The theme tune is a television programme’s heralding call, the ditty that brings you in from the kitchen in time for that crucial opening scene, and helps you set the mood while you take off your gardening gloves. It’s a Pavlovian tool, too, creating excitement, tension, expectation or comedy, and years after a series has been consigned to the great studio in the sky, its theme tune can often be its sole lingering memory.
Many of the greatest theme tunes, however, weren’t originally written for their associated programme but were plucked, off the peg, as it were, from the shelves of music libraries. These were pieces written not for any specific purpose or audience, but simply to lie in anticipation of being eventually used by a producer. Which is why many of them have titles that bear no resemblance to the programme they eventually came to introduce. Here’s a quick run-down of the very best along with the story of who wrote them, why and for whom.
The cheeky-chappy, lolloping squawks of this fabulous theme tune weren’t originally supposed to be portraits of Tucker, Gripper, Roly and all, but somehow Alan Hawkshaw’s Chicken Man, a piece he wrote and recorded for a music library one afternoon in Munich, does the job rather well. But then it’s quite chicken-like too. Weirdly, the BBC also used the theme for Give us a Clue for a few years from 1979 before someone wisely commissioned its own theme tune.
Terry and June
Music libraries still make a mint from selling generic tunes to production companies – the theme to the long-running comedy series Terry and June was just that – mood music, filed under ‘comedy’. This particular tune was composed by John Shakespeare and went by the curious name of Bell Hop. It can be heard in some episodes of Spongebob Squarepants.
Many people reckon the theme tune’s the best bit about Ski Sunday. And why not? It’s a great tune: it’s fast, it’s brilliantly written and it’s got just the right amount of cheese. Pop Looks Bach was penned by Sam Fonteyn (his real surname was Soden), and is a superbly scored, jazzy take on the fugue from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ. You can’t imagine any other theme working for the programme today, can you? And the title? Fonteyn once suggested if he’s known his piece was going to be used for such a high-profile programme, he might have called it something a little different…
One of the best-known sporting tunes was written for the KPM Music library – plucked out of obscurity by a BBC producer, frustrated that the ones he’d commissioned specifically for the job weren’t up to scratch, including one by Keith Mansfield. Mansfield, however, who’d once worked alongside Dusty Springfield, had already written the theme tune that would eventually be chosen and that would lodge itself firmly in the nation’s musical psyche. To this day, he admits, he has no idea why it was chosen – it didn’t even have a title prior to its promotion to mainstream Saturday afternoon telly.
Here’s another of Keith Mansfield’s KPM tunes, this time with a title: Light and Tuneful – it does, as they say, exactly what it says on the tin, except that originally it had absolutely nothing to do with tennis and, on blind listening, would be more suited to an upbeat 1970s lounge. Still, today, most of us start drooling Pimms as soon as we hear the opening fanfares.
The suffocating atmosphere, that sweaty black leather chair bathed in light, the audience plunged into surrounding darkness, the cool cajoling of quizmaster Magnus Magnusson and, latterly, John Humphrys – Mastermind’s famous tune seems to sum it all up. But Approaching Menace was a piece of general mood music composed by Neil Richardson for KPM, the drum beats echoing the petrified heart beats of a floundering contestant… Here’s the full track – just ignore the images.
This Is Your Life
The theme tune to the long-departed This Is Your Life was all glamorous frocks and pearls – once you’d got past those four ominous opening chords, that is. Gala Performance, a library piece written by Laurie Johnson (whose work can also be heard from time to time on episodes of Spongebob Squarepants) was therefore perfect for a show featuring glamorous celebs holding back the tears while greeting old friends and colleagues. The music was used as its theme for over 30 years.
Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine