What’s That Noise?

Ian Jones and Graham Kibble-White with OTT’s pick of the TV pops

First published July 2001

For most people hungering to watch a programme they remember fondly, the reality is that faced with that cassette of Tucker’s Luck or Cloppa Castle that desire is satiated by the time the theme-music has faded out. And that’s how it should be – if a theme is doing its job properly.

OTT has a theory that all TV themes can be divvied up into one of 12 possible categories. Therefore, we present our guide to the dozen different guises of the theme, and, for once, draw a little upon the power of the internet as we go multimedia – presenting links to MP3s (and the odd RealPlayer) of some of the pieces up for discussion.

1. Where’s the tune?

Definition: From the plain incompetent to the avant-garde incomprehensible, these are the teme tunes that resolutely fail to buzz around your head

Key example: Brat Farrar

Sometimes a memorable melody line just won’t stretch far enough. The theme to Brat Farrar is testament to a composer who had half a good tune down … and just noodled the rest. Terrifically confident on the main verse (if a little sterile) the synth-brass canters along with a pleasant melody, but as we move into the middle-eight things go astray. The tune falls apart into a timekeeping scale and occasional sting of “brass”. Shuffling uncertainly and lost, there’s almost a sense of relief in the playing when we return to the main theme.

Other notables here are the various Art Of Noise-style incarnations of the Right to Reply theme (with the programme’s final effort sounding like a man with a suitcase full of bricks tumbling slowly down a staircase), John Craven’s Newsround‘s exploration into the world of acoustics, Blue Peter‘s’90s drum’n'bass effort, Are You Being Served?‘s curious rap over muzak and BBC News‘ impressionistic wall of sound (coupled with the storm trooper-esque imagery).

2. 100 piece suite

Definition: Inappropriately bombastic or portentous cacophony which then seems utterly at odds with the low-key nature of the actual programme

Key example: Windmill

These are often extremely impressive themes in their own right, but can’t help but appear awkward and out of place introducing the most mundane and indifferent of formats. Windmill boasts a shameless Two Tribes synth riff, pounding rhythms, impressive keyboard stabs, a booming theme, exciting crescendos and a great climax that builds to an almost apocalyptic resolution. It also features over-excitable use of the synth handclap, deployed a total of 197 times in the opening theme. Unfortunately this maelstrom of music would always be utterly compromised by a huge gaping silence while Chris Serle slowly looked up from his shelves of film reels, paused, and then muttered a restrained, nonplussed, “Hello”.

Other examples include Pebble Mill at One – after which you expected to see the presenters rolling over cars and jumping off ledges onto cardboard boxes – and Blockbusters – perhaps a stunning sci-fi drama theme, but not what you might expect for a sedate student-based panel game. Also relevant is anything by the great Zack Lawrence – The Interceptor, The Crystal Maze and especially Treasure Hunt, one of the finest tunes ever, which whipped up a frenzy of excitement compounded by shots of Anneka Rice leaping across the country and Graham Berry’s camera somersaulting in the sky, before fizzling out as the camera panned across dining room-style upholstery and a dapper Kenneth Kendall croaked “Hello there!” More recently, A Song for Europe had a ridiculously unsuitable theme, a tuneless drum’n'bass-by-numbers effort which was entirely inappropriate for the style of music about to be featured. By contrast, there have been laughably low-key themes, such as Alas Smith and Jones where the mellow jazz-funk vibes seemed mismatched to a primetime comedy programme.

3. Finger on the pulse

Definition: Painfully “contemporary” sounding composition which alone appears authentic but in the context of a TV theme sounds woefully contrived

Key example: Roland Rat: The Series

Viewers partial to some BBC1 television entertainment of a Saturday evening were shocked in September 1986 to hear a strange collection of alien sounding bleeps, beats and pulses filling the airwaves: it was the first appearance of acid house on a primetime light entertainment show, and had arrived without any warning and preparation. Stock Aitken & Waterman’s now-laughably dated attempt to associate a talking rat with the latest new craze in popular music ranks as a classic misguided “finger on the pulse” theme. Never mind Roland’s rapping – “I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I’m back!” – the amusingly amateurish backing vocals which appear in the closing titles belong in a 1950s swing tune rather than late-’80s club anthem.

Other instances of awkward attempts to ride the times include The O-Zone in all its forms (the worst case being the Gary Barlow-era tootly synth hoe-down), Top of the Pops (thanks Vince Clarke), Cheggers Plays Pop (a close approximation of punk/new wave for younger viewers) and the awful awful latter-day Grange Hill theme whose clumsy use of keyboards and samplers prompted several Broom Cupboard presenters to mime along to “that great guitar”. Of course in some instances the match of musical zeitgeist to programme reaps rewards: see any 1960s-era telefantasy series, or current affairs (Tomorrow’s World, Nationwide) for faultless marriages of hip sounds and unhip concepts.

4. Here’s the kids

Definition: Cacophonies of kids

Key example: Jossy’s Giants

Pink Floyd seemed to think that chanting kids evoke images of urban unrest (“we don’t need no education!”) and so did the BBC when another load were drafted in to gritty-up the theme to Rockliffe’s Babies (“your mother’s on the game!”) Kid’s singing/chanting does seem to be a durable sub-genre of TV theme, with our proffered ace-exponent being Mike Amatt’s theme to Jossy’s Giants. Here the kids are woven in chiefly because it is a kid’s show, rather than as a lament for lost innocence. Their “Jossy’s Giants” refrain is offered quizzically, and then confidentially to some effect. Basically, they act as punctuation between movements of the theme – and that’s how it should be. Stilgoe’s On (which we return to later), Byker Grove and Crackerjack also essay this approach. Alas, Bodger and Badger, Palace Hill and Southern’s Famous Five adaptation all fall over badly by – gulp – letting the little bleeders actually sing.

We will excuse Mini Pops from this section.

5. Celebrity singalong

Definition: A programme receives the blessing of a star-led knees up, either showcasing the vocal talents of the main actor/s themselves or another guest performer

Key example: Professor Popper’s Problems

Charlie Drake affected his best nasal upper-class vibrato for this kids series, warbling about the benefits of his exaggeratedly minuscule stature and thereby cementing an otherwise unremarkable theme in the heads of a generation of viewers. There are countless examples of celebrity crooning, both good and bad, and many ultimately found their way into the charts on official release (usually on BBC Records). One particular variety of singalong is the in-house comedy spectacular, where a particular writer or producer introduces a uniformity to their output by having each respective theme the work of a featured actor or guest vocalist. John Sullivan took the mic himself for Only Fools and Horses (of which, more below), but gave Paul Nicholas the honours on Just Good Friends – with which he was sadly unable to match the success of his 1976 top ten hits Dancing With the Captain and Grandma’s Party.

The David Croft stable of popular comedies often fell back on giving actors a chance to exercise their pipes – Paul Shane bawling his way through Holiday Rock on Hi-De-Hi!, Su Pollard doing the honours for Oh! Doctor Beeching, and the entire cast giving it up on It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. You Rang M’Lord was blessed with a touching duet between guest Bob Monkhouse (“The upper class is going bats!”) and Paul Shane, whose only contribution was a spoken recitation of the title. Over and over again. Other examples include celebrities penning and performing special themes – stand outs being Ian Dury (Adrian Mole), Billy Connolly (Supergran), and Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Brush Strokes). Also within this field you often found wild variations in quality – from the sublime, Bruce Forsyth’s epic performance for The Generation Game – to the ridiculous: John Leeson chirruping “K9!” at regular intervals in K9 and Company.

6. Change for change’s sake

Definition: Themes that were changed for no good reason… and then quietly changed back

Key example: EastEnders

Perhaps Simon May felt that the stripped-down sound of synth-snare and bell ringing would sit uneasily with the rest of his work on the upcoming The Best of Simon May album. With his stock-in-trade lush strings, and mawkish orchestration it was really only a matter of time before the maestro deemed the EastEnders theme in need of an overhaul. Thus, in 1993 EastEnders jettisoned its original arrangement and went for a strings ‘n’ sax version. Although it was rumoured that Paul “Crossroads” McCartney had a hand in the new version that wasn’t enough to stop it being universally (and rightly) rubbished. The BBC took note, and in a matter of months the original tune had returned. Or had it? Yes, the bells were back but May couldn’t resist a little tinkering and slightly beefed up that stripped-down sound. For May, however, it was mission accomplished – the awful version of the EastEnders theme can be found on his titular “best of” CD.

Other programmes that took a toe-dip in the waters of change and found it a bit chilly: Going Live! debuted a new arrangement of the theme – but for one programme only; in 1979 Match of the Day‘s theme was reworked into a sort of MOTD-meets-Grange Hill number which was soon dropped (another version in the ’90s apparently played on a penny whistle was also unsuccessful) and in the mid ’90s Countdown experimented with some moody low tones under the familiar tune, but jettisoned the idea after hundreds of complaints. Worst of all was the one-series-only revamp of Grange Hill‘s Chicken Man. This, however, was replaced by something even worse – a brand new theme.

As a coda to this section, we should tip the hat to those themes that have been successfully reworked. Thus we acknowledge Steve Wright’s Brookside, the grunged-up Family Affairs opener, the strained tones on the revamped Masterchef and the Ross-helmed Film 2000 which lifts a different chunk from the seminal I Wish I Knew (How It Felt To Be Free) by the Billy Taylor Trio.

7. Is the record library open?

Definition: Existing songs, tunes or themes lifted in part or wholesale to avoid producers having to commission anything new

Key example: The Book Tower

Andrew Lloyd Webber scored a double with his Variations on a Theme suite for cello and rock ensemble, being fortuitous enough to have two different movements utilised as TV themes – respectively, The Book Tower (with special “doorbell” overdub) and The South Bank Show. The practice of simply bolting existing compositions onto programmes with undue haste accelerated dramatically through the 1980s and 1990s – a key example being The Clothes Show using The Pet Shop Boys B-side In the Night, and continuing to “borrow” it for almost a decade before the duo re-recorded a special new version. More recently So Graham Norton has used History Repeating by The Propellerheads for series upon series; Cold Feet opted for Female of the Species by Space as their original closing theme; Father Ted boasted The Divine Comedy’s B-side Songs of Love as its titles, while Neil Hannon also penned one of the many themes for Tomorrow’s World. Sometimes the match works fine – With a Little Help From My Friends and The Wonder Years – sometime it is really crude and uninspired – As If and Would You … ?

Classical music has been well-plundered too, naturally – always working best when not so well known (The Adventure Game) than the obvious (Bob Martin – too much of Rhapsody in Blue). A stroke of genius was using Vaughan Williams’ symphonic arrangement of The First Nowell as the basis for The Box of Delights theme.

Special Sub-Section: Shameless Recycling

Mention must be made of the even lazier habit of using exactly the same tune for different shows. Give Us A Clue bequeathed Chicken Man to Grange Hill in one of the most blatant and famous of inheritances. Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals provided the same theme for both Just So Stories and the second series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, while Fantasy World Cup prided itself on using the old World of Sport music.

8. Pass the swanee whistle

Definition: Novelty themes that are either original scores or rearrangements of old tunes plastered with sound effects and indulgent electronic gadgetry

Key example: Food and Drink

1980s lifestyle programming kept the composer overly-fond of that “special sound” button on their keyboard in business. The mid-decade vintage Food and Drink theme re-scored Food Glorious Food for an ensemble of whisks, empty milk bottles, popping corks and pressure cookers. Related to this din is Channel 4′s first foray into consumer guides, The Wine Programme – a winsome version of an old music-hall drinking song, a conception of “funny” that could only have hit home in the cloistered surroundings of a C4 commissioning editors hospitality suite. For some reason lifestyle series continue to attract dreadful “novelty “themes – whether the implied “wacky” or “zany” vibes of the oom-pom-pah brass band music for Ground Force, or the chorus of dogs “singing” the theme to Battersea Dogs Home, which is a strong candidate for the worst theme tune of the last decade.

Special Sub-Section: Ill-Advised Classical-Meets-Rock Action

A special mention must be made for Stilgoe’s On where ambitious slap bass jostles with some baroque woodwind flourishes resulting in a patchwork quality that does little to support Richard’s weak lyrics. Sometimes this kind of multi-genre formula comes good – Dallas, Fresh Fields – but mostly this should be avoided for fear of a Midlands Today-sounding end product.

9. Heads and Tails

Definition: Surely these composers must be earning too much if they can afford to spend the time writing different opening and closing themes to the one programme?

Key example: Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

Sometimes a programme has an embarrassment of riches theme-wise. This was the case in 1983 when David Mackay and Ian La Frenais sat down with electric guitar to knock up a piece for Witzend’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The opening title track, penned by the pair, was Breaking Away – a reflective piece sung by the gravel-voiced Joe Fagin. However, for the closing credits Mackay and Ken Ashby came up with the rocky That’s Living All Right. With a shout-along chorus, the track reached number three in the UK charts in January ’84. The question has to be asked: why was a different opening and closing theme deemed necessary? Perhaps it’s simply that both La Frenais and Ashby wanted a piece of the action, or maybe there was an effort to capture both the bawdy humour of Pet and the pathos. Whatever, the second series was equally successful in every aspect but one: the theme(s). Again Mackay and La Frenais took responsibility for the opener (the listless Get It Right), and Ashby once more jumped on board for the closer (Back With the Boys Again). Released as a double a-side in 1986, they only managed to reach 53 in the charts. Patently, Back With the Boys Again (the intended big-hitter out of the two) lacked the mighty hook of the earlier effort.

The differing open and closing themes to Jim’ll Fix-It, of course, make perfect sense. The opener suggests possible fix-it opportunities, in a sense “bigging-up” the programme to come, whilst the closing “now you’ve done it, Jim has fixed it for you” sounds positively post-coital with its “b-b-bahs” and final satisfied “yoooouuuuuu”. Meanwhile Only Fools and Horses boasted two efforts penned by John Sullivan. With the first series topped and tailed by a cheesy Ronnie Hazlehurst ditty, the programme was bombarded with letters asking what the title of the show meant. John Sullivan, who’d got into the habit of writing the themes for his programmes (witness Citizen Smith and Over the Moon) had already written one for OFAH which addressed this very question. Unhappy with Hazelhurst’s theme, Sullivan twisted the arm of producer Ray Butt to ditch it for his version when the second series was commissioned. The original plan was to bring in Chas and Dave to sing the words, but their number one hit Ain’t No Pleasing You meant they were too busy to contribute, and thus Sullivan did the business himself. None of this, of course, explains why two different themes were employed …

Other notables here are Maid Marion and Her Merry Men and Stingray. We should also include a quick mention for Ready Steady Cook which features the curiosity of two opening themes. There’s the forgettable fare that accompanies the computerised peppers etc., and then a “race against the clock” tune kicks in when Ainsley/Fern walks on stage.

10. And my story must be told

Definition: Scene-setting themes

Key example: Fresh Fields

Low-concept telly will sometimes bring about the best theme music. The composer doesn’t need to be artsy, there isn’t the anxiety of contradicting the complex mood of a high-concept piece and best of all, you can go for the jugular. And that’s why Fresh Fields has arguably the greatest ever theme music. Running from 1984 – 1986 in its original format (a sequel series French Fields ran from 1989 – 1991) the “sit” behind the “com” was simply that Hester Fields (played by Julia McKenzie) was looking for a new start in life having reached a boring middle-age. Thus the old standard Start All Over Again (which mirrors the theme, obviously) was reworked to great effect. The music starts with a fanfare of trumpets, attention-grabbing and announcing that we’re in for a gay old time. Then the familiar tune kicks-in, accompanied by some terrifically competent – and loud – bass playing. The tune builds, upping the tempo, cranking up the anticipation. Then there’s the payoff (“and start all over again”) before a ditsy little two-tone refrain drops the pace like a stone and gently segues us into the programme. Class.

Duty Free puts in similarly fine work, with a tableau that effectively introduces the setting (the opening flute-work evoking faraway places) and characters (the anxious trumpet and castanets represent the klutzy David and Amy Pearce whilst the refined flamenco guitar introduce us to the sophisticated Linda and Robert Cochran). Press Gang, however, perhaps pushes the boat out too far, with a theme that changes in style as each character is presented on screen. Meanwhile the cheap and obvious synth to Who Sir, Me Sir? fits the ’80s CBBC programme like a glove. Draw from that what you will …

11. Wah-wah, you’ve given me a wah-wah

Definition: Session musicians let rip

Key example: Seaview

Holed up in the studio for hours upon end, waiting for the red light, anxiously wondering if the Musician’s Union will claim overtime … It’s little wonder that, when given the opportunity, the music industry’s finest will throw themselves into the task at hand and indulge every fantasy that working with singers and bands does not allow. Seaview is a quite preposterous theme, especially the closing music, which sees some fretboard wizardry utterly alien to children’s television. Extended versions of familiar themes recorded for LPs often feature unknown middle eights where everyone “wigs out” usually resulting in a freeform improvisation breakdown – consider the full-length Nationwide theme, or the protracted Howard’s Way funky alternative ending where even the violin players appear to be having a good time. Best of all are instances where unlimited usage of the tone pedal – AKA wah-wah – has been sanctioned, and better still if this occurs on a Ronnie Hazelhurst theme: for instance, To the Manor Born, Yes Minister, and the king of them all, Sorry.

12. “The Sweeney, The Sweeney, na-na-n-n-nah-nah-n-nah-nah”

Definition: The programme’s title said in the music

Key example: The Return of the Saint

Whilst Who Wants to be a Millionaire was still a “phenomenon” ITV was so pleased with the programme that they put on a behind-the-scenes documentary; the highlight of which was learning that the theme had been specifically written so that the melody “said” the title. And why not? It does seem to be an effective way to bring a hook to the music, and perhaps can also be seen as a sensible investment – if that spin-off single is called for, it’s going to be dead easy to fit the words to the piece (although we assume Simon May didn’t write EastEnders‘ theme with the proviso that “anyone can fall in love” should be easy to scan).

The Return of the Saint is perhaps the most obvious example of this technique. It’s not a particularly snappy title, but that growling sax seems to spit it out perfectly. Other favourites: This Is Your Life (the first four portentous trumpet blares), The Sweeney (obviously) and Coronation Street (sing: “Corrrrr-a-nation Street! Where people like to meet! Betty Turpin is always burping … and Fred Gee needs a pee” – go on, it fits). Vere Lorrimer, who produced the final series of Blake’s 7, actually drew up lyrics to the theme for a possible Steven Pacey (who played Tarrant) crooned single. The words “Blake” and “7″ were not present, they obviously didn’t suggest themselves. Dudley Simpson, hang your head in shame.