The best TV theme tunes
A theme tune can define the success of a television programme, with many becoming instantly recognisable in homes across the world. We choose some of the very best TV theme tunes in history
From the hauntingly mournful strains of Inspector Morse to the feel-good bounce of Neighbours, or from the tension of Panorama to the drama of Newsnight, you can’t beat a well-written theme tune for capturing the tone of a TV programme.
Many have become familiar over the years, some remembered fondly long after the programmes themselves have been taken off air.
Here are the TV theme tunes that would never fail to have the BBC Music Magazine team plonking themselves in front of the gogglebox…
What are the best TV theme tunes of all time?
13) The Great British Bake Off
The opening titles heighten the viewer’s anticipation with its gradually building rhythmic cha-cha-cha of the cellos, and soothe us with a cheerful do-dooby-dooby from the violins. Below the spongy surface, however, a bustling world of percussive complexity is also adding to the excitement: there are vigorously played drums, bongos, and even a subtle (if it can ever be so) gong. Bake Off also makes generous use of music throughout the show to demonstrate the rising tension within the marquee, as the bakers begin to run out of time on their signature, showstopper, or technical challenges. Will their Victoria sponge cool on time? Or does cake catastrophe await?
Find out more about the composer behind the soundtrack for The Great British Bake Off here.
12) Screen Test
Screen Test, the film quiz for kids, was shown on BBC TV through the 1970s. Hosted by Michael Rodd, it would feature four children being tested about details of a film clip they’d just seen. Looking back, the films were often woeful Disney fare like The Cat From Outer Space, but the theme music was, at least, terrific. It was a swaggering tune called Marching there and back, written by TV composer Syd Dale. After a flamboyant snare drum roll intro, the catchy plinky-plonky piano melody is joined by lolloping xylophone and flutes. Midway through, we get the 'chorus', played on Hank Marvin-like guitar. Listening to it now takes me back.
11) Blue Peter
Though the musical palette may have changed over the years, the BBC’s longest running children’s programme has enjoyed the same theme tune. ‘Barnacle Bill’ was composed by Herbert Ashworth-Hope and the original recording, by Sydney Torch and the New Light Orchestra, was used until the 1980s when Mike Oldfield re-arranged it. Since then it has been reimagined by the likes of Simon Brint, Stomp and Murray Gold.
10) Ski Sunday
The BBC’s Ski Sunday just wouldn't be the same without its famous theme tune ‘Pop Looks Bach’, written for the programme 30 years ago when snowboarding wasn't even a twinkle in the eye. Voted national favourite in many polls, the tune is immediately recognisable and fits the programme perfectly with its downhill flowing string lines and abrupt jazzy interruptions. Based loosely on JS Bach’s Fugue in D minor (from the well-known Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 565), the versatile theme has been given many makeovers, including a 'clubby' version for the 2006 Winter Olympics and an appearance as a mobile phone ringtone. What’s more, it has one of the coolest ever starring roles for the much-maligned Hammond organ.
9) Antiques Roadshow
Antiques Roadshow began life in the late 1970s, and its format has barely changed since – many of us still watch it for the disappointment in the eyes of excited members of the public who think Granny’s vase should be worth more than 500 quid. The theme tune has always been Baroque-inspired, as if the 18th-century were some sort of antique-y ideal.
At first, the BBC opted to push Bach into the modern era by using Wendy Carlos’s synthesized version of the opening movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. There was always an impression, however, that the clash of ancient and modern was a little hamfisted, so in the 1990s a new theme was commissioned from Paul Reade and Tim Gibson. Although information on Gibson is scant, Reade was originally a repetiteur at English National Opera before branching out as a composer of TV themes, including Crystal Tipps and Alistair and The Flumps as well as arrangements of bits of Beethoven for the surreal cartoon series Ludwig.
8) University Challenge
For many, Monday evenings during the darker months mean half an hour in the company of Jeremy Paxman and some of the UK’s brightest students (and occasionally those from Durham University too) as they answer fiendishly tricky questions on all manner of subjects on University Challenge.
In years gone by, we were summoned to our TV screens by a distinctive ‘bing bong bong’ theme tune played, or so I thought, by tubular bells, trumpet and timpani – in fact, it was electronically produced. Today, that tune – called College Boy, by one Derek New – has been given added intellectual clout by being performed by a string quartet. There is, though, something delightfully silly about the cello’s opening ‘boinnnggg’ note that makes me chuckle every time.
7) The Handmaid's Tale
American composer Adam Taylor captured the darkness within the heart of the story of The Handmaid's Tale. Unlike many of the other theme tunes listed here, Taylor's is predominantly made up of manufactured sounds – used to create the postmodern, man-made (and destroyed) dystopian world depicted in the programme. The synthesizer sounds are almost alien in quality, with glissandi used in the 'strings' to replicate the sounds of a drone.
6) The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74)
Denis King’s noble and thrilling theme tune, aka Galloping Home, is an absolute classic. It was King’s first foray into television composing and it won him an Ivor Novello.
Did you know? Denis King also wrote the theme tune for the BBC’s popular drama Lovejoy…
5) Coronation Street
The roofs of a Manchester terrace and the iconic theme by Eric Spear have heralded the start of ITV’s Coronation Street since the series began in 1960. The meandering bassline, brush percussion, brass and woodwinds that play beneath the trumpet solo have echoes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. It has changed little over the decades. Iconic.
Did you know? Eric Spear worked as an arranger and conductor for Charlie Chaplin on his 1959 music for The Chaplin Revue.
There are few contemporary TV theme tunes which have received quite as many Spotify hits as Nicholas Britell's stomping opening title tune for HBO's Succession. The piano is paired with rough, imperfect string textures and thumping bass textures. That opening melody is heard throughout the entirety of the show in various guises. 'I was leaning into a late-1700s Classical set of styles', says Britell of his music for the first season of Succession.
3) Fawlty Towers
At first, it seems there’s barely anything to Dennis Wilson’s catchy little tune for Fawlty Towers, a lilting eight-bar theme for string quartet that doesn’t quite ever take off but simply repeats itself… it’s almost a metaphor for Basil Fawlty’s thwarted ambitions. The angry hotelier would no doubt have approved of the use of a string quartet – after all, he wants his faded seaside hotel to be ‘an establishment of class’ – and, as a fan of Brahms, he might also have been pleased to learn that another of the great composers inspired Wilson: Beethoven, and his Minuet in G major. Not-quite-neat-round-the-edges playing slyly undermines the sense of sophistication, another parallel to life in the Torquay hotel…
2) Downton Abbey
With a feature film out and talk of another on the way we haven’t heard the last of the Crawley family, or indeed John Lunn’s music. The sight of Highclere Castle will forever be entwined with John’s spirited theme tune, which is no doubt one of TV’s most recognisable thanks to the show’s enormous success around the world.
Find out more about the composer behind the Downton Abbey soundtrack.
1) Doctor Who
Like Blue Peter, the theme for the BBC’s flagship sci-fi drama has remained the same since its beginning in 1963. Australian composer Ron Grainer wrote Dr Who's theme tune, but it wasn’t until it was in the hands of Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that it took on its iconic otherworldly colour. Since then it has been reimagined by other members of the workshop then, later, Murray Gold and Segun Akinola.
Did you know? Ron Grainer also wrote the theme tune for the classic comedy series Steptoe and Son…
Find out more about the composer behind the Doctor Who soundtrack.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.