The Role of Music in The Witness for the Prosecution

We caught up with the writer of the upcoming TV adaptation of Christie’s short story, Sarah Phelps, and the show’s composer, Paul Englishby, to discuss the importance of music, and one song in particular, in this modern re-telling of a classic story.

At the centre of Sarah’s adaptation is the song Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Reminiscent of the 1920's, Sarah chose this well-known song for its historical relevance and recognition; “I wanted a simple, famous song, one that people would dance cheek to cheek to, one that people would say ‘that’s our song’, one that we’d associate with generations of crooners.”

The song is key to the development of the adaptation’s protagonist, solicitor John Mayhew. It’s his “siren song”, which haunts him throughout the whole drama. It’s used “to entrance Mayhew, it’s a pivotal point for him. Light is absent from his life, everything is absent, hope, love…it’s just a grind of grief and trauma.”

Sarah continues, “The first-time Mayhew sees Romaine, she’s on her moon, luminous, seeming to sing only to him, for his ears, speaking to his brittle heart, this soupy sentimental song about love. The truth of it encapsulates all he’s lost and all he wishes was not lost and it pierces him to the core.”

Recognising the importance of the song, Paul took Sarah’s lead and used it as the basis for developing the score for the show. “I took little tiny cells from that tune, little intervals or phrases, and made a collage of stuff with it so that all the music throughout the programme relates to that song…the music gets under your skin because it’s always there, haunting Mayhew throughout the show.”

Combining the lyrics of the song with the way it’s been weaved into the storyline, Paul hopes “that the audience feel the heart of it and the human emotions” attached to these moments in the show.

So, with such a classic song, how did Paul manage to achieve a sound that felt relevant and contemporary to support the show? By using “live musicians as they provide a timeless quality, rather than going wholly electronic, so instead there’s a classic texture with electronic manipulated sounds.” Paul explains that “in one scene you hear a gramophone record playing. I’ve taken that, reversed it and slowed it down so that when you see the dead body for the first time, the record that’s been playing can be heard warped and backwards which signals to the audience that something’s wrong. This mixed with the orchestra gives the programme a unique sound, rather than sounding like a period score.”

Paul describes the ending of The Witness for the Prosecution as his favourite moment, where the music works incredibly well with the drama. “That cue is the culmination of all the music, Romaine’s song has turned into its own melody, so it’s being turned around upside down, inside out, and comes out as this big new theme."

For a teaser of the music that brings the show to life, listen below.