Join composer James Whittle of audio drama Wooden Overcoats and take a trip into the lighthearted surrealist music of a much-loved comedy story. An immersive listening experience. Headphones recommended.
The piece of music we’re listening to in the background is the main theme from podcast sitcom Wooden Overcoats. Today, we’ll break it down and look at some of the insights into why and how it was made. You’re listening to How I Make Music, where behind-the-scenes musicians get to tell their own stories. Every Wednesday, we break apart a song, soundtrack or composition and get into the insights into how it was made. My name is James Whittle, composer, performer and conductor from the UK, and this is How I Make Music.
Wooden Overcoats is a podcast sitcom about two rival funeral directors. On the one hand, there’s Rudyard and Antigone Funn, siblings who rival themselves at times! And then newcomer to the island Eric Chapman, who has a fantastic presence and everyone falls in love with him. They compete for funeral business and a lot more on the island of Piffling. It’s kind of satire comedy of small island and village mentality. But also a very nostalgic and affectionate take on rural living and community. And lots of lovable characters too.
The Wooden Overcoats Main Theme appears at the beginning and end of every episode. We hear the motifs from the theme throughout the show soundtrack to represent siblings Rudyard and Antigone. I had quite a lot of fun with the little jingle dum-dah-dum. It’s often there, even under the surface. You might not always notice it.
One of the influences on Wooden Overcoats Main Theme is a piece by composer Trevor Wishart called Beach Singularity that was written in 1977. The piece is actually a live performance that takes place on a beach with brass ensembles and electronic recordings all at the same time. Victorian musical songs all combined with brass playing at the same time. Quite a noisy, almost absurd sound, which I love. I was drawing on these leftfield, avant-garde experimental compositions to try and get that sense of the absurd of satire. Of something a bit off kilter. We have in Wishart’s piece, even dogs barking! So there’s a lot of humor. There’s a lot of chaos in this piece.
Wooden Overcoats is set on a fictional Channel island. So one of the key musical influences was the theme tune from a British sitcom ‘Allo! ‘Allo! which is set in France and features lots of very bad accents. Very tongue in cheek, take a listen. The feeding tune has this dadadada rising fifth. Wooden Overcoats does a little quote of that.
LARGE MELODIC JUMPS
The Wooden Overcoats theme moves up and down in quite large jumps. It’s that stuff which for me harks back to 1920s operetta, which is very expressive with these big jumps up and down. Here’s an example from the 1920s operetta The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg. Sounds very romantic. I kinda wanted to add a little bit of that kind of nostalgic feel in the tune.
The Wooden Overcoats main theme was recorded live with a group of four musicians plus a conductor. And part of the challenge for me in writing the soundtrack is to get the most out of the minimal means. So even with just four musicians, how could we have, you know, a bass and some harmony and a melody, and make it all sound engaging? We wanted to work with live musicians, we wanted that raw sound that you get from live instruments. That’s really the joy of music making for me is working with other people. It might not be a perfect sound. The drums are quite rough and ready. And that’s maybe partly to do with how we recorded it anyway. But for me that makes the piece represent the show better. Because the Funn twins are not the most organized or necessarily straightforward of characters.
The ensemble for this piece is not your average, you don’t often combine a mandolin, cello, drums and an organ. And I had a lot of fun writing for that combination, that it made sense because we needed an organ to represent the funeral aspects of the show. We wanted a mandolin for the folk part. The cello was added as a sustained counter-melody to the mandolin’s theme, and also as a bassline. But it’s a bassline that is its own melody and the drums. Of course, we needed something that’s that gave the whole piece a bit of pep. You know, I’ve worked a lot with musicians and it’s about trust. And you know, actually because I’m the composer of this music, my job was to bring it to life.
I was first approached for the show in early 2015 by producers, directors, John Wakefield and Andy Goddard. So I went away and wrote six or seven ideas at the piano and I scored these out. An organ was an obvious choice to be in the peace with the association of churches and funerals. When you walk into the concert hall, you see a large hexagonal space with red chairs and a bright wooden floor. It’s a big resonance space with the tall white walls and more. And at the very ends, and the center is the organ. It has this magnificent sound. It’s wonderful to play in. And it’s also a very bright light space with the wood and the chairs. It’s almost cathedral-like. You have a sense of expanse. I think you can hear that in the sound.
TWISTY, CRUNCH, CHROMATIC
I was experimenting with different options for a very chromatic dense chord that had a twisty sound. A really crunchy sound chords that move outwards and up and down at the same time just by semitones to land on this final chord in the piece which is in a completely different key to everything that’s come before for the drums. We ended up with quite a rough and hectic sound. A mandolin plays the lead theme in this piece. A mandolin would have that the lightness and sound is quite a stark contrast to the organ and the drums.
ODE TO NOGGINS
Ode To Noggins is an expansive melodramatic song very sincerely felt, take a listen. In the episode, Noggins has his funeral and it’s a celebration by the whole village for this person that nobody seems to know. When I was given the lines for the song I just laughed and laughed because the writer had included all of these uncertainties! You know, “we think this” or “we’ve been told that you’re this”. It’s unsure of really what it’s singing about. It always seems to change track.
I have a love of barbershop music. I grew up singing in close harmony groups and choirs. And I’ve always enjoyed the humor, the naivety, the kind of just the effortless, joyful, fun of it. And so I definitely wanted some of that close chords that move very lightly up and down in stepwise motion. It gets quite claustrophobic, sometimes barbershop harmony.
Trevor Wishart & Friends – Beach Singularity
Sigmund Romberg – The Student Prince
David Croft & Roy Moore – Allo Allo! Theme
James Whittle Barbershop Quartet – The More Beautiful Game
Victoria Bernath & James Whittle – Carnivore (preview): Clarinet vs Saxophone
Thunderstorm by Tomattka
Mandolin Strum High G Chord by gollybob
Cello_mono by speedyrce
Mandolin Riff (with ambiance) by Echo Cinematics
ABOUT THIS SHOW
Discover new fiction podcasts in an immersive, sound-designed listening experience with their music composers. In this show, we challenge audio drama music makers to break apart a song, soundtrack or composition and get into why and how it was made. Immersive listening. Headphones recommended.
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