Yes Ma'am: Ruth Barrett's Score for Bodyguard

By Sarah Finegold, Marketing Coordinator  •  June 13, 2019

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Netflix and The BBC's hit show Bodyguard became a worldwide phenomenon after breaking viewing records in the UK in 2018. The story of war veteran Sgt. David Budd (played by Game of Thrones alum Richard Madden), the bodyguard for steely British Home Secretary Julia Montague, captivated audiences with moments of tense terror and devastating vulnerability. Bodyguard's gripping plot and standout acting performances are elevated by the masterful scoring prowess of composer Ruth Barrett (Harry Brown, The Durrells, Victoria). The propulsive, intricately layered score is a master class in tension-building and eliciting emotional responses through sonic details. We caught Ruth between studio sessions to ask about this project and how it came together.

(Click here if you don't get the "Yes Ma'am" reference in the title)

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Ruth Barrett

I would love to hear about the various motifs we hear in the show and how you crafted them musically. Whether the show is depicting high intensity terror attack or a love scene, there is a very cohesive thread that runs through the show, almost like a pounding heart. It's extremely visceral!

That’s it exactly. It started with a throb on an SH-101 [synth]. From early on watching the cut, it felt like there could be this pulse running through it. It was the way into scoring a scene where David wants to kill Julia but can’t overcome his attraction to her.

It needed a sound which wasn’t too serious, a bit primal, like the beat of a nightclub at 4am pulling you back in. I messed about with sounds on top - processed tribal vocals, a membrane flute playing rhythmic loops and a scratchy electric cello. It was this strange combination that became the signature sound as it captured the torment in David’s head, his conflicting emotions and uncontrollable desires. I really wanted to get into the fun side of it too, [the fact] that the show wasn’t all about scary tension but a bit naughty too.

What elements of the show inspired your overall choices in tone when you first approached the project? Was there a moment that was particularly challenging to nail down musically?

David’s PTSD and what was going on in his head was what I needed to capture as the overall beat of the series. His face doesn’t give much away, so the music could really illustrate that.

The opening scene on the train was already terrifying and tense, so the challenge was how to heighten that experience without over-egging it. My husband Ruskin created a lot of those nasty gritty sounds on modular synths. That’s what gives the score its jagged, pulsating quality. And a trombone player played a long rising note which I stretched to infinity to create a feeling of a noose tightening around your neck. I wanted to create the sound of panic that you would feel in your gut in that situation, a fight or flight sensation. The idea was to do it in a way that wasn’t melodramatic or epic, in a way that something like a Bourne [film] could be, but works on your subconscious, sucking you in with David and his state of horrible anxiety.

This show has been a behemoth hit for the BBC & Netflix. How does it feel to be a part of this enormous pop culture moment through your music?

There is a lot of grafting in every job, so it’s very exciting and gratifying to be part of a hit show and to reach so many people. It’s a very good feeling. I’ve worked with [Bodyguard creator] Jed Mercurio before and I love his writing. The director Thomas Vincent was a big part of what made the show electrifying. He was fantastic to work with and clear with his thoughts and ideas. I worried that maybe the show needed a big melody, but Thomas assured me that he didn’t want that - “Just sound, the crazy sound in David’s head.” He wanted to push the unexpected and allowed the music to be ear-bleeding at times. It always helps to start early and get music into the cut - then everyone gets used to the cacophony!

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Bodyguard is meticulously sound edited - there are so many subtle touches in the music and the sound that blend together seamlessly. Did you need to factor in any of the major sound cues when scoring or did you only see that in the finished product?

There wasn’t much collaboration. A lot of the music was written alongside the edit so there wasn’t much other temp score. So the sound team had a good idea of what was going on in the score. The music is quite sound-designy, so it was sometimes tricky to get the balance between the score and FX. Especially for a TV mix, where there isn’t as much dynamic range and the sound gets compressed more than it would in a feature film.

You've scored a number of thriller-type projects (Harry Brown, Twenty8k, City of Tiny Lights, Collateral, etc.). What draws you to that kind of project? How do you bring a unique flavor to each one?

Projects are very director-lead - I’ve collaborated with SJ Clarkson and Pete Travis on a number of different and varied films. I’ve also worked on ITV series The Durrells and Victoria and enjoy doing lighter shows. But yes, I’m drawn to the dark side especially. I love writing emotive music with a dark underbelly. It’s fun to create a palette of sounds from scratch for each job. I work with an amazing cellist a lot called Nick Holland who is not afraid to take his cello to the extreme.

British TV has a very distinct aesthetic and feeling. Do you feel that your scoring work has a particular UK flavor or do you feel more universal?

I’m not really conscious of it. I respond to the drama and write music that feels right for the show. I love writing music for film & TV as it has the power to connect with people on a deep emotional level, and I hope the music I do has a universal appeal.

I feel lucky to be working on British TV right now as there is so much talent, but I’m open to working further afield as well. There are brilliant shows popping up on Netflix all the time. It’s an exciting time to be working in the industry.

What is your dream project right now?

I love Killing Eve, how it’s shot and directed. The soundtrack is unique, bold and brilliant. I watched A Star Is Born on the way to LA and was blown away by that, and the way Bradley Cooper directed it. Hasn’t got a bad singing voice either. I’d love to do a psychological chiller. The Shining is one of my favourite films, so to create something that has that creepy atmosphere would be very appealing.

I’m currently working on an eight-part, epic Jane Austen adaptation - Sanditon, directed by Olly Blackburn - but doing it in a bold, non-traditional way which is really fun. For me it’s all about working with directors who push boundaries and inspire me creatively. That’s why I love my job.

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Bodyguard is Now Playing on Netflix

Visit Ruth Barrett online at www.ruthbarrettmusic.com.