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Oscars 2015: Meet the unsung composer who waited 40 years to be nominated

His first nomination could be his last so Gary Yershon is making the most of his time in the LA sun, finds Nick Clark

Nick Clark
Friday 20 February 2015 20:18 GMT
Gary Yershon's first Oscar nomination has come after four decades of composing scores
Gary Yershon's first Oscar nomination has come after four decades of composing scores (EPA)

Film fans may not be quite as familiar with the name Gary Yershon as acting stars Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Yet come Sunday, they will all share the same red carpet, part of the contingent of British talent all vying for the iconic golden statuette at the Oscars.

While the actors may be in the early stages of their careers, Mr Yershon has been composing scores – largely for the theatre – for four decades. It is his first Oscar nomination and left him flabbergasted.

“I am very, very honoured,” he said of being shortlisted in the best score category for his work on Mr Turner – a film that was controversially overlooked in the Best Actor category despite critical plaudits for its star, Timothy Spall, but could yet prove victorious in other fields. It is the 60-year-old Mr Yershon’s fourth film, all of them directed by Mike Leigh. And since touching down in Los Angeles on Tuesday, he has experienced for the first time the relentless building of Oscar buzz with a “well-paced crescendo of events until the ceremony”.

“As a theatre person, when you see something so well stage managed, you have to say this is expertise at work. You can see it in every shining twinkle,” he said. “It feels great to represent the incredible powerful movie and have this surprise at this stage of my career.”

Yershon has been shortlisted for the 'Mr Turner' score

There is certainly no escaping from the Oscars in Los Angeles, a city he has never visited before, in the week before the ceremony. “Everything – all the magazines, the papers and television – is geared up. It’s a great ritual moment,” he said.

The formal events started on Thursday, when the trip “started all going a bit la-la land,” according to Mr Yershon. He went to a dinner organised by the music chapter of the academy governors in a restaurant, ironically, with terrible acoustics. It allowed the Best Score nominees and the Best Song nominees to meet up and mingle.

“I had never met any of my fellow nominees,” Mr Yershon said. “I knew them by name and work of course. It was a nice opportunity to meet them in a pressure-off atmosphere.” He particularly liked Jóhann Jóhannsson, who scored The Theory of Everything, “a fellow bald person, so I knew I would get on with him straight away”.

He also met Arthur Hamilton, the songwriter behind “Cry Me a River”, who is approaching his 90th birthday. “I couldn’t believe it. To me that really is meeting someone who has made a difference. I’ve known the song all my life,” said Mr Yershon, who is an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has worked on a string of productions in Stratford and the National Theatre, as well as the West End.

Mr Yershon studied music and drama at Hull University, which was an unusual course at the time, he said. “I was lucky to get a job in my final year and joined a rep company as an actor and musician.”

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It was director Phyllida Lloyd, who he met in rep at Cheltenham in 1991, who later advised him to ditch the acting “as she didn’t think I was terribly good, but said I could make a living at being a composer. As soon as I stopped acting it took off.”

His film work started late. Through “sheer, amazing luck” he worked with director Mike Leigh on the Gilbert and Sullivan 1999 biopic Topsy-Turvy as music supervisor and arranger in which he also earned the on-screen credit as “pianist in brothel”.

He went on to score Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year for the director before working on the highly acclaimed Mr Turner. The other previous nomination for his work was one for best score at the 2010 European Film Awards held in Estonia, for Another Year.

Last night, The British Consul invited all the UK nominees to a party, “and there’s lots of us this year”. Mr Yershon was there with his fellow nominees from Mr Turner – alongside best score, it received nods for cinematography, production design and costume design.

Tonight, the composer will attend a champagne reception given by the Society of Composer and Lyricists before he is whisked off to a party thrown by Sony, Mr Turner’s distributor.

Hans Zimmer is also nominated for 'Insterstellar' (Getty Images)

The instructions for the big day are precise. He fears the lack of experience at awards ceremonies could upset the Oscar’s delicate timing schedule as “I’ve never even put on a cummerbund before. I don’t know how long it’ll take. This is timed to the second”.

As well as Mr Jóhannsson, he is up against Hans Zimmer for Interstellar and Alexandre Desplat, who has been nominated twice for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

“If my name got called out they would have to revive me in my seat,” he said. “The likelihood of being able to stand up is nil.” While it is often said, Mr Yershon maintains he has not and will not prepare a speech. “It’s true, I don’t feel remotely competitive. I am the outsider.”

After the ceremony, the guests are directed to the Governor’s Ball and then the after parties. I think I’d probably know if I was going to the Vanity Fair party by now,” he said. “But I will be going to Elton John’s; he is really supportive of the Brits.”

The whirlwind tour of LA ends on Monday night, and he will return to his home in Bloomsbury, London, “and back to the day job” of scoring the second series of the BBC’s Shakespeare dramatisations The Hollow Crown.

“The nomination is a genuine honour when I think of the people who have been there before,” Mr Yershon concluded. “I’m not sure if anything will change in my work as a result, other than I can say I’ve been nominated for an Oscar… At the moment, winning is just impossible to contemplate.”

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