Interview with Mike Oldfield from BBC 1's Heaven and Hearth

August 25, 2002
Alice Beer
BBC 1 Heaven and Earth

Tubular Bells was a landmark in pop music and the man who created it, Mike Oldfield became an overnight success, selling millions of albums worldwide, but the troubled genius found fame hard to handle and even now he prefers the quiet village life of Chalfont St Giles. It's been almost 30 years since Tubular Bells took the music scene by storm and Mike Oldfield has been keeping himself busy since then, working on numerous albums, reworkings of Tubular Bells and writing music for both film and television. Clip from the making of Blue Peter, showing people in a studio with various instruments together with Mike, playing the Blue Peter theme tune. However his professional life has been overshadowed by his turbulent childhood, which left him with phobias and problems which he is still dealing with today, but with his latest music project, it seems he is on a journey to find inner calm.  

Alice Beer with Mike in his studio, sat by the piano

Mike Oldfield, thanks ever so much for letting us into your home, well this is work isn't it, that's your home (points behind her).

Well part of my home is my work.

That's when you're happiest isn't it?

Since I was very young, music was so important to me. I was happy when I was working. As I'm getting older it's becoming less and less important and I'm learning, I believe, to enjoy just being alive without music but I've been completely fanatical about music for most of my life.

Tubular Bells ? well do you get sick of it being everywhere? It's absolutely everywhere isn't it; every advert at the moment seems to be using it.

Yeah there's the one for the diesel car. Since Tubular Bells which is this (plays the opening of Tubular Bells on the piano) nearly every horror movie or even just thriller movies, whenever there's anything a little bit scary there is something like this (plays tinkly piano notes similar to opening of Tubular Bells) and even the Pentium 3 advert, they use the first 3 notes of Tubular Bells (plays it on the piano).

Of course it is! Are you haunted by it then, that all the time every advert you see, every time someone turns on a computer or whatever, you hear this (mimics the music) and you know it's yours?

Well I have to be a little bit honest here, I sort of got it from Bach, because Bach had a...Well, you see Tubular Bells starts at the bottom and goes upwards (plays it on the piano) whereas Bach had Toccatas & Fugues in D Minor which started at the top downwards, you see, (plays it on the piano) well I love that piece of music and so I thought 'ooh I wonder what would happen if I turn it round the other way!'

You plagiarised Bach?

No I just turned it round the other way (laughs).

What about the royalties, this house, this piano! We ought to give it to his relatives (laughs). That is fascinating. So how or why did Tubular Bells come about in the first place?

It was my way of hiding from reality. I was so afraid of life, people and myself, being in the universe. The only thing that made any sense to me was the world I created for myself in my world of music.

Listening to music?

No, starting to make it and listening to it. I had never really fitted in at school, I always felt like a bit of a black sheep. I didn't feel like I belonged there and music became so important to me, that from the age of 8 until I made Tubular Bells, I was constantly writing music, keeping notebooks, composing things and Tubular Bells was a combination of the whole childhood adolescence of music, music, music.

But then you had this enormous confidence that once you had created it that this was right, you stuck with it, lots of record producers didn't want it.

It was the only thing I had confidence of in my whole life. I didn't have any confidence.

How did you cope with the fact that you had this creation that you wanted to share, you wanted to sell. What did you want to do with it? Did you want to make money, share it?

The only thing I was sure of in my life was that it was a good thing, people would like it, and it would be successful. I just couldn't understand why nobody else thought the same way. I was booted out of every record company.

How did it come about, Richard Branson gave you the recording studio to use?

For one week. He said 'I'll give you a week, if we don't like it, that's it!' (laughs)

And you burnt the midnight oil?

Oh God yes. I did nearly all of Part One in one week. It was astonishing. If I'm looking at it now, I did an astonishing amount of over dubs and it was all one person playing every instrument.

And that launched Virgin Records?

Well it did yes. Now when I look back at it my mind is boggled. What! How did that happen? (laughs) (A brief glimpse is shown from 'The Exorcist' together with the Tubular Bells opening music being played)

Tubular Bells to me always felt like quite a positive piece and when you played those first few notes it feels quite upbeat and then it became the theme tune for The Exorcist, now how did you feel about that because it's an evil film?

Well at the time I was spooked myself and I imagined all these weird things like somebody had put a curse on me or I was under the influence of something. I sort of lived in that world. At first I was scared of it and I didn't go and see it until about 15 years after it came out.

Seriously? Did it change the way Tubular Bells sounded to you, the fact that it was being used for a soundtrack?

No because I didn't go and see the film, also it was sold outright to the film company, people probably thought I made a huge amount of money from it but I didn't.

Didn't you?

No but that's how things were in those days.

Mike, I suppose for you early on, music became your support system, as an escape from a difficult childhood. Was it classically running to your room and playing music?

Yes but the experience of making music was so powerful, almost like a meditation, a religious experience. It felt that through music I was in touch, in contact with something. I created my own world where I lived, where I could do whatever I wanted through music and where it was successful and where I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. For me at that time it was perfect but when I got older things changed.

What were the things in the real world that you were worried about, that were causing you torment and your need to escape from?

My mother's illness, unfortunately my mother got rather sick, it was due to a combination of circumstances. It was a pregnancy which went wrong in her mid 40's and the kind of medical care that was available at that time, the drugs they prescribed which were very heavy barbiturates, sleeping pills and so it was a terrible situation in our home, which up until that time had been wonderful. The first five or six years of my life we had a perfect family and then I sort of discovered music and I hid inside music. I used to have this little way of hiding from the realities of life.

Did you mother give you the love for music?

Oh for sure! Yes. She was a wonderful lady, she was Irish and I'm sure that's where I get most of my creativity from and some other not so nice things, like my fondness for draft Guinness and things like that. But she could also recite poetry for hours and hours, Irish poems and she was a wonderful Irish dancer. She could have been in River Dance.

And your mother saw the early success?

No, unfortunately no. She was way out of it by then. She had a very tough time and unfortunately passed away and that was a terrible blow for me to get over. It took more than 10 years to get past that. There is still a part of me which isn't past it. There always will be, I think it's as good as it can get now.

Possibly nobody ever gets over the death of their mother.

No they don't.

And you developed this amazing thing Tubular Bells that the world suddenly took and ran with and then you ran off! You didn't play the game did you?

No I didn't. I went off and lived in the Welsh hillsides and played with my model aeroplanes and drove all the sheep bananas! (laughs).

That's not what you were supposed to do, everyone must have been ringing on your door, ringing you up saying 'you're selling millions and millions of copies.'

I took the phone off but then I got Richard Branson driving up in his car (imitates Richard steering his car) saying 'Mike, Mike, you've got to talk to them!' I just said 'Oh leave me alone!'

He was about the only one you did talk to wasn't he?


Did he understand?

No he didn't understand it at all. But for him, he loves attention and people going 'Hey Richard, Richard.' But I hated it.

What was the trigger which then made you think 'I can't cope with this' and made you run to the Welsh hills, why didn't you buy an apartment in Notting Hill and live it up?

Well it was around this time that the panic attacks started. I have a theory about panic attacks. Anybody who has experienced them will know that they are the most awful thing, and people who suffer from phobias, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, if you have a panic attack, it doesn't matter if you are in the most pretty garden with butterflies and birds singing, it something that happens and you just freeze. You think of all the possible worst things like you're going to die or have a heart attack any second or the devil has got control of you and you're going to suddenly explode, you're frozen. And it just doesn't happen once, it happens day after day. It's a terrible, terrible thing. most people will tranquilise themselves or use alcohol, which I did, both those things but the thing that finally cured me was when I went on a seminar. I was mid 20's and the people on this seminar, there were a lot of other people, encouraged me to focus on what it really was, instead of blocking it out and saying 'NO, NO!' You say (starts imitating a boxer) 'Well come on then, come on panic attack.' (laughs) It's like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson. And they gave me the courage to do that and then they said 'start screaming, start making a noise.' It started with a sigh and then it ended up as the most ENORmoUS scream you've ever heard. It was like the screaming of a new born baby and these people put cushions all around me and gradually calmed me down and through the hyperventilation my skin was all wet and raw. I suddenly thought 'God I'm a new born baby!' Obviously I've seen births happen and I've seen how traumatic it is for the child, especially in the time when I was born. They would hold the baby up like this (imitates a baby being held by it's feet) and say 'Wake Up.' So your first experience of life is going to be in panic. I believe a lot of panic attacks come from birth traumas.

You seem a very contented person, I'm going to come back and talk to you later on.

The Heaven and Earth programme then goes on to something else and returns a bit later with Alice Beer interviewing Mike in the garden outside his home.

I know you've pursued self-help therapy; you actually pursued in search of a cure didn't you? I gather by the moment of the rebirth, I understand the theory of rationalising the pain and the anxiety but I don't know how reliving it in your memory can make the pain go away.

You are not actually reliving it; it's still there. You've got to cure it somehow. It became such a relief, I can't tell you. Suddenly I could do all the things I couldn't before. I could travel and go round the world, go on aeroplanes, I could do interviews, I could talk to people, be relaxed.

Were you sceptical?

No, not at all.

You're very open to it.

Well I haven't finished the story. I dealt with the great big thing, and then there were all the other things to deal with, like the trauma of losing my mother, not fitting in at school. For these I went for normal psychotherapy. The high from getting over the panic attacks lasted between 5 and 10 years and gradually all the other insecurities which most people have came in and I didn't want to stop there, I wanted to really understand myself. And all these mental problems were like viruses in a computer, you have to get rid of them. I'm still working at it. I'm sort of lightly soiled! (laughs intensely for a few seconds). Sorry about that, well at least I can laugh about it, I never could before.

You're not locked inside yourself or inside your house by any means so therapy really has given you a new lease of life. Do you think that if you hadn't found that then it would have got so bad you really wouldn't have wanted to carry on?

No I would never give up.

In the past people would have traditionally turned to their family or maybe religion but largely their family to work a problem out.

Yeah there are a quite a few people who do have grandparents. They are old enough and wise enough and they can be a tremendous help but so many people don't have grandparents and there are so many single parent families. Their children have grown up without a father or a mother and I believe we are suffering from the fact that people can't have relationships. It's a problem which psychotherapy can deal with and a lot of good should come from counseling in relationships, it's very difficult to keep a relationship going in this world. I did feel the need 10 years ago to try and promote psychotherapy because it helped me such a lot and I had a foundation for about 4 years called 'Tonic'. We would sponsor people to do psychotherapy.

Why did you think it was so important?

Because it was considered taboo at the time. Not exactly taboo, you were sick if you need psychotherapy. Now it's so common, perhaps it's gone too far the other way now. Like you were saying you could get addicted to it and have psychotherapy for anything but there are a lot of people out there who benefit a hell of a lot from it. I still see a psychotherapist about once a month because some of the things you just have to learn to live with

And does that involve talking and being listened to, analysing what's going on in your mind.

Yeah I know all the things about my childhood; there are various things that happened when I was at school. A lot of the problems that we have stem back to early childhood experiences, and once you know that, you think to yourself 'oh there I go, I'm getting insecure because somebody said this, it's because of that.' And that sort of takes away all its power and energy.

And is therapy teaching you how to be content with yourself now?

Meditation was a much more important thing to me over the last few years and Thai Chi which is moving meditation but of course will get pooh poohed (pulls silly face) by everybody.

No way, I would like to explore this.

I bet people will then go off and do it secretly in the back garden.

Mike you've been given a very definite new-age label.

Who by?

By me!

(laughs) I don't think people have actually listened to Tubular Bells, for example at the beginning of it, well that could possibly be described as new-age but its more like technological.

So you're not comfortable with a new-age.

Well I think the new-age movement is fantastic. Science has tried to prove this, it's tried to prove that but if science can't prove what we're here for, or can't make it's mind up how the universe started and how it's going to end, what it is, what is there in 90% of it, then we'll have to find another system of logic and so the new-age movement is another step along the way.

It obviously troubles you about the path that our world seems to be taking, in the past the solution to that was firm religious, beliefs that would guide you in the right way to do things. Does your spiritual world have any religious basis or origin?

Well my mother being Irish, she was a Roman Catholic. They put me on the first stages of educating me to be a Catholic. I remembered just after my first confession, I just couldn't make any sense of it and I just starting evolving on my own. I am very spiritually aware and I love churches, it doesn't matter what religion. I just love any place where people focus on spiritual energy. It just gives me peace and it gives me happiness.

Do you believe that there is another life after this human form? For you just talking to you it just seems that the human spirit is the most important thing and actually the flesh and the body is the less important bit. Do you believe then that the spirit lives on?

I am not sure if it would know if it's living on. I certainly believe it would become reintegrated in the real reality rather than this flesh and blood reality we live in. We might meet in some other dimension when we die and say (in mock style) 'oh that was fun wasn't it, oh who were you? Oh I was Mike Oldfield, oh who were you then?' It might be like that or it might be complete oblivion.

Now you've got 5 children. You've notched up 5, which is a huge achievement in itself. What about the big questions when it comes to being part of their life. Do you influence them to be open to other beliefs?

Oh sure. Yes I did, with my first 3 children I didn't have them baptized because I thought they should choose what religion they wanted to belong to when they grew up. They all chose to be and they've now been baptized. To impose such important things on to an innocent child who doesn't know anything, I thought that was wrong. I also believe that they are not like little biological machines that come into the world, they are fully evolved spiritual beings who should be honoured and respected even though they are only that big (mimes holding a baby).

What are the important things that you will give them, creativity, music? Open mindedness?

Just to be there, to give them the freedom to develop along whatever way they want to develop. I know what its like to be bashed and moulded like a piece of hot metal in a blacksmiths shop, 'be like this, don't do that, da da da.' And you find if you give them that attitude if they've got a problem they will come to you and you can help.

I think a lot of people would be very envious of your spiritual openness and freedom.

It didn't come for nothing; it took an enormous amount of work and courage as well. If you ask anybody who suffers from panic attacks, would they have the courage to control them? That really is the best way to deal with it, most people would simply tranquilise it and simply keep it down rather than letting it out.

We're going to come back to talk about your new project 'Tres Lunas' and an amazing world that you've created later on.

Later: Alice Beer with Mike in his studio looking at the MVR game.

You've created your own virtual world to run away to. Tell me about 'Tres Lunas'.

It's a landscape or a series of landscapes, which I had in my imagination, some of them I dreamt. Myself and two assistants we modelled them and wrote the software to make it work. I wrote the music for it and it's a new way of experiencing listening to music.

In this computer game, its not shoot em up, beat em up, knock em flat and score points to gain prizes.

One of the reasons I developed it was because I was looking at the games that are available and they are so pathetic but that is all the kids have, or grown ups have, its all that exists.

Is it your perfect world, is this the world and the people who are joining in with you, are you all sharing a world which is a lot nicer place. You're quite disgruntled with the world you live in aren't you?

Well it's got some morality this game, it's like some people, and I won't mention who. But we have to look for rings around the place. (Mike starts clicking his mouse).

Now come on. I only had a little game, a short game and I stole a ring that I liked the look of and I stole it. What did I do that was so bad?

(laughing) Well if you steal something. This ring is obviously on a hand (shows the hand on the screen) so if you steal it you get to go to a sort of punishment zone, so you have to give it back.

But I didn't give it back did I? But it looked nice and sparkly and I wanted it! (Mike laughs) Do you think this is encouraging people to see a better world with morals?

I know this sounds ever so goody goody and boring, sorry about that. I think most of us to some extent have the child inside us. The little playful thing that couldn't wait to go out into the garden and explore and find things, hide and seek and little games like that. It brings back the innocence, once children play it, or any age people who play it, they play for about 20 minutes and are very sceptical and then you get the chuckle and they start laughing. It brings some real joy to their lives. I'm very very pleased with it.

This is very much your world which you've created, full of creatures and things that are important to you, your cat sitting somewhere in there. Even your gravestone is there!


Which is a very personal thing, others who see that, will they think 'oh that's Mike's gravestone' Will they interpret it as being their world? I mean is this about being Mike Oldfield or is it about individuals coming and making it their world?

I haven't got the foggiest idea to be honest. (Mike starts clicking on the mouse again and playing with the game) I am sure if you found a good psychiatrist, they would come and say 'No this means that, and that means this.' And they probably would be quite right; it's most probably my subconscious mind.

You can't keep that humming bird still.

(Mike slaps his hand) Oh sorry.

This is the result of many years of hard work. What else is to come?

Well I'm just remaking the original Tubular Bells at the moment, which is fantastic, wonderful fun. There is such marvellous technology now rather than the little old tape machine we had in 1972.

Is this for original Tubular Bells fans?

It's the 30th anniversary, its exactly 30 years, or it will be on 25th May of next year since the original came out. I've always wanted to re-record it. It will come out then and I'll be 50 as well.

Will you?

Yeah (Mike laughs)

Gosh you're doing well on it. Mike Oldfield thank you very much.


Programme fades out with Alice and Mike playing the MVR game.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield