By Melissa Berry
Simon May is a British musician and composer, best known for composing some of British television’s most popular theme tunes, including EastEnders and Howards’ Way.
The EastEnders theme is synonymous with the ‘doof doofs’ – the drum rolls that end each and every episode of our favourite soap.
Another EastEnders storyline gave May a hit in 1986. Nick Berry, who played Wicksy, topped the charts with ‘Every Loser Wins,’ which sold over a million copies. It won the Ivor Novello Award for best-selling single of 1986.
In 1993 the theme itself was given a ‘jazzy’ update that fans disliked, with many claiming it was too ‘posh’ for Walford. An updated version of the theme was introduced in 1994. And later, with Johnny Griggs, May wrote another set of lyrics for the theme. ‘I’ll Always Believe in You’ featured lead vocals by Sharon Benson and was based around the extended version of the 1993 theme.
In 2009 he was asked to revamp the EastEnders theme again, to update the one running from 1994, making it lighter in tone and bringing back elements of the original theme missing in the previous version.
May has also written variations for character Peggy Mitchell’s exit, ‘Peggy’s Theme,’ which aired in September 2010, as well as one for Pat Butcher.
Before becoming a full-time musician he had a career as a schoolteacher, teaching languages and music at Kingston Grammar School and still teaches part time today.
I recently had the chance to ask this EastEnders legend a few questions regarding his career before he headed off on his summer holiday. Here’s what he had to say.
Walford Gazette: When and where did you first write music?
Simon May: I often jokingly say that I started writing the first six notes of EastEnders when I had my first piano lesson at the age of seven in my home town Devizes in Wiltshire. My first piano teacher, Ann, taught me the simple scale of C major, and if you think about it, the notes C D E F G A are the start of the EastEnders melody. The best way to give you a serious answer to your question is to give you a very short extract from my autobiography: “I remember so well the very first time I performed my first meaningful improvisation. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I had just bought the sheet music of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I’ve never been good at reading music. (The sight-reading part of my piano examinations used to scare the life out of me.) I couldn’t play what was on the sheet music, so I started to work out what the basic chords were and then move the fingers of my right hand around to create a new melody over the original chord sequence. It was a magical and exciting discovery that I could create my own tunes!”
WG: US fans are most familiar with the themes you have written for EastEnders and Howard’s Way. As a matter of fact, a photo of the EE sheet music appeared in the very first issue of the Walford Gazette! Can you tell us of other pieces we might be familiar with?
SM: Wife Swap keeps using one of my compositions, ‘Web of Deception,’ as incidental music in Wife Swap USA, but as it is Production Music (i.e., Library Music) we don’t get a screen credit. I also wrote the score for the movie The Dawning starring Anthony Hopkins and Hugh Grant, which was a cult hit in the UK and the US.
WG: How did you become involved with EastEnders initially? Were you approached to write the theme?
SM: I had written the themes to two BBC-TV drama series that Tony Holland the script editor liked a lot. When he was developing E8 (which was the working title for EastEnders) he invited me
to meet him and Julia Smith and submit ideas for the new soap theme. Happily they both loved my second attempt.
WG: It must have been amazing to record the lyrics with Anita Dobson and to appear on Top of the Pops. Can you tell us a little bit about this experience?
SM: Here’s another short extract from my book, which hopefully helps to answer your question:
“Anita Dobson was one of the EastEnders cast who I had great fun working with when she sang the vocal version of EastEnders in 1986. Not only is she a consummate professional, but also a very warm and kind person.
“Since the launch of the programme I had received hundreds of letters from the public saying that the tune should be turned into a song and even sometimes sending me their suggested ideas. Don Black who had just written the wonderful words for Howards’ Way was my natural choice of lyricist. Although I consider myself a lyricist as well as a composer I felt that Don would do a far better job, which indeed he did. I am not sure how many people realize how original his lyric is – yes, it’s easy to fall in love, but staying in love for a lifetime is much harder.”
WG: The EE theme and the ‘doof doofs’ that appear at the end of each episode are now iconic. (I once sang the lyrics with a friend while floating down the Thames in London!) Did you know that they would be this famous 30 years on, and do you watch EastEnders now?
SM: I still watch EastEnders as often as I can. I believe it’s the best soap on UK television, and it received loads of awards this year at the Soap Awards (including best UK soap) – this does rather show that I’m not biased!
Here’s another extract from my book which tells you how the ‘doof doof’ was created:
“When I compose and record an important theme tune I always create a long version, partly because it might one day be marketed as a commercial three-minute recording, and partly because it’s easier to edit a short version from a long one rather than the other way round. Creating a long version also gives you the freedom to experiment and take more risks than if you are only creating a short thirty-second version.
“So with EastEnders, I created a three-minute version starting with the opening statement which was to become the opening title music. “From that middle section, how could we get back to the more contemporary end section which had a different feel to the Cockney section? I knew that there would have to be a dramatic drum fill to create a musical distraction and bring us back to the feel of the main piece. That fill (now referred to as the ‘doof doof’) was a rhythmic reflection of the last triplet ‘hook’ in the main melody. It was therefore compatible but also unexpected and acted as a delightful bridge between the two different musical styles.
“When I was mixing the tracks, I asked the engineer Neil to solo the drum fill which was played on the electronic Simmons drum kit by the very talented drummer Graham Broad. When I offered it to Julia and Tony as the dramatic start of the end titles they loved it. (It was only years later that the drum fill was added to the opening titles.)
“That short drum fill has been the subject of much curiosity and comment over the years. Every actor who receives his new script apparently goes to the last page first to see whether he or she has got the final ‘doof doof’ line. Shane Richie once told me that he was one of the privileged few to be given the last spoken line in his first episode on the show.”
WG: Do you have a favourite EastEnders character?
SM: Mmm… so many. Dot, Ian Beale, and I do miss Ben Hardy as Peter Beale.
WG: Do you find inspiration from other composers? Who might they be?
SM: Mozart, anyone who wrote a Michael Jackson song, Dolly Parton and loads of other new young singer songwriters like Ed Sheeran.
WG: Which non-musical influences are important to your music?
SM: My wife Rosie and our four children.
WG: What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
SM: Go to the ocean, watch political programmes and listen to BBC Radio 4 (Classical).
WG: What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
SM: When I get goosebumps as I compose!
WG: Of all the projects you have worked on so far, which is your favourite and why?
SM: Three favourites really: EastEnders, because of its huge success; Howards’ Way, because it’s my late mother’s favourite piece of music and my musical, Smike, because thousands of young people have enjoyed performing it since I wrote it at the start of my career.
WG: Do you think about the listener when you are composing?
SM: Definitely. I have faith that if I love what I’m writing, this enjoyment will be shared by my listeners.
WG: What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
SM: Abba and The Sound of Music!
WG: We are very much looking forward to your autobiography which is soon to be released. Can you tell us when it will be available and where fans can purchase it here in the US?
SM: Anyone can go to my website at www.simonmay.co.uk to see details about Doof Doof. The boxed set collection with abridged mini-autobiography and the unabridged full book will be released separately in the first week of September but can it be pre-ordered. Our third eldest daughter, Daisy, read the book recently and told me it made her laugh and cry. I couldn’t wish for a nicer comment. Initially, I honestly didn’t write it to make money, I just wanted to share my life and music with anyone who enjoys EastEnders.
WG: What are you currently working on? What’s next for Simon May?
SM: At the moment I am focusing on promoting the two formats of Doof Doof and then plan to write for a new musical project towards the end of this year.