High-scoring double act Samantha Glynne meets the British film industry's hottest composing duo

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The Independent Culture
Cocooned in their state-of-the-art studio in Liverpool, John Murphy, 29, and David Hughes, 32, are Britain's youngest and busiest film composers. They have written seven scores in the past year - more than any other musician in the country - main ly for new film-makers. Their work can be heard this week in Welcome II the Terrordome (see other new releases, left), swiftly followed by Solitaire for Two, A Feast at Midnight and Clockwork Mice. They're the common denominator of the "Brit Pack".

They are an unusual partnership. Hughes, who by the age of 22 had scored a Fellini film - Il Palandini, released on video in Britain as Hearts and Armour - reads computer catalogues voraciously and looks like Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny's arch-enemy. Murphy, however, resembles a Greek film star. They are united by a shared musical sensibility and an uncontainable energy. They gesticulate wildly as they talk and interrupt one another, forming a long stream of sound.

Both are self-taught musicians and composers who, like many another teenage youngsters, played in bands in order to meet girls. They began working on films in 1992 after a chance - and drunken - meeting with Vadim Jean, the co-director of the low-budget kosher bacon comedy Leon the Pig Farmer.

"We agreed to do the music for nothing, for the love of it," says Murphy,"and had just eight days in which to arrange, perform and record the whole score. The video cassette we had was black-and-white, at the wrong speed and with no sound. Vadim and Gary[Sinyor, his collaborator] couldn't afford a new one, so Vadim had to stand next to the monitor impersonating Connie Booth and Brian Glover. In fact, he was doing the pig as well."

They have just been invited to submit the maddeningly catchy result for a 1995 Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, the film's success all over the world has led to a flood of work.

First up is Ngozi Onwurah's Welcome II the Terrordome. "At first we were very nervous because we saw that this film would have political repercussions," says Hughes. "And we were among a handful of white artists who worked on the project. But artistically it's the most exciting work we've done."

Originally engaged simply to score the instrumental music, they ended up co-producing the music, co-writing the rap with Felix, "a militant black rapper", and composing traditional-sounding African songs.

"The producers were meant to be using the music from Roots, but at the last minute they couldn't clear it. We had two days in which to learn the fundamentals of African tribal music and wrote the songs with an Ibo translator at the other end of the phone."

The next film in line is Sinyor's romance Solitaire for Two, which opens on 10 February. "We watched a lot of Cary Grant films and tried to understand that style," Murphy explains. "It was difficult finding a balance between sentimentality and melancholywithout being too cliched. But in that genre, people often expect schmaltz. The most challenging aspect was coping with Sinyor's long montages. Within one piece of music, we'd have to make the transition from 17th-century harpsichord to modern rock guitar." As always, they ended up doing more than simply write the score: Hughes was hauled in to appear in the film playing the harpischord in black tie - and red face.

Often people confuse film-scores with soundtracks made up of pop songs inserted willy-nilly into the film. This happens when studios are affiliated with a record company and are obliged to use their own artists.

The pair compare their art to the classical music of 200 years ago. "Then, most music was commissioned by patrons for ballets or operas," Hughes says. "If Mozart were alive now, he'd probably be writing film scores."

Murphy adds: "Of course some directors still want you to write a No 1 smash hit that'll sell all around the world. They never stop to think that if we could do that, we wouldn't be working 350 days a year in a tiny studio in Liverpool."

Murphy and Hughes are very much their own masters. Their output has been vast and varied: one minute they're producing tinkling identity tunes, the next they're composing symphonies. They have already been commissioned to write the scores for nine films in 1995.

What's the secret of their success? "We don't have the liability of music school training," Murphy says. "The rules and constraints would only have made us self-conscious."

Hughes adds: "It has helped that everyone else has been first-timers. At the beginning, it was a case of, `No one really knows what they're doing, so let's all not know together.' Ironically, on one level we're now more experienced than any of the individual directors."

Although they may play the faux-innocents, Murphy and Hughes radiate a childish bewilderment, as if they can't quite work out when the grown-ups stole in to do their work. Hughes tries to explain: "We're learning technique all the time, but we'd still rather know how to put in the one note that makes people cry or laugh."