a serious thriller (well, it could have done when such things had proper music in them).

I spent the first 18 years of my life living behind a small wood and whenever I was in the house, the distinctive call of owls could be heard. And yet I never saw one – not once, in all that time. And that, I think, makes me quite the expert in avoiding owls, so “Avoiding the Owl” could I suppose be underscoring my formative years. It’s a playful piece, lots of exaggerated low-register tones bringing comic effect, but Fenton somehow blends this with an expression both of the beauty and the brutal and deadly efficiency of the majestic birds. “Witchcraft” is a four-course meal of a track, with various moments of sweeping drama. “The Highland Fight” is a wonderful piece of music, grand action music with a very distinctive Scottish sound to it – fantastic. And there’s still time for two more absolute gems – “Han Harrier”, a fluid and yet intricate piece highlighting violin and harp, with a bit of Vaughan Williams about it – and “The Stags”, which accompanies the grand creatures with great majesty.

The highlight of the “Freshwater” episode is a sequence set in Scotland that we’re far more used to seeing in this type of show in Canada or Alaska, with incredible sequences of salmon swimming upriver to their breeding grounds (in far fewer numbers than in days gone by, sadly). Fenton covers the sequence in “Upstream and Leaping the Falls” and “Salmon Breeding” – the former is tense, thrilling and ultimately magnificent; the latter, calming and rippling with the joy of new life.

Other tracks of note include the stunningly beautiful pair of tracks at the start, “Dragonfly and Introduction” (which also includes a soaring action music interlude) and “River Journey”, which picks up the theme from the earlier piece and sees Fenton give it the a delightfully meandering tone. “Spidery Courtship” opens with a gorgeous violin solo which gradually sees a bed of more unusual sounds build up beneath it – eventually these take over completely. It’s exquisite musical storytelling. “Grebes” is from the top drawer – again taking inspiration from great British classical music, it’s yet another brilliantly expressive vignette. Finally, there’s some grand drama in “The Knots”, a great finale to this episode’s album.

The final episode (“Ocean”) returns to territory explored by the composer in the series that really started it all off, The Blue Planet – I know he had scored many natural history documentaries beforehand, but that jaw-dropping series was I believe the first time he was afforded enough of a budget to use an orchestra. It is still perhaps the best of them all. The opening “Marine” is written very much in the style of the earlier score, with grand gestures from the horns that are quite beautiful.

“The Seal Fight” is surprisingly tender, a gorgeous oboe solo carrying the piece for a while before the expected action kicks in. “The Seahorse” is such a graceful, elegant piece – so effortless in the way it conveys a floating calmness. This episode’s best track is perhaps “Otters”, which sparkles with magic throughout; and then there’s “Protecting the Home”, which has this insistent little motif running through it that keeps getting blown slightly off course before doggedly returning, which is really clever in context of what it’s doing on-screen. The first half of “Exotic Creatures and Basking Sharks” isn’t particularly spectacular, but it really shines in its second half; and then I love the touch of Elgar which runs through “Skilful Hunters”, one last piece of wonderful action music.

There’s a little shy of four hours of music spread across the five albums – and while I suspect that a shorter playlist could have provided a single, tight album that would easily have been as good as any of Fenton’s previous work in this field, what we have instead are separate albums that all work really well individually. His approach to these things has always been to focus on the various micro-stories that make up the shows and score each of them almost in isolation, which means it almost doesn’t matter how you cut the tracks up or sequence them, they’re all designed to work on their own terms. That’s not common in any music, let alone what is at least notionally episodic tv music. And the most important thing is the music itself – which is magnificent. What a joy and a privilege to have George Fenton back doing what he does best – and better than anyone else who does it.

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  1. Jon F (Reply) on Tuesday 6 June, 2023 at 01:06

    This review, like all of them I’ve read over the years, is insightful and extremely well thought out and presented. I suspect there are many, many readers like myself who read your reviews on a regular basis yet never take the time to comment. Please know that your writings are very much appreciated and valued. There really is no other website I’m aware of that offers the depth of analysis that yours does. The number of new and interesting scores you have introduced your readers to is enormous. Keep up the great and valuable work!