28 July 2020
Waiting for the ferry with
memories of Crete and
‘Who pays the Ferryman’
As we have waited patiently on both side of the Shannon Estuary in recent weeks for the Tarbert-Killimer ferry on many occasions, the conversation has often turned to the theme music for Who pays the Ferryman, and one of us has – inevitably – ended up trying to hum the tune.
I suppose you have to be certain age to remember the series, but the tune stays in your memory. And memories of the series linger because it was set in Crete in 1977-1978, just ten years before I first arrived on the island.
Who pays the Ferryman was a BBC series, retelling the story of widower and retired boat builder Alan Haldane (Jack Hedley), a former soldier who had fought in Crete alongside the Greek resistance in World War II, and returns to Crete 30 years later to rediscover a lost sense of belonging.
Of course, his past comes back to haunt the man once known as Leandros and make difficult what he hopes would be a simple life.
The series was filmed in Elounda, near Aghios Nikolaos in Crete. The theme music was composed by Yannis Markopoulos and became an instant hit in Britain, where it is still rated among the best television scores. The music stands out because of its lyricism and its melody and of because it so easily creates memories of the Greek islands.
The eight episodes of Who Pays the Ferryman? were written by Michael J Bird, who drew on his knowledge of the history and folklore of Crete, and the series was filmed on location in and around Elounda.
The series followed on the success of Bird’s earlier BBC drama series, The Lotus Eaters, which was filmed in Aghios Nikoloas in 1972-1973. That earlier series deal with the lives of various British ‘expats’ living in Crete, including a married couple, Erik (Ian Hendry) and Ann Shepherd (Wanda Ventham), who ran a taverna called ‘Shepherd’s Bar.’
The Lotus Eaters became the first the Mediterranean-based dramas written by Michael J Bird for the BBC. The others included Who Pays the Ferryman?, also set in Crete, The Aphrodite Inheritance (1978-1979), set in Cyprus, and The Dark Side of the Sun, set in Rhodes.
The theme tune of Who Pays the Ferryman? was composed by Yannis Markopoulos, reached the UK singles charts in late 1977 and early 1978. Yannis (or Giannis) Markopoulos is a well-known and much-loved Greek composer who was born in Iraklion, the capital of Crete, on 18 March 1939.
He comes from an old family in Crete, and spent much of his childhood in the coastal town of Ierapetra. He says the sounds that influenced him during his childhood included the sounds of the Byzantine liturgy, Cretan traditional music, the waves of Crete, and the sound of land-mines being exploded after World War II.
He took his first lessons in music theory and the violin at the local conservatory and played the clarinet in the town band. He moved to Athens in 1956 to study at the Athens Conservatoire with the composer Yiorgos Sklavos and the violin teacher Joseph Bustidui.
As a student, Markopoulos composed music for theatre, cinema and dance performances. At 24, he received the Music Prize at the International Thessaloniki Film Festival for Nikos Koundouros’ film Young Aphrodites.
After the colonels’ coup in Greece in 1967, he left for London, where he composed the secular cantata Ilios o Protos (‘Sun the First’), based on the poetry of Odysseas Elytis, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.
Markopoulos returned to Athens in 1969, and became involved in the struggle for democracy. In 1976, he composed the popular work The Free Besieged based on the poem by Greece’s national poet Dionysios Solomos.
He composed the theme music for Who Pays the Ferryman? in 1979, and it became a hit in Britain and brought his work to international attention. He married the singer Vassiliki Lavina in 1980.
He founded the Palintonos Armonia Orchestra in 1980, and has performed and recorded in Greece and abroad since then. He composed The Liturgy of Orpheus in 1994, followed by Re-Naissance: Crete between Venice and Constantinople, a musical journey in four units that strikes a balance between the opera form and that of the oratorio, and the opera Erotokritos and Areti.
As time passes and travel restrictions become difficult to predict, it looks increasingly likely that this could be one of the few years since the mid-1980s that I do not get back to Greece.
I may just have to find some old versions of that BBC series set in Crete and imagine myself on a ferry or as a lotus eater.