From the hauntingly mournful strains of Inspector Morse to the feelgood 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.
At 10pm on 1 November, BBC Radio 2 will be celebrating 80 years since the first ever theme tune appeared on BBC TV – a natty little number sung by actress Adele Dixon. In a programme hosted by Tony Hatch – the composer of the themes to Emmerdale, Crossroads and, yes, Neighbours – the history of TV tunes will be explored, and many of the intriguing tales surrounding them revealed.
Suitably inspired, we’ve been delving back through our own mental archives and selecting our favourites. Here are the TV theme tunes that would never fail to have the BBC Music Magazine team plonking themselves in front of the gogglebox…
Oliver Condy Editor
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.
Jeremy Pound Deputy editor
For me, 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.
Rebecca Franks Reviews editor
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…
Neil McKim Production editor
I used to rush home from school to catch Screen Test, the film quiz for kids 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.
Elinor Cooper Editorial assistant
Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Mel, Sue, gas mark 4, a big tent and soggy bottoms. Yes, it’s 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?
Alice Pearson Disc editor
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.