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'Downton Abbey's' composer talks Emmys, Jimmy Fallon & Dancing with the Stars

'Downton Abbey's' composer John Lunn.
Emmys.org

Before the mega-hit show Downton Abbey even hit the air, at least one member of the creative team knew that some special was brewing.

“I remember thinking that the very first episode was very clear about who everybody was and what the focus of the show was. I knew that if we kept going in that vein, we really had something,” says the show’s music composer John Lunn. “But, to be truthful, while I suspected it would be popular, I had absolutely no idea that it would become as enormously popular as it has ultimately become.”

The popularity of the show has led to many of the music cues created by Lunn being using in media outside of the “Downton Abbey,” and Lunn finds that quite amusing. “I get a real kick out of hearing the music on other things, like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and such,” says Lunn, “But I really enjoy when it’s used for comedy, like when Jimmy Fallon used it for his take-off of the show called ‘Downton Sixby’ and when Will Farrell did a dance routine to it on a late night show. Those are so funny to me. I love it!"

While Lunn enjoys watching his work being used for humor, he clearly knows what he’s doing in using his cues to capture the onscreen emotion of “Downton” and he’s been rewarded for his work with two Emmy Awards.

“Those Emmys really mean a lot to me because they’re voted on by my peer group within the Television Academy,” explains Lunn.

His initial reaction to winning his first Emmy was, “Utter shock,” says Lunn. But he admits that he did have a clue that he might be receiving a statue by the location of his seat. “I was sitting on an aisle and I noticed that most people that won in the categories ahead of me where on the aisle, so I thought maybe…but then I was just so gob smacked when they actually called my name.” Once the shock wore off, Lunn settled down quickly. “ I was so relaxed walking up to the podium and I didn’t prepare anything. The first thing I said was. How do you live in this heat?’ and I meant it because it was unbelievable hot that year. My category was quite early in the ceremony so I got it over with and I was happy about that. I also love that after you've received the award, they whisk you backstage and give you a glass of champagne. That really helped with the heat!”

When Lunn was nominated a second time the following year, he disclosed that he absolutely didn’t think his name would be called. “Well, I was not on the aisle that year so I assumed I hadn’t won. And, truthfully, I was convinced that there was no way I was going to win a second time.” When he did win, Lunn says that he was a not as relaxed the first time as he headed to the stage. “I was just so shocked. I was really in a bit of such disbelief that I was even more nervous than the previous time they'd announced my name.”

Influenced by composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, who created the themes for classic films such as “Chinatown” and “Taxi Driver” and won an Oscar for “The Omen” as well as five Emmy awards, Lunn knows that the score of a film or television show is more than just the notes on a the page. “The music is a very large part of the storytelling. The shape and the contour of the music and the way that it sits under the dialogue takes the viewer into, through the scene and then into the next scene is incredibly important and if any part of it is wrong, the whole thing can fall apart rather easily. Often, it’s a quite a challenge, but it’s all worth it.”

In addition to scoring, Lunn has other musical responsibilities on the show and some of those have brought him some standout moments. “I’ve had some quite interesting times on set,” reveals Lunn. “I had to teach Shirley MacLaine to sing a song and I ended up playing piano with her in that scene on the show, but I had to wear a wig because no one was bald in that time period.”

While there is no plan for Lunn to leave "Downton" and no plan for the show to end anytime soon, Lunn has thought about the next steps he would like to take in his career.

“One of the biggest things that I’ll take away from working on ‘Downton Abbey’ is that I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” admits Lunn. “All composers suffer from the ‘blank canvas’ issue. I’ve worked hard and cracked the style of ‘Downton Abbey’ and I’m proud of that. In my next job, I’m hoping to do something completely different, maybe a big action feature or something, but whatever it is, I’ll have to go back to square one and start again, building everything up again. Never-the-less, I’ve gained a confidence in doing this and that's shown me that no matter how difficult the task, I know I’ll eventually get there.”

Indeed, as Lunn could pick up his third Emmy in the fall. Nominations will be announced July 10th.

For more information about “Downton Abbey,” please visit the show’s website here.