Sunday, 19 February 2017

TV theme music - part two

My initial intention had been to write a single post on TV theme music before returning to the usual fare of album reviews. This was before I sent an email to colleagues / friends / all-round good eggs Simon Bidell and David Lavelle asking them their favourite themes as I knew I'd get some decent answers. What I did not bank on was how incredibly well-informed both guys are about television theme music, which in turn prompted me to decide that the lion's share of this post will be devoted to the thoughts and observations of Simon and David. If you find anything interesting or enlightening in this article, credit must go to them.

The discussion kicked off in earnest when Simon advanced the Dr Who theme as one of his picks, adding the disclaimer that any version post-1979 should be excluded. I am not a fan of the show but the first incarnation of the theme, arranged by pioneering electronica musician Delia Derbyshire (who, as well as working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was also part of White Noise), is an eerie, trippy wonder. This was countered by David, claiming that Peter Howell's 1980 version was "absolutely sensational, a brilliant reworking" and closer to composer Ron Grainer's original vision. Judge for yourself:

In the same email, David was also fulsome in his praise of Peter Howell's theme for The Body In Question and rattled off a string of other names of individuals who specialised in composition for television. Like many (most?) people over the age of thirty who grew up in the UK I can cite Mike Batt (The Wombles) and Ronnie Hazlehurst (Only Fools and Horses) before my knowledge of theme composers was exhausted. David, on the other hand, named a few he deemed worthy of greater recognition:

  • Richard Denton and Martin Cook (Tomorrow's World)
  • Ken Freeman (Casualty, The Tripods)
  • Alan Hawkshaw (Countdown and the library track "Chicken Man", which became the Grange Hill theme)
  • George Fenton, whose themes for BBC News spanned three decades (also the composer for music featured in wildlife documentary series The Blue Planet and Planet Earth)
Here's a good'un courtesy of George Fenton - the opening titles to BBC police drama Shoestring:

As David mentioned, Shoestring owed a debt to The Rockford Files, which got Simon onto some of the great US TV themes, so let's rattle off a bunch that were mentioned: The Phil Silvers Show, Lost In Space, The Munsters, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Kojak, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Wonder Woman, The Pink Panther, The Banana Splits, Rhoda, Bedazzled, The Green Hornet, Dallas, I Dream of Jeannie and one I am rather fond of, The Dukes of Hazzard:

A more recent American show, Stranger Things, has a theme song described as "pretty astounding" by David, which is a nice moment to think about how TV music can consciously pastiche styles or genres to evoke a certain era. The incredibly funny Garth Marenghi's has theme music that parodies its counterparts from 1980s sci-fi shows through usage of, and I quote Simon here, "distorted synths, sound levels bleeding out [and] spooky effects to heighten the drama." Hear for yourself:

(To these ears, it sounds not dissimilar to the Rick and Morty theme, which was surely created with the same intention in mind). Returning to Stranger Things, David pointed out that Tangerine Dream, whose influence is evident in the theme music, repaid the compliment by covering it, "a piece of metatextual circularity I can't quite get my head around."

What about bad TV themes? David very astutely points out that "sitcoms often got very decent themes, especially shows like Dad's Army and Hi-De-Hi, which are very good examples of how great themes distill themselves down to the basic essence of the show. There's nothing redundant about their sound or their composition. That's probably the secret of a good theme - can you imagine the show without it?" 

Nevertheless, the crap seems to come from the light(er) entertainment end of the scale. Simon plumped for this bit of fizz from darts-based stalwart Bullseye, a sub-Chas 'N' Dave / Mrs Mills knees-up that will either delight or make your blood run cold:

Credit to Simon for also holding his nose long enough to remind me of Minder, Love Thy Neighbour and Mike Reid's Runaround. He then turned on the afterburners to dredge up this unholy piece of shit:

Let's end on something a bit good, eh? We started off with Simon opting for Dr Who (one of ten themes he initially supplied me with), so we'll finish with David's all-time favourite combined TV theme and title sequence. There's a bunch of stuff I have omitted, such as the controversy over who played on the Coronation Street theme, and how production companies save a few bob when selling shows overseas by re-recording theme music instead of paying royalties to the original performers. In any case, many thanks to Simon and David for a stimulating and very informed discussion - now play yourselves out to this:

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