This weekend, my Classic FM show Saturday Night at the Movies will be devoted not to the sweeping suites and symphonies of the silver screen but the signature tunes that serenade the credits on the small screen.
Arguably more musically experimental – consider the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s squelching synth treatments of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who opener from 1963 – TV works our nostalgia glands in more direct form. Just think of galloping teatime favourite Black Beauty by Denis King, Barrington Pheloung’s melancholy distress signal for Inspector Morse, or Michael Price and David Arnold’s timeless refrains for Sherlock.
Few programmes risk getting underway without the gear-change of an identifying musical signature, even those cool, US-influenced dramas that esoterically begin with what’s called a “cold open” – a pre-credits teaser to set the scene before a theme accompanies the dissolving roll-call of actors and crew.
This deferment means a show isn’t really on the road until what Little Britain’s Denis Waterman called the “feem tune”. Some hum-along openers spawn chart-topping monsters, such as the Eye Level theme from 70s ITV crime-solver Van der Valk (a UK number one for the Simon Park Orchestra) or reality pioneer Big Brother (number 4 in its first series in 2000 for the DJ duo Elementfour).
There’s a bottomless archive via YouTube and others, just waiting to be piped into your ears to provide a joyfully Pavlovian response. Which is why we’re launching the search for the nation’s favourite TV theme based on a shortlist of 60 drawn up with the BFI.
The credits sequence has evolved unrecognisably since the glowing police lamp at the start of Dixon of Dock Green in 1955 and its melancholy harmonica rendition of Jeff Darnell’s blues. The introduction of colour was epitomised by the titles of 70s school sitcom Please Sir!, whose credits were graffiti-ed across a bright orange wall to the big-band-style strains of School’s Out by Sam Fonteyn. In the same era, a silhouetted-in-flame lady grooved to Ron Grainer’s cimbalom-accented Tales of the Unexpected waltz. These are all cultural building blocks for square-eyed music-lovers from an era when fast-forward was not an option. No wonder they sank in so deeply.
The two hours of themes I’ll be showcasing on Saturday will mix fondly remembered but often stoically functional establishers with today’s more esoteric dreamscapes. The multi-channel scramble for your attention means even a primetime terrestrial credits sequence can become a Turner Prize entry, with tantalising mood-board flashes in place of the traditional cut-out head shots of the principal cast – and with music to match.
Whereas the classics hark back to a simpler time: the gauche Grange Hill theme (Chicken Man by Alan Hawkshaw) and the whooshing downhill strings of Ski Sunday (Pop Looks Bach by Sam Fonteyn again) were both composed for music libraries, while Test Match Special appropriated the title track from a 1968 Booker T and the MGs album, Soul Limbo.
Whether you disagree with songwriter Eric Idle’s assessment that One Foot in the Grave has “passed its own sell-by date”, or still find yourself singing along to Dick James “riding through the glen” at the end of ITV’s Adventures of Robin Hood, we need your vote to establish the runners and riders. The results will be unveiled at a session I’m hosting with Mr Bean and Blackadder maestro Howard Goodall at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival on Saturday 13th April at London’s BFI Southbank.
We’ve longlisted British programme themes only, although Dance of the Knights from Russian composer Prokofiev’s ballet music for Romeo and Juliet is eligible as it’s known to the majority of us as “the Apprentice theme”: dahda-da da-da da-da da-da-da-da-da-dah-DAH…
The list of 60 themes was compiled with the BFI; the poll closes at midnight on 31 March 2019. Read on for the 60 shortlisted tunes…
Animal Magic, Black Beauty, Blockbusters, Blue Peter, Doctor Who, Grange Hill (’78), Postman Pat, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Thunderbirds, Vision On
Dixon of Dock Green, Inspector Morse, Juliet Bravo, Luther, Midsomer Murders, Minder, Sherlock, The Sweeney, Van der Valk, Z Cars
All Creatures Great and Small, Downton Abbey, Poirot, Poldark (2015), Robin of Sherwood, The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, The Onedin Line, Upstairs, Downstairs (’71), Victoria, Wolf Hall
Dad’s Army, Father Ted, Fawlty Towers, Jeeves and Wooster, Mr Bean, One Foot in the Grave, Only Fools and Horses, Please Sir!, Steptoe and Son, The Office
Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Last of the Summer Wine, Match of the Day, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Tales of the Unexpected, The South Bank Show, The World at War, Whicker’s World (’58)
Countdown, Doctor Foster, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Formula 1, Man in a Suitcase, Mastermind, Test Match Special, The Apprentice, The Avengers (’65), The Persuaders!