Vince Pope on scoring Mr Bates vs The Post Office like a thriller & True Detective: Night Country like a whatdunit

BAFTA-nominated composer Vince Pope has made a name for himself providing contemporary scores for series including No Offence, Undercover, Misfits and Black Mirror. His most recent projects are no less high profile: he composed the score for ITV’s four-part drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office and the highly anticipated new series of True Detective, starring Jodie Foster. True Detective: Night Country has been hailed as a return to form for the show made popular in part due to the captivating performances in season one from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Here, Pope explains how he approached Mr Bates vs The Post Office like a thriller, and how horror, spirituality and Native American throat singers combine to infuse True Detective: Night Country with a dark underbelly.

Pope is here today to talk about True Detective: Night Country, but there’s a Post Office shaped elephant in the room. At the time of interview, Mr Bates vs The Post Office is all anyone is talking about, depicting the appalling true story of the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, where hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a defective IT system.

“I was actually quite familiar with the story,” says Pope from what he calls his “little cubby hole” in his central London home. “When my agent said, ‘They're making it into a drama’, my first thought was, ‘They should! Because it's such an incredibly horrible, surprising, crazy story’. I was absolutely gobsmacked at it, as everybody has been. It's horrendous what happened to the postmasters.”

It has this urgency that you tend to have when you're dealing with a thriller.

Knowing that striking the right tone for this reenactment of this true story would be key, Pope carefully considered his approach: “Obviously, because of the very intense, emotional nature of the piece, there's this very human side to it,” he says. 

“This is not a made up story – this actually happened to people. So I was trying to keep it grounded in that very emotional sense, but at the same time, having this urgency that you tend to have when you're dealing with a thriller. It's almost a thriller, obviously, not in the sense that people were killing each other,” he points out. “But it's a thriller in the sense of how tremendously crazy the story was and what the Post Office was doing to these poor postmasters.”

Viewers were incensed after watching the four-part drama – the four episodes are officially the most watched programmes on any UK channel so far this year. Just a week after airing, more than a million people had signed a petition calling for justice for the accused, prompting the British government to announce a new law to compensate victims, while the Post Office CEO (at the time the events took place) handed back her OBE after more than a million people signed a separate petition demanding she give it back. 

Pope has composed scores for wildly popular shows before, but admits he’s never been part of a programme that has inspired such passionate discourse.

“I can honestly say never,” he nods. “The way people took hold of it and were very moved and upset by what was portrayed in the drama was a surprise to me in terms of the level of interest in generating. I’ve worked on shows that have done well, although I'm never particularly good at telling whether the show is going to do badly or well,” he admits. 

“But they were talking about it on Radio 4 and even the Prime Minister has made comments on it. It was surprising and very satisfying, because that's what good journalistic drama can do. It has even produced changes of attitude towards compensation now. I heard Fujitsu – who were the people who supply the computer systems – have now admitted culpability, which is something that they never had done in the past. It's a shame that a drama has to be made in order for that impact to happen, but it certainly is having an impact.”

It's a shame that a drama has to be made in order for that impact to happen.

True Detective: Night Country

Season one of True Detective received widespread acclaim and earned high ratings for HBO in 2014, and with its strong script, magnetic lead actors and memorable dialogue (“I don’t sleep. I just dream,”) was a tough act to follow. Sure enough, season two didn’t quite deliver, with many tuning out, not returning to check out season three. However season four, Night Country, has been hailed as a return to form, earning the highest viewership ratings for HBO since season one, and garnering positive reviews from critics.

Set in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, Night Country follows the investigation behind the disappearance of eight men from a research station and stars Jodie Foster and Kali Reis as detectives Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro. It was Pope’s first time scoring the series.

“They used the same composer for the first three series, and this was a change of direction for them,” he nods, admitting that he too struggled to get through the second season. “I was a fan of the first series, and I think, like everybody, I then started watching the second series and it didn't grab me in the same way that the first series did. So I sort of petered out about halfway through.”

It is ultimately a whodunit, or a whatdunit.

On if he listened to the previous composer’s scores for the first three seasons, Pope reveals he avoids doing that in order to come up with something unique: “I don't tend to go and look and see what it was like before. If anything, I stay away from things like that because they're not asking for the same thing, or anything approaching it,” he explains.

“I didn't see the necessity to do a viewing of previous seasons to catch up – especially because the seasons are completely standalone in terms of storyline and cast. Season one is two men in the very hot, sweltering Deep South, whereas this is the polar opposite, literally. Women are the main protagonists and it's in the perpetual Alaskan night in the snow, so it's very far away in terms of aesthetic. It is ultimately a whodunit, or a whatdunit,” he teases.

Pope shares that it’s not that often he gets to work on a project with a director and showrunner whose creativity and aesthetic he immediately gravitates to and feels so in tune with. Initially he talked with director Issa López, who serves as showrunner, writer and director for S4, about the feel of the show to make sure they were on the same page.

“There are no spoilers here, but on the one hand, you have this horrible crime that is committed where all the workers are found dead, so you have this dark undercurrent. It's all above the Arctic Circle during a period of time where the sun doesn't rise. So it stays perpetual night for about three or four months of the year, depending on how far north you are,” he explains. 

“So it has that darkness, but at the same time, it's set in a place where Native American people are living and thriving and there is this level of spirituality, which is the counterpoint to that. So in a sense, it was how to get these two things running in parallel in terms of the score and how you want to balance that.”

Pope also gave some thought as to what images of ice, cold and darkness conjured for him in terms of how the score should sound: “I had to think about how we portrayed that with the score,” he nods. “I've used voices quite a lot, which present the spiritual elements. I used a woman called Tanya Tagaq, who's very famous in Canada as a promoter of Native American music. She's a throat singer, so I use that as an element in the score to underpin that and to emphasise that spiritual nature of what we're dealing with.”

It's definitely bringing these voices that haven't been necessarily heard in mainstream television to the fore.

Pope hopes his choice to incorporate choirs with Native American throat singers into his compositions adds authenticity to the show, being that it’s set in Alaska. “I was very keen to add voices from this part of the world, literally and figuratively. I think it does add authenticity. 

"I mean, I'm always slightly circumspect about saying, ‘Add authenticity’, it sounds a bit tacked on,” he remarks. “But actually, it was certainly more than that. It's definitely bringing these voices that haven't been necessarily heard in mainstream television to the fore. Hopefully, it feels integral.”

Pope’s musical contributions to Night Country involve crafting a score that mirrors the dark and mysterious atmosphere of the narrative. He explains his deliberate effort to infuse the score with a dark underbelly in order to provide the series with a sinister horror element:

“There are a lot of horror cliches, so I wanted to try and steer away from those,” he notes. “I found this amazing instrument called a Fujara, which is a wind instrument. I was thinking, ‘When you've got all these very wild, nighttime snowy scenes, what, in my mind's eye, do I hear?’ I was thinking: wind instruments, and I started researching. 

"I found this amazing instrument, which is about twice the size of a bassoon – it's a massive thing. It's about six feet in length, and it makes this incredible sound. I used that as an underpinning for the dark, brooding landscape and the mysterious side of the aesthetic and the score. Atmosphere is a way you can have fun as a composer: trying to create something slightly different and slightly more interesting with sounds that you haven't heard before. That's definitely where the experimentation comes into play.”

There are a lot of horror cliches, so I wanted to try and steer away from those.

The blend of haunting melodies and ambient textures, coupled with the collaboration's spiritual essence, create music that serves as a profound journey for Foster's character, although Pope admits that the sound of the show’s main character was not the one he had to give the most consideration to:

“It's interesting, because I was thinking much more about the other characters than her character,” he says. “Her character is more stereotypical in a sense that she represents the old school police person who is trying to solve this crime using normal methods of detection. She partners up with Navarro who is Native American, and she provides a slightly more ambiguous way of solving these crimes. Jodie Foster was easier to score because there are certain tools that you can use for detective work.”

True Detective: Night Country is streaming now.

True Detective: Night Country image credits: Kali Reis