STEPHEN LEWIS meets the man behind the music for a TV drama-documentary about a scallywag 'superstar'...

JACK SHEPPARD was an unlikely man to become a superstar. He was small, weasely and, at 22, spoke with a stutter. On top of all that he wasn't, admits local composer Christian Vassie, exactly the world's brightest spark. What he did have, however, was an unquenchable thirst for freedom which was to turn him into a working class hero and legend: the original Jack the Lad.

If you were poor in the early 1700s, Christian says, justice was the last thing you could expect. Jack, a carpenter's apprentice, was sentenced to hang for stealing a few bales of cloth, and banged up in Newgate gaol.

But he wasn't about to take his fate lying down. Four times he escaped, his exploits making headline news - and four times he was caught again, his habit of returning to the square mile around Covent Garden that was all he knew proving his undoing.

His most dramatic escape was his last. First, he removed the handcuffs, shackles and fetters that secured him to the floor. Then he climbed up the chimney from his cell, removing a heavy iron bar lodged there to block his way.

He knocked a hole through into the room above, picked the lock of the door in total darkness, then made his way through five more locked and barred doors. Finally, he made his way out onto the roof and made his getaway.

His dramatic story is screened tomorrow night on Channel 4 (Georgian Underworld: Invitation To A Hanging, 9pm) - and while it makes for gripping viewing, those watching it might be in for a shock.

This is a period drama-documentary - so it will have nice period music to set the scene, right?

Wrong. Christian, who wrote the music for Invitation to a Hanging and another in the Georgian Underworld series - The Peterloo Massacre, which will be screened later - was determined to do something a little different.

So you won't hear a note of Handel or Vivaldi, and there isn't a hint of Mozart. Instead, Christian has composed a driving contemporary soundtrack that is a mix of jazz and reggae.

Why? When he was alive nearly 300 years ago, Christian points out, Jack didn't think of himself as a 'historical' figure.

"If you just use music from the period, the effect is to distance you from it," he says. "He was Jack the Lad. He thought he was the coolest man on the block, a rebel, an outsider, the first working class celebrity. He was a very contemporary figure, and I wanted to make that clear."

In fact,Christian says he doesn't have much time for the whole film-industry thing of using period music for period films and dramas.

"It bores me," the 45 year old, who lives in Wheldrake with his partner and three children, says. "If you're doing a film set in the 1940s, the period of Glenn Miller - well, I'd rather watch a film made in the 1940s with the real Glenn Miller than something made in 2003 which copies the music of the period. I would rather be surprised!"

You may not realise it, but if you're a regular watcher of TV chances are you will be familiar with Christian's music by now. It was he who wrote the great score - waltz, blues and ragtime - for Gentleman Thief, the BBC period romp starring Nigel Havers. He also produced the score for C4's The Great Plague, which won the 2002 Best History award at the Royal Television Society Awards - and dozens of other TV productions, including documentaries and wildlife films, as well.

It's good to see a composer from the city of John Barry doing so well. So how did he get involved in writing music for TV and film?

Growing up near York he had not actually been aware at the time of the music of John Barry, he admits - though now he respects him hugely. He grew up in Deighton near Escrick, went to Archbishop Holgate's School, and became head chorister of York Minster Choir.

He left there to do a four-year degree in African languages and world music at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, specialising in African music, and before long had set up a band, Network, with some friends.

They played 'racially mixed' music, he says - a blend of funk, soul and African - and released a few singles, one of which got to Number 7 in the dance charts.

But making a living out of music isn't easy. There are only two rungs on the career ladder, Christian grins - the top rung, which brings with it fame and fortune, and the bottom rung, which doesn't. Network never got around to releasing an album, so his career as a pop star never really got off the ground.

His break into TV came via an unlikely source - tennis star Jimmy Connors. "I was approached by someone who had been managing me," he says. "He had been asked if he knew someone who could do the music for a Jimmy Connors how to play tennis video, and he volunteered me."

That led to a job doing the music for UK screenings of American football - and his TV career was up and away.

It's his background in world and African music that makes what he does special, he believes.

He was taught to listen to music, analyse it, and really hear it. Unless you are actually trained in that way, he says, it can be impossible to really hear music from a different culture for what it is. Western dance records with a so-called African beat are usually 4/4, he points out. "But African music isn't necessarily doing that. Sometimes it's playing five or nine beats, or one instrument is playing five beats and another seven beats."

His understanding of world music helps him enormously as a composer, he says. He once researched Locata Sioux music for the Michael Kamen feature film Renegades. He went to the National Sound Archive and listened to 100-year-old wax cylinder recordings of Sioux playing their music. "Then I played a variety of instruments for the film."

Altogether, he's worked on three short and four feature-length films: but most of his work has been for television. Invitation To A Hanging is his seventh TV collaboration with its director, Justin Hardy (who also directed Gentleman Thief and The Great Plague).

He's not quite sure what audiences will make of his music for Invitation To A Hanging: but he himself can't stop his feet tapping to the driving percussive music as he watches a tape of Jack's last, greatest escape scene. "I'm proud of it," he says. "Some people will love it, some will hate it. But that's better than just saying 'oh, it did the job'. People will respond to it one way or the other."

Updated: 10:40 Wednesday, April 23, 2003