OTT’s Hit Parade

The best and worst TV theme composers by Ian Jones and Graham Kibble-White

First published July 2001

OTT sets out to identify the 10 best exponents in the baton-waving, axe-wielding, oscillator-oscillating art of TV theme composing. In doing so we’ll also collar our least favourite five. From the “composed” to – well – “compost”, cue up that Grundig tape recorder, hush the family and prepare for our rundown …


1. Alan Hawkshaw
Alan tops our poll thanks to his work for landmark kids telly and daytime broadcasting institutions. Yes, by penning the themes for Grange Hill and Countdown his work will resonate with the generation that grew up through the late 1970s and 1980s for decades to come. Alan had a fine track record working as a session musician with Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and others (including, sadly, Cliff Richard) before turning his hand to television. He still makes a mint from Channel 4, having come up with not just Countdown but Channel 4 News and Racing themes. In addition there’s been The New Statesman, Love Hurts, Tucker’s Luck, Bellamy at Large, The Dave Allen Show and The Kenny Everett Video Show. Chicken Man was first famously utilised as the theme for Give Us A Clue before finding a more natural home with the kids from Grange Hill comprehensive. Legend has it the tune was worked up by famous session musos Hawkshaw plus Alan Parker (guitar), Mike Moran (keyboard) and Herbie Flowers (bass) in five minutes flat. Never have a more productive 300 seconds been spent in a studio. And as the man Whiteley says, “Who wants to be a millionaire? Easy. Just invent a theme for a parlour game!”

2. Johnny Pearson
Nothing is quite so evocative as the three minutes-something title theme for All Creatures Great and Small. It is lush without being sickly, reassuring without being twee, and instantly affecting. Johnny and his orchestra again had a track record predating TV composition, working with Cilla Black, Lena Horn, Shirley Bassey and Vanessa Lee. As director of the BBC’s Top of the Pops Orchestra for 16 years he had the notoriously difficult job of persuading grey men in brown suits to play in styles befitting The Beatles, Bing Crosby and Michael Jackson. But the great man found true vocation penning for the small screen; along with All Creatures he composed the themes to Owen MD (ala Sleepy Shores) and ITN’s News at Ten. Not as productive as other noted composers, but selectively fantastic.

3. Ronnie Hazelhurst
There’s an endless parade of Ronnie classics which need little introduction. Some particular favourites of OTT: Yes Minister (incorporating authentic Big Ben chimes), No Place Like Home, Last of the Summer Wine (best closing music ending ever), The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em and Sorry (originally intended for a mid 1980s aborted soap opera). Not forgetting his sterling work representing Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, usually leading his orchestra dressed in regulation bow tie and bowler hat, conducting with a crisply rolled umbrella.

4. Ron Grainer
Once mistakenly credited as “Byron Grainer” in the credits of his most well-known creation, Doctor Who (instead of “Music: By Ron Grainer”), he was another of the prodigious writers responsible for a huge quantity of music, much of it of remarkably high quality. OTT’s choice of popular classics includes the fabulous Maigret, Steptoe and Son (or Old Ned to use its proper title), Man in a Suitcase, The Prisoner (with extra points for the use of thunder sound effects), Joe 90 and the timeless Tales of the Unexpected.

5. Laurie Johnson
Johnson merits acclaim for the definitive Avengers theme (AKA The Shake) alone, and for his additional incidental scores for each episode – making up a virtual “library” of music that was recycled by the show’s various producers throughout the series. Johnson had an illustrious background studying at the Royal College of Music and composing and arranging for the Ted Heath Band. He also had a top ten hit in 1961 with the Latin-tinged Sucu Sucu, written by Tarateno Rosa, the theme from the series Top Secret. Thanks to his partnership with Brian Clemens he landed the title music to The New Avengers and The Professionals. Liner notes on his various LPs detailed how he attributed his success to a disciplined routine broken only for meals and an occasional brief stroll, beginning each day at 6.30am. “I usually keep at it for seven days a week,” he boasted. Jason King and Diagnosis: Murder are other results of this impressive regime.

6. Johnny Dankworth
Another classically trained musician (a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 17), Mr Cleo Laine was responsible for the original, often overlooked Avengers theme. TV work wasn’t to be the basis of his career, however, as he chose to specialise in performing jazz and blues with his famous Big Band and his missus Cleo. Perhaps thankfully she didn’t appear on either the Avengers theme or his greatest ever piece, the original and finest Tomorrow’s World theme. Fact: Dankworth won “Musician of the Year” by the Melody Maker Jazz Poll every year from 1949 until 1955.

7. Vernon Elliott
A professional bassoonist, Elliott made his name playing in a variety of ensembles including the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra and the English Opera Group. Then the BBC needed someone to pen a bassoon motif for a new children’s cartoon about a railway engine … and the result was, of course, Ivor the Engine. Though only going on to turn his hand to a relatively few TV themes, what fine works they were: Ivor …, Noggin the Nog, The Pingwings, Pogle’s Wood and the best of all, The Clangers. Perfectly-formed delightful bursts of melody were created for the Soup Dragon, the Froglets, the Hoot, the Cloud, the Blow Fruit, the Pipe Organ and the Iron Chicken. Truly this was the Music of the Spheres.

8. Tony Hatch
After penning superb hits in the 1960s for Cilla, Sandie Shaw and many more Tony turned his hand to the television, and as far as the soap opera is concerned he produced two of the finest themes ever: Crossroads (in its pure, non-Macca version) and his greatest hour, Neighbours. The gentle keyboard based introduction, singalong tune and immediately catchy lyrics (“Just a friendly wave each morning …”) was surely the real reason the show became such a big hit in this country, where we were used to and appreciated Hatch’s genius. And when the theme was unnecessarily changed, we all switched off.

9. Zack Lawrence
A man who has made a packet out of Chatsworth Television and their ceaseless quest to format new variations on the action/adventure series. In Treasure Hunt (AKA Peak Performance) you had a classic example of the splendidly bombastic and melodramatic – listen to the way it obviously steps up a gear three quarters of the way through – which was then amusingly compromised by the dour formalities of a Kenneth Kendal “Hello there!” He penned the great themes for The Interceptor and The Crystal Maze, in the latter case almost the only good thing about the show.

10. John Sullivan
A trio of gems for a trio of classic programmes: Just Good Friends, Dear John and Only Fools and Horses. And, don’t you know, he wrote the bloody scripts as well!


And a handful we’d rather forget …

1. Simon May
Mr Insipid himself. He’s put himself about a lot, with plaudits/abuse for EastEnders, Howards Way, Trainer, Eldorado, The Tribe, Don’t Try This at Home, Food & Drink, The Holiday Programme, Pet Rescue, The Russ Abbott Show, The Really Useful Show, Castaway 2000, Great Estates, Jobs for the Girls, Paramedics, City Hospital, The Vet, Health Farm, Lakesiders, Seaworld … He seems utterly shameless and also must answer for Every Loser Wins by Nick Berry, Always There by Marti Webb, Anyone Can Fall in Love by Anita Dobson and Born With a Smile on my Face by Stephanie de Sykes.

2. BA Robertson
A man responsible for the horrible theme that opened the 1986 BBC Commonwealth Games coverage, which must come close to being easily the most inappropriate and sophomoric “sports” music ever composed. Also stands charged with perpetrating the crime that was the Saturday Superstore theme, though his revamped Swap Shop opening titles continues to divide OTT critics.

3. Max Harris
Harris appears here almost solely for his theme to Doomwatch. This ugly and urgent cacophony of noise sounds like it was written for a spoof drama serial to appear within The Goodies. Harris, however, has a wide ranging CV which shows that if it’s the obvious you’re looking for, he can put it to music. Thus he’s done: Carry On England, the Hammer On the Buses film, Mind Your Language, Open All Hours and The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Ranking just under Doomwatch for awfulness comes his inappropriate tweedly-dum closing theme for Porridge which simply says “this is comedy!” undercutting the rather more dour mood of the programme.

4. Paddy Kingsland
A purveyor of dreadful keyboard whimsy. He’s also penned the plain offensive, with his huge incidental score for Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, where Mike’s arrival in India/China/US is symbolised by, what else, something that sounds like a sitar, then the black notes on the piano, then a twangy guitar.

5. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Wrote a song for the Thames sitcom Executive Stress that didn’t mention the title or have anything to do with the plot. No!