Acclaimed composer and St Edward’s School governor George Fenton tells Tim Hughes how his passion for making music can be traced back to his time as a pupil

One of the most prolific composers of his generation, George Fenton is a giant of contemporary music.

A towering presence in the worlds of film, television, radio and theatre, his music is instantly recognisable.

He has written the soundtracks to some of the biggest blockbusters of our time, among them Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Shadowlands, The Madness of King George and The Jewel in the Crown, and to iconic natural history shows The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

But when I ask him what he's working on at the minute, this quick-witted, charming and endearingly modest OSE (Old St Edward's pupil), becomes surprisingly coy.

"I'm not sure I'm allowed to tell you," he says cheerfully.

"It's a musical based on a more famous film, but I can't say yet – though it will be announced soon."

By his own admission, George Fenton doesn't stop. A dynamo of a man, his credits stretch to many pages, and he traces his passion for creating music to his days as a pupil at St Edward's School – where he now serves as a governor.

"People 'find' themselves at the school, which makes it kind of special," he says.

"I look back on my time there very fondly because of one specific reason: the people. Those who taught me, such as my music teacher Peter Whitehouse, were absolutely wonderful.

"Another very important person in my life was my housemaster who was so kind when I wanted to play an electric guitar. It must have been so alien to him, yet he was so enabling. The place has an openness, and I liked that about it then and now."

Over the course of his career George has forged strong links with key directors, not least Richard Attenborough, Nicholas Hytner and Stephen Frears for whom he has collaborated on numerous films and productions. His greatest relationship is possibly to the gritty, socially-aware Ken Loach, with whom he scored 16 films.

He places great stock on the importance of personal friendships and trying new things.

"These relationships have been very important to me and have made it possible not to get stuck in one genre. I had a good shot at Hollywood, but started to get offered the same kind of films as those which had already been successful. I didn't want to stay there because I like variety.

I have had more varied opportunities than I would have had if I'd just done one style of film.

"I have been very lucky. I have worked with people who are absolutely passionate about what they do – and that's incredibly infectious.

"It has been brilliant working with Ken Loach because he is so driven."

Among his favourite projects was working with the BBC Natural history unit for the Alastair Fothergill-produced wildlife epic The Blue Planet – not least because it was completely different to what he was doing before.

"I had done a lot of romantic comedies and was wondering whether I was going to spend the rest of my life doing it. It's not that it wasn't rewarding, I just wanted to do something new. So when I got the call, I knew it would be brilliant. It was the first ever natural history of the oceans, and they wanted it done like an old fashioned film score with a big orchestra.

"I felt it was going to be great because of the name The Blue Planet. If it had been called something else, like The Natural History of the Oceans, I might have said no!

"I loved it, because of the relationship between what I was writing and the subject matter."

The show, narrated by David Attenborough, was a huge success and was followed by the equally well-received Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

George's evocative music for The Blue Planet is still performed live around for the word at concerts, sometimes conducted by him.

"I have had to be like Status Quo and go on the road," he laughs. "Playing live is so much fun with a symphony orchestra. It's a real buzz."

Yet, for all his achievements, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: The North Wall.

George was instrumental in the creation of the arts centre, being involved since the project's earliest stages.

"I feel proud to be involved with The North Wall," he says.

"I got involved when the then-warden David Christie came up with the idea. He had an ambition to have a public space in the school for the arts. I was initially a little sceptical, but what inspired me was that it became clear that there wasn't a place like it in Oxford. There were no other flexible spaces this size in the city, and it has become something the city has genuinely benefitted from.

"It was my idea to get [architects] Haworth Tompkins to build it and I'm proud of that too. It has won four architectural awards and is a fantastic building."

He adds: "The fact it's a proper house putting on good productions will have an osmosis effect on students and other young people involved in the arts in terms of outcomes in theatre and music – and that's the X-factor.

"I don't think of The North Wall as a building but as an ethos. It's the same way I feel about someone learning an instrument. If a child is learning the piano, they need to know what the real thing sounds like and have the best one they can get.

"It is feeding excellence, and you can witness that. The amount of new writing, new plays and young artists is quite unbelievable and is something everyone involved should feel proud. It's part of the broad education the school offers but is also an incredible offer for Oxford. The way it breaks down barriers for the young people that go through the building is valuable. It is making visual arts and music part of people's lives – not just as something that belongs to others but as a part of our daily diet."

Soundtracks to our lives: George Fenton's life in music

George Fenton is responsible for some of our best loved music for film, television, radio and theatre.

Among his acclaimed film scores are Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, Cry Freedom, In Love and War, Grey Owl and the CS Lewis biopic Shadowlands, set in Oxford.

He wrote the score for all six of Nicolas Hytner's films, including The Madness of King George, The History Boys and The Lady in the Van. He also has a long relationship with Steven Frears, working on Dangerous Liaisons, Hero, Mary Reilly and Mrs Henderson Presents.

Much of his work – 16 films in total – has been with Ken Loach. They include Carla's Song, Bread and Roses, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Angels' Share.

Other well-known movies include Clockwise, 84 Charing Cross, Road, Memphis Belle, The Fisher King, Groundhog Day, Born Yesterday, Multiplicity, You've Got Mail, Anna and the King, and Bewitched.

TV work includes the scores to the David Attenborough-narrated The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

You'll also recognise his handiwork from dozens of television and radio programmes, not least Bergerac, the Monocled Mutineer and BBC One's news at one, six and nine o'clock.

He has won many BAFTA, Emmy and Ivor Novello awards and has been nominated for five Oscars.

His most recent Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2016.

So what musical projects is he most proud of? "You are going to expect me to say 'they are all my babies', and in a way they are." he says.

"But the reason I am most proud of some is because of the people I have been involved with or the endeavour itself.

"I am proud to be involved with Cry Freedom; it was an important statement as a film. I am also proud to have been involved with the whole BBC Earth thing as it was part of the shift that took natural history into the mainstream. And to stand in front of the Berlin Philharmonic and record a score was such a privilege."