The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The Tiger Who Came to Tea: Interview with composer David Arnold

Category: Interview

Were you aware of The Tiger Who Came to Tea before you signed on to the show?

I was extraordinarily aware of the book before I came to the project. I don’t know anyone who’s got children that isn’t aware of it. It seems to be like it’s part of the fabric of everyone’s childhood. You have to have that book, and you have to have read that book. I’d recently been re-reading it with my kids. It’s just extraordinary how all of a sudden I got a call from my agent saying: “This film is happening: What do you think?” I was like: “Yes please!” It’s one of those things you feel will be around forever.

What do you think are the elements of the story that have spoken to successive generations kids for more than 50 years?

It feels like one of those films that someone will come back to again and again because it is the book. Lupus Films and Channel 4 haven’t done anything other than represent the book, tell that story, expand it with stuff you’ll love… it’s great.

I suppose the key things that attract kids to it – certainly, what attracted me to it—is that tigers aren’t supposed to be in your house. We’re taught that they’re dangerous and they’re big and, I know people have toy ones, but they’re kind of a way of making them safe. We know that if a real one ever did turn up, you’d be in trouble. So, the fact that there’s this element of naughtiness about it, you know!

When he arrives, the first thing you think mum will say is: ‘’Oh my God! There’s a tiger!’’ But she says: ‘Come in.’’ And, because, it’s got this kind of tacit parental approval that says, “We’re going to see what happens but it’s going to be okay,” I think it lets kids enjoy that experience. They can enjoy that ‘’What if a tiger came round?’’ feeling and find it’s nothing but good!

Even though he eats and drinks everything, wrecks the place and then just goes, there’s still something magical. That has just happened. And I love the fact that they have to tell daddy when he gets back: ‘’The reason why we haven’t got anything in the house I’m afraid is because the tiger’s been round and he’s eaten all of it!’’

When you were approached with the project and knew you were going to write the centrepiece theme song, what were your initial thoughts? 

Initially… the word “jazz” had been used which made me feel slightly uneasy because it’s just not my wheelhouse. So I was a bit uneasy about that; I wanted to clarify exactly what that meant but, it just meant a certain sort of freedom and lightness was desired. And when I saw bits and pieces, assemblies of line drawings early on, I had to find a way into it. I wanted to feel like I felt when I watched those [assemblies], and read the book when I was small. I went for the things that I was hearing when I was six and seven.

Also, when your kids are that age, there’s that sense of slight nostalgia to it because it’s a very beautiful, simple scenario and a beautiful, simple story and there’s nothing complicated in it. And that’s what your world is like when you’re a child; It’s uncomplicated and you sort of believe the things that are in front of you, so the music had to be sort of honest and joyful, like the film is.

You and Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black have worked together for 20 years successfully on a range of different projects. Tell us about how you work together on this film.

Don Black’s a genius and I know that’s a phrase that’s thrown around frequently but Don deserves it. I think the key thing that, whenever anyone asks me to write a song for a film, I always think of Don first because I know he will get it. He gets it in a way that will speak to everyone, and what’s really important about these songs, is that usually, you only get to hear it in the context of the film once, so it’s got to hit home.

Don has a way of coming up with phrases that you think, ‘’I’ve heard that a million times before,’’ but you never have. You know, he did it with [his song] Born Free and the lyric “…as free as the wind blows”. You feel like you’ve heard that a million times before, but you haven’t. He’s done some amazing stuff.

In Hey Tiger! there’s a hilarious line about doors. It’s a conversation we had with Judith about the idea. It’s a song about the possibility of what happens when you open the door. What might happen next? And Don kind of concertinaed that idea and put this little tagline at the end: “Go ahead, open up the door, let’s face it, that’s what doors are for” and you think: “Why hasn’t anyone said that before?” But now they have.

Is everyone going to be singing the biscuit tin line after they’ve seen the movie?

Little kids like singing the “Tiger!” response. They like that bit because it’s a beckoning to join in. I’ll be happy if anyone sang along to any of it, to be honest. 

And why was Mr Robbie Williams the perfect performer to bring this song to life?

I thought: “If there is going to be a human being that knocked on your door and you opened the door, and they stuck their head around and you think something’s going to happen, it could quite possibly be Robbie.” So, in a way I was thinking: Maybe he’s the tiger in a lot of ways. And, he’d done that great Swing When You’re Winning record so I knew that he knew the genre. [The song Hey Tiger! has] a slightly Big-Band-King-of-Pop feel. It’s quite light on its feet but it’s full of character and I think you’d struggle to find someone who has that level of character among contemporary singers. I’ve seen Robbie live and I know how amazing he is with an audience; He knows how to communicate. When you’re doing a song for a film, it is about communication more than anything. All of those things added up and I thought, he’s the guy! And luckily, he said yes.

Can I ask you about the recording session?

Recording is a peculiar business because you’re trying to capture the essence of what it is your trying to do and it’s quite a mercurial thing - there’s no science to it. ‘’Am I getting the character of the song? Am I getting technically, emotionally all those things?’’ People either get that or they don’t. If they don’t, you’re in trouble and if they do, you’re working with Robbie.

David, you’re very good at dissecting a song and describing what the song means. What does Hey Tiger! mean?

I had a lot of thoughts about what I thought this story is about because the song has to belong in the world of the story. And I think you can philosophise about what it means, whether the tiger is a metaphor for any number of things, but I saw an interview with Judith and she said – and I think people were pursuing this idea in her presence - ‘’Is it about this? Is it about that?’’ And she said: ‘’No, it’s just about a tiger who comes to tea and that’s all it needs to be about.’’ And beyond that, it just needs to be full of, I think, the fun, optimism and sheer joy of the book.

What conversations did you have with the director Robin Shaw about the song?

Stylistically, Robin wanted it to feel like all these things we’ve talked about - it being fun. What was great was that Judith was around while we were writing it, so we were able to pass versions of it to Robin and Judith for comments. Judith had some super sharp ideas about things that were working and things that were not. So, between the four of us – Robin, Judith, Don and myself - it came about.  It’s a team sport.  You may feel like you’re doing it on your own but you’re not because, you’re thinking of the book, the author of the book is still with us and able to listen to what we’re doing, and no one is going to know this story more than Judith.

In a way, this song and accompanying animated sequence is the one big thing that’s not in the book. Robin created an entirely new part and that must be incredibly difficult to imagine fitting in with the work that’s existed for 51 years that everyone knows page by page. And now I think they will know the same with the film. They will know the film frame by frame; It feels very loving and very caring and very honest and as faithful a production as I’ve ever seen.

Having a good song is one thing, but having it work with the visuals is something else. Can you set up for me how it works perfectly for what we’re seeing on the screen?

The song happens in the film at point where the tiger turns his gaze upon the cupboard that contains the rest of the food that poor Sophie’s got in her house. There’s a little moment where he sees the cupboard open and the food inside glistens slightly. There’s a tiny little tinkle and he’s thinking “I’m having that!” And that’s the point when he jumps in [ and the song begins].

What was great about this was that I didn’t have to write a song to a picture; They drew the picture to the song. Now, there were images that were already there, so I kind of knew what was going on, but I didn’t have to make it fit to the timings, they timed it to the song, which is very unusual in film.

There’s also a terrific piece where the tiger is hinting that he’d like a cup of tea. He does it by miming drinking it and then coughing. Getting the score in-between those moments, I think, increases the level of comedy. But it’s that dexterity... That part is actually quite dull as a composer because it’s all about stop watches, figuring out: “We’re at 140 BPM and this is one second and fifteen frames long so we’ve got to go at this speed, and chop a beat off there…” It’s all about trying to make that feel, when it’s played, natural – that’s my job! But for the Hey Tiger!  song, I didn’t have to worry about it, which was great.

Has it been fun for you working on a family-orientated project?

For me working on something like this is an absolute joy, nothing to do with it being family-orientated, it’s just because it’s great. I only want to do things that I love, with people that I think are fantastic to work with. But mainly, it’s - is this something that I believe in? That I want to get up every morning and do this for quite a long time and give everything of myself to? This film is all of those things and I’m always grateful when those opportunities arrive. I’m waiting for the sequel! Where he goes next door and eats everyone’s food in their house...

Lastly, what can audiences expect when they watch it?

I think when they see it, if they’ve read the book, they will say: “It’s the book come to life”. And if you haven’t read the book, then it will be like reading the book for the first time and I think you will be utterly beguiled by it.