The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse music: who composed the score and what to expect
We talk to composer Isobel Waller-Bridge about her score for the BBC's adaptation of Charlie Mackesy's enchanting tale, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, on your TV screens this Christmas
Our pick for one of the festive highlights on TV this Christmas is the delightful animated story The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
What is The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse about?
An adaptation of Charlie Mackesy’s bestselling children’s book of the same name, this heartfelt tale follows the unlikely friendship of a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse as they journey together on the boy's search for home. Directed by the author, the show’s voice cast includes Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne.
Who composed the music for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse?
The original score is composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, and performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Geoff Alexander. We chatted to Isobel about the inspirations behind, and the process of composing, the show's beautiful score.
Did you know the story of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse before starting work on the music?
Yes, I knew the book previously – I’d been given it by my brother for Christmas in 2019. I remember opening it up and going off into a quiet corner to read it – and just being so moved by it. Part of what’s so wonderful about the story is the scarcity of words – there are these beautiful illustrations, and then these small thoughts and questions. It’s a really powerful combination.
And how did you come to be involved with composing the music for the TV programme?
Charlie Mackesy was putting together the audiobook of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, and he had licensed Max Richter’s album Sleep as a soundtrack – but he needed music for a small part of the book that they hadn’t scored yet.
So Charlie asked me if I would provide some music for the fox. And then after that he asked me if I would like to write the score for the film. I think it’s such a beautiful story that I said ‘yes’ instantly.
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How did the composing process go?
Charlie and the team had already been working on the film for years – animation takes a long time. So it wasn’t a rushed process – we had some time to exchange ideas. And because I knew that the story had come from somewhere so deep within Charlie, the music needed to be a genuine collaboration. It was very important to me – to both of us – that he should be involved. That’s the joy of collaborating, for me: the more collaboration the better. When you are making a world together, if you have access to the author that’s a good place to start.
Where did your initial thoughts about the music for The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse come from?
Charlie and I had made ‘Hymn to the Robin’, a piece about a robin, together. He hummed a tune down the phone to me, and I thought it was a beautiful tune – so I made it into an orchestral piece. This became ‘Hymn to the Robin’, which then became the main theme to the film.
It felt so right because it had come from Charlie. It became a sort of starting point for the score, and you hear it three or four times in different guises during the film.
What musical instruments does The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse use?
The score mixes passages for solo instruments, and other sections for a full orchestra.
We knew the piano would be the lead instrument. The boy and the piano felt very linked to Charlie. Musically, that also felt like a lovely way in to the story – because it all begins with just the boy on his own, so we open with the piano and some very soft strings.
Then for a while we thought, ‘Should there be a distinct instrument associated with each character?’, but in the end we didn’t go down that route. It just sort of evolved into the score as it is, and I think we’re all very happy with it.
What sort of atmospheres does the music convey?
The atmosphere of the music really came from the book. Charlie’s story is such a gentle space and we both felt that the music should reflect that.
But what’s interesting is that the characters go on a journey that proves quite challenging for them, and there are moments that are quite scary. They go through a range of emotions that the music must communicate, so that’s when we got into ideas of more of an orchestral sound for those moments.
In terms of the moods that the music conveys… I would say (and anyone who has read Charlie’s wonderful book will know what to expect) that the music is often poignant and quite meditative.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is on BBC One, Christmas Day. The soundtrack to the show will be released by Sony, date tbc.
There's an interview with Isobel Waller-Bridge in the Christmas issue of BBC Music magazine, which is out on 29 November.
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.