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Simon May Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Simon May is a distinguished composer whose work has had a profound impact on British television and popular culture. Known for his ability to craft memorable and emotive melodies, May's compositions have become an integral part of the identity of numerous TV shows, resonating with audiences and becoming synonymous with the programs they accompany.

One of May's most iconic contributions is the theme for the long-running British soap opera "EastEnders", The "EastEnders Theme", with its distinctive drum beats and evocative melody, has become one of the most recognizable pieces of television music in the UK. The theme perfectly captures the essence of the show, reflecting the drama and everyday life of the fictional East London community. Its familiarity and emotional resonance have made it a staple in British households since its debut in 1985.

In addition to "EastEnders," Simon May has composed music for other popular TV series, such as "Howards' Way," where his theme music also achieved significant acclaim. The "Howards' Way Theme" is a sweeping, nautical piece that complements the show's maritime setting and drama, showcasing May's ability to tailor his compositions to the thematic elements of the programs.

To date he has won three TRIC Awards For Best TV Theme - for "EastEnders", "Howard's Way" and "Trainer", but of course, has also penned music for such hit television shows as "The Adventures Of Enid Blyton", "Animal SOS", "Castaway", "City Hospital", "Don't Try This At Home", "Eldorado", "Food & Drink", "Great Estates", "Hampton Court", "Jobs For The Boys", "Lakesiders", "The 1988 Olympics", "Paramedics", "Pet Rescue", "The Really Useful Show", "The Russ Abbott Show", "The Secrets Of Enid Blyton", "The Swiss Family Robinson", "The Trial Of James Earl Ray", "Turnstile", "The Adventures Of The Swiss Family Robinson", "The Vet", "The Legend Of William Tell" and many many more.

Beyond television, May's versatility as a composer extends to other media. He has written songs for various artists and contributed to musical theater. His song "I Wish I Could Fly," which became the theme for the children's TV series "The Adventures of Spot," is another testament to his talent for creating catchy, memorable tunes that appeal to a broad audience.

He has also penned several Top 40 hits including the million selling Number 1 single "Every Loser Wins" sung by Nick Berry for which he also won an Ivor Novello, while his work has been recorded by numerous artistes including Stephanie DeSykes ("Born With A Smile On My Face"), Cliff Richard, The Pointer Sisters, Al Jarreau, Marti Webb, The Celtic Tenors, Brian Kennedy, Anita Dobson, The Shadows, Richard Clayderman, Ruby Turner, Jonathan Butler and Kate Robbins, while Simon had a hit vocal single of his own in 1976 with the self-penned "Summer Of My Life". He also co-produced Amii Stewart's million-seller "Knock On Wood", a US Number 1 in 1979.

Simon May's work is characterised by its emotional depth, melodic richness, and ability to enhance the storytelling of the shows it accompanies. His music not only sets the tone but also becomes an integral part of the viewing experience, creating lasting impressions and evoking a wide range of emotions in the audience.

Debbie Rial interviewed him for "Songwriter Magazine".

Firstly, do you come from a musical family?
Yes and no. My mother had musical talent but my father was close to tone deaf! I remember when we went to Church he followed the words in the hymn book but never actually sung!

Having won a choral scholarship to Cambridge, is it fair to say that singing was your first love?
Well music was my first love, whether singing, playing piano or songwriting. I did also play the violin - badly!

When did you write your first piece of music?
I wish I could say I wrote something like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" when I was six (Mozart!) but I didn't start improvising till I was about 13. I was a boarder at Dauntsey's School and I can still clearly remember watching one of the sixth formers playing piano (without music). I was fascinated watching his fingers exploring notes on the keyboard that made me want to go off and do the same!

Who inspired you in the beginning? Any musical heroes?
I was lucky that at Dauntsey's I was chosen to sing tenor lead in their annual Mozart opera production for three years running. So Mozart was my first idol.

Then I joined a couple of rock bands when I was 16. At that time I was a massive fan of Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and later the Beatles and all the 60s rock stars. It was a great thrill when Cliff recorded one of my songs co-written with Mike Read many years later, and my wife and I got to meet him and subsequently become good friends.

Of the current artists I have a fairly eclectic taste: I love Keane, Scouting for Girls', The Feeling, James Blunt (sorry!), Leona Lewis, Michael Jackson, early George Michael and of course anything that Gary Barlow writes.

My all time favourite songs are “I Will Always Love You”, “Want You Back”, “Careless Whisper” and “Vincent”.

Whilst teaching modern languages at Kingston-upon-Thames Grammar School, you co-wrote the musical "Smike" which was later televised by the BBC. How did it come to their attention in the first place?
Paul Ciani, a BBC TV Producer who I knew, came to see the school production at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. He fell in love with the show and persuaded the Head of Childrens TV to mount a major Christmas production in 1974. All the Kids in the Kingston Grammar School production went on to perform in the TV production.

You were also involved in a Rip Van Winkle musical. Is musical theatre something you would like to do more of?
Sadly my Rip Van Winkle show "Rick!" has been dormant since I wrote it........hopefully not for as long as Rip though! I love musical theatre, and enjoy writing musicals irrespective of whether they are produced commercially. You shouldn't always compose for other people. It does you good to write selfishly for yourself sometimes.

It’s a giant leap to then become a professional musician/composer. How did that come about?
How much time have you got ?!! It wasn't one giant leap, it was a succession of long hard steps with occasional breakthroughs and a lot of let downs and disappointments. Basically I have never been able to understand the word "No'' !

When you are commissioned to write a TV/film theme, how does it actually work? Do you see a script or a pilot episode?
It's all about listening to the producer or director and getting a feel about what their production is about. If it's a movie I always ask to read the script before writing a single note.

If it's a TV theme there's usually nothing much to see, not even a pilot episode. In any case I don't think about it too much which sometimes means I get the first piece absolutely wrong!

I think am quite an instinctive emotional writer, but Simon (Lockyer) and John (Brant) who are my collaborators in the Music On Screen Team compose differently. Of course they use their emotions too, but they do let me know when I've lost the plot or hopefully when I'm going in the right direction with them!

I remember at the time that "EastEnders" first came out you made a point of mentioning that you chose the instrumentation for the theme tune so that it wouldn’t sound dated in years to come. Twenty-three years on, do you feel that you have achieved this?
The EastEnders theme has dated perhaps a little, but not as much say as Coronation Street in my view. Everything whether it's architectural, artistic or musical will always reflect the period when it was created. That's inevitable and probably a good thing anyway. Otherwise how does one move on to creating something new and different?

A PRS survey concluded that the "EastEnders" theme is more recognisable than the National Anthem, how do you feel about that?
Quite proud actually!

Some of your TV themes, including "EastEnders", have had lyrics added and become successful singles, how much input did you have with the process?
When I was signed to Zomba Music as a writer, Steven Howard who was my A& R manager kept giving me top lines for me to write lyrics to. So although I obviously write music, as a songwriter I do think of myself also as a lyricist. However in the case of "EastEnders" and "Howards Way", I asked the very talented and famous Don Black to write lyrics for the two themes. I gave him a free rein obviously and his lyric for Howards Way (“Always There” sung by Marti Webb) is one of my personal favourites.

The "EastEnders" theme was released again as a single, this time as a hymn. Is this your choral roots showing again? What do you think it is about this particular theme that not only makes it so hugely popular but lends it to such diversity?
Oh yes "Glory Be To God On High". We had such fun making that record. The choral arrangement was very challenging with different parts for all the 200 choristers who sung on the recording session. The main statement is very direct and diatonic without any chromatic alterations. I didn't do this consciously, but in hindsight this may be one of the reasons that the theme has proved to be quite universal.

You’ve won many awards, including the coveted Ivor Novello for "Every Loser Wins". Which award means the most to you?
The next one!

Which of your compositions are you most proud of?
The next one!

Your single "Summer Of My Life" has special meaning to me, what was the inspiration behind it?
Jack Barton the producer of "Crossroads" asked me to write a song to complement one of his storylines about three people who were caught in a love triangle, and who ended up being separated. The sadness of love coming to an end inspired me to think of summer going into autumn as a metaphor about an unhappy love affair. Funnily enough the sadness doesn't really come through into the song and most people who liked the song still think of it as a love song which has nostalgic and happy memories for them.

Do you still have any inclinations towards performing live?
Definitely. I still enjoy performing live and also giving talks at corporate events and seminars. Next year on Sunday 29th March I will be entertaining at Cricket St Thomas, Chard (Somerset) in an "EastEnders Goes West" after lunch show, talking about my career and the TV and music industry, and performing some of my songs. The show will include excerpts from "Smike" sung by Tatworth Primary School which performed 'Smike' this summer!

As the partner of a Beatles fanatic, I couldn’t get away without asking this! In 1977, you released a track which was a medley of Ivor Novello’s "We’ll Gather Lilacs" and The Beatles’ "All My Loving". What made you do a cover for your second single and how did this unusual combination come about? Why this particular Beatles hit?
I've always loved Ivor Novello and “We'll Gather Lilacs” has always been a big favourite of mine. After the main statement of 'We'll Gather' I wanted to create an exciting middle eight or bridge, and as I played the sub dominant chord of the tonic (which is quite often the start of a middle eight) I found to my delight that I was singing "...And then while I'm away, I'll write home every day" from “All My Loving”. It was a perfect match !

So, what projects are you currently working on?
We've started writing the music and main titles songs for two movies which are hopefully going to be "green lit" very soon. Both movies have got wonderful scripts and the potential, as I see it, to become big hit films.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Debbie Rial: All Rights Reserved


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