The Book of Kells
‘Anyone who’s prepared to kill for a book interests me.’ Ireland, 1006. Strange things have been happening at the isolated Abbey of Kells: disembodied voices, unexplained disappearances, sudden death. The monks whisper of imps and demons. Could the Lord of the Dead himself be stalking these hallowed cloisters? The Doctor and his companion find themselves in the midst of a medieval mystery. At its heart is a book: perhaps the most important book in the world. The Great Gospel of Columkille. The Liber Columbae.
The Book of Kells is hugely fun to listen to. It left this listener with a warm, fuzzy glow and a feeling that the series is back on track after a couple of so-so months.
Doctor Who Magazine
Behind the Scenes
Ah, The Book of Kells. Not only directed by Barnaby Edwards but also written by him too, and boy does he know how to tell a good story! There are twists and turns throughout and enough to keep you guessing who is the bad guy here. What Barnaby does best is get the listener thinking and by the end of the play you have a much better understanding of events in retrospect that you’ll want to listen again. It’s genius! The challenge facing me was that the script is so good, with dialogue so incredibly tight, that the sound design and music needed to compliment it just as confidently otherwise the whole production might not work as Barnaby intended.
When given a historical story written by Barnaby it’s hard not to get excited. He previously wrote the Doctor Who audio stories The Bride of Peladon, The Beast of Orlok and the very good audio adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. All are fantastic works of art in terms of writing and direction and I’m always keen to get started when I know Barnaby is involved. We work extremely well together, our creative thoughts are alike and we have an amicable working relationship. I work well with a lot of directors but I’ve worked on most of my Big Finish productions with Barnaby so we require little discussion on the tone and style of the sound design and music. Our creative thoughts follow the same path and that creates a better production. Before I read the script I knew it would be dark and atmospheric.
My aim when it comes to sound design is to always keep soundscapes as realistic as possible. Fortunately I live close to Rufford Abbey and early one morning I was given very large iron keys to the huge oak doors so I can record most of my required sounds undisturbed. With my Zoom H4n recorder to hand I had the place to myself. If anyone saw my shenanigans they would think I was insane! For the first time in this job I had to sign an agreement to use Rufford Abbey for production purposes. The staff at Rufford were very friendly and I even had a coffee made for me in a southwest room of the building before heading down to record. The first thing I did was use the war torn north end to get footsteps on the concrete tiles before recording in the Night Stairs to cover those secrets passageways of Kells. Next up, the huge oak doors. These are the main reason I went to so much trouble. This is the only way you can create realistic oak doors of this size with those huge iron keys without sounding fake, especially on audio where the listeners attention is more tuned to what they hear. From the front doors to the dark under-croft of the Abbey. I used this huge room full of columns to create all the footsteps using a shotgun microphone to keep reflections down but still have the ambience I needed so I didn’t have to add reverb in the edit. I also made the secret door sounds and hands feeling stone in here. It was such a fun day cut short due to school children having drama lessons above.
Swords, I thought, might be problematic. This wasn’t the case. Some time ago I was bought a very large knife for kitchen use but I’ve never actually used it. One afternoon I cautiously took my recording equipment up to a quiet outdoor location with the knife well packed in my bag. I needed somewhere the public didn’t walk through and the traffic noise was non-existent. The place I found was close to Farnsfield memorial for a Halifax bomber that crashed there during WWII after the engine caught fire. There lay a lot of wooden panels on the floor with some wooden posts close-by. I took the knife from my bag, set my recorder going and gave all this wood a damn good thrashing! Then I dropped the knife on the floor a few times covering all possible story requirements. It didn’t quite work until I lowered the pitch slightly.
Near the end of the story a TARDIS explodes as it rips through the fabric of time and space but I didn’t want this to be your standard explosion sound. I had recently acquired fifteen metres of music wire from Yamaha, the same wire they use as strings in their pianos. This is because I’m building my own version of a rare instrument called the Blaster Beam, created by Craig Huxley and used in Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Anyway, I took a single three metre strand and stretched it across some posts where a wire fence used to be. Hitting this created a low drone perfect for the special explosion sound I needed.
In the first part of The Book of Kells there is a storm. I was fortunate that the summer gave some very heavy downpours and like any sound designer I was out there getting soaked, and acquiring a cold, just so I could get decent rain sounds. It’s more difficult than you might think. I can’t use an umbrella because the rain hitting it would get picked up on the microphone. I had to dress in cotton and wool then go out into the woods, lean over the recording gear so they don’t get wet and stand there for ten minutes! At least I don’t have to do that ever again.
My music has always been rather cinematic because I grew up listening to the films scores of Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Hermann. My first musical idea was to give the score a vocal presence. Solo female and spoken male vocals backed up the important moments of the narrative or gave scene transitions an eerie feel and plainsong snuck their way into the composition to give the story that supernatural feel needed to draw the listener deeper into events. Barnaby actually asked for plainsong. It was the one thing in the score that gave the production a sense of time and place without characters having to tell the listener where they are. The manuscript had a cinematic reveal with an orchestral crescendo and this I wanted to get right. It is my favourite piece in this production. I didn’t want the music in The Book of Kells to become overpowering so I kept the composition somewhat minimalistic for the most part. The dark passageways had a ghostly atmosphere and when things start getting weird and spooky I created a low vocal drone that actually gives me chills! Hopefully my work lives up to the wonderfully written story.