Features

Graham Coxon’s Captivating First TV Score Brings Suburban Noir to Life

He spoke to us about writing the original music for darkly funny new teen series ‘The End of the Fucking World’.

by Daniel Dylan Wray
08 November 2017, 1:15pm

All images via PR

While everyone has been busy binging on the somewhat disappointing nostalgia-fest that is Stranger Things 2, another show exploring the blitz of teenage life has just been released on Channel 4. This one, however, has fewer demogorgons, walkie talkies and hair spray. Its name? The End Of The Fucking World.

"I'm James, I'm 17 and I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath" are the blunt first words spoken in it. James feels like he's ready to move onto killing humans after leaving a trail of dead animals in his wake, and a school canteen encounter with Alyssa leads him to think he has found a worthy victim in her. The pair nick James' dad's car and hit the road, each with their own motives. What follows is a pristinely shot teenage runaway story – through the roadside diners, woodlands and the weird underbelly of the south of England – as a Fargo-like series of horrors unfold with added fumbling sexual encounters, break-ins, bloodshed, explosions, hide outs, petrol station robberies and chasing detectives.

Based on the 2011 graphic novel by Charles Forsman, the series is Richard Ayoade's Submarine meets David Lynch's Wild At Heart with a splash of Black Mirror's bleakness and ink-black humour thrown in. The whole cast is excellent, from the leads (Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden) down to the bit parts. But it's the music – a debut TV score for Blur's Graham Coxon – that we particularly give a shit about. Getting Coxon on board for the project was a dream for the director, Jonathan Entwistle, who grew up on his music. "He is my all-time guitar idol," Entwistle says. "Watching Graham's music videos taught me how to play guitar as a kid. I bought a Fender Mustang just because he had one in the 'Coffee and TV' video."

Coxon could relate to the show's suburban south of England setting, with something of an "Essex noir vibe" according to Entwistle. "It felt familiar from when I was young," Coxon says, realising it was a world he could step into and capture. "I'm kind of used to those sorts of places, growing up in a town just outside of Colchester. There's a lot of industrial estates, there's always diners there, complicated roundabouts, expanses of weird grass that you don't really know what's underneath." This created a rich palate for Coxon, who wrote countless songs and instrumentals (rather than traditionally scoring to picture) for the show, covering blasts of garage punk, acoustic meditations, delta blues and an overall tone that feels like Ry Cooder's score to Paris, Texas transplanted into the British landscape as a couple of young oddballs watch their world collapse and crumble.

In one scene, the pair stand in what appears to be an infinite wasteland as the roar of a homemade fire flickers in front of them while they peel off their blood-soaked clothes to burn them. A quiet wind whips up as Coxon's music breaks through with gentle strokes and plucks of an acoustic guitar before it breaks into a country-tinged, baroque pop shuffle with drums kicking up the pace in what Coxon describes as, "this Ennio Morricone meets Scott Walker huge rich sheen". It captures a moment that manages to simultaneously grasp the feeling of the landscape and the mental state of the characters as they wander ever further towards this unknown end of the world. Coxon's own music also sits alongside a rich soundtrack that features a selection heavy on 50s and 60s numbers from artists such as Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, Hank Williams and Ricky Nelson that give the American-inspired road movie tone an even more Americana flavour.

"It's sort of like an Essex approach to Americana, definitely," Coxon says, putting a finger on that particular transatlantic texture that runs throughout both TEOTFW's visuals and music of both the music and the show in general. As a teen he remembers that "You'd get people in the pub dressing like Americans, like cowboys basically. They'd have these big American trucks and drive around the Essex countryside," in the deepest rural places that he describes as "that most lawless square mile."

The on-the-run nature of the show, moving from place to place in each new episode creates a massive world for Coxon to soundtrack. In a sense, it becomes an exercise in "genre-hopping". When describing some of his music in the show, he moves from calling some pieces a "B-movie meets Link Wray dirty sound – hot rod-y, motorbike, sort of greasy sound", into "stuff that's reminiscent of punk rock or post-punk or synthy punk or even things like big vast landscape-y lap steel guitars". If that sounds almost indecisively fickle, it fits the show's format. The tricky thing about The End of the Fucking World is that it doesn't sit still. This isn't slow-burning TV that your mate recommends saying, "ah, the first three hours are a bit shit and slow but stick with it" – this series moves rapidly. Its tone, pace, energy, plot and characters all change and develop constantly and Coxon has created a score that moves with it but still manages to retain a distinct voice and sense of identity. So while his score doesn't jump out from every episode as a constant scene-stealer, it does act as something of a sonic glue keeping the whole world in place.

Coxon and Entwistle have created a sort of audio-visual partnership, something that makes the show feel really unique. "What we set out to do was to create this perfectly crafted world," Entwistle says. "Like David Lynch, as wacky and weird as it can be in some of his movies, you buy into the whole world and that's what I wanted to do, it's what Graham and I talked about, just to try and make it all work as one." Whilst this is no Twin Peaks in its final end creation, it's a undeniably got its own distinct personality.

Coxon wrote over 40 original pieces for the show, often writing and finishing three or four new songs a day, which he describes as being, "mental – I've never done that before". Although it's still a new area for him, in many ways the process is like a natural extension of what he's done for years. "I think, in a way, this is what I've always done as a sort of sideman in a group: interpreting something and then adding what I think to it. That's what I've done with Damon for a lot of the time in Blur – reacting to and interpreting a story and a visual and characters and situations and then adding my bit to it. It kind of feels like home."

He found a home in its humour too. Tackling a bloodthirsty protagonist obviously meant Coxon needed to strike a balance between bleak and funny. This came naturally, he says. "I do have a perverse love of dark music but because I'm English I can't help put in a bit of daft with the dark. I can't take relentlessness, there has to be a bit of humour in there, I guess that's the English way of dealing with heaviness: to have a giggle, something to lighten the tone." And there are indeed tones that require a lighter mood.

While the show is loaded with sharp and dry humour (see: a scene in which the pair are fleeing from a crime scene but still have to wait for an off-peak train because they're young and skint) its central themes are also about grief, depression, loss and parental neglect. The result is a narrative that deals a heavier blow than the sharply edited trailer actually suggests – and it truly comes into its own and succeeds here. The End Of The Fucking World grasps the complexities of being a young adult with a degree of grace, humour, pathos and compassion without being patronising; the adults are often as clueless and directionless as the children. As such, it becomes a beautiful portrait of people in life doing the best they can, or thinking they are, without really having a clue – and that applies to parents, police or even self-described psychopaths.

'The End of the F***ing World' is available now on All 4 as an exclusive boxset and is due on Netflix at the beginning of 2018.

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