Friday, 12 November 2010

TV Themes

Like all media, music has had to move with the times. Much of what we now consider ‘classical’ music was often commercially motivated or was written for specific audiences – mainly the church and those that fancied a bit of a dance at their next Grand Ball (DJ Mozart, anyone?) Later those commissions came from film makers, first silent accompaniment and then soundtracks.

So with the advent of the cathode ray tube, music found itself being commissioned by programme makers either as an incidental background, or more specifically as an opening theme. TV theme tunes, despite being short and sweet (barely 2 minutes to cover the credits) have since taken on a life of their own and many are remembered with nostalgic affection. To create a brief, yet memorable theme that actually reflects the content of the ensuing programme is no mean feat, so as a tribute to the many composers of TV themes, here are my personal ‘six of the best’ choices.

Hawaii Five-O (Morton Stevens) – arguably the best TV theme ever. It brims over with a joie de vivre that is hard to ignore. Like all of the best TV themes it has since de-coupled itself from Hawaii Five-O, the TV programme, and is generally known as a great tune in its own right yet it still retains that alluring vision of sun and sea. ‘Book him, Danno!’

Mission: Impossible (Lalo Schifrin) – another massive theme tune and probably the only one written in the singularly lumpy rhythm of 5/4. Again, this theme now has a life of its own and is synonymous with derring-do in all its forms. It has become a staple for all programme makers who deploy it in the sort of situations that require a bit of tension and excitement.

The World at War (Carl Davis) – This strangely asymmetrical, yet grimly compelling melody, together with the stark images it overlays, lands an almighty emotional punch. I defy anyone not to be moved by its poignant grandeur, especially that gut-wrenching final chord. Interestingly, this theme has not broken free. If ever there was a permanent link between programme and theme, this is it. Quite haunting.

Dr Who (Ron Grainer arr. Delia Derbyshire) – who would’ve thought that this theme, cobbled together from taped samples of signal generators and home-made sound-effects would turn out to be probably the best known piece of electronic music? A masterpiece of arrangement by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic workshop. And made in 1963 without a box of digital tech in sight!

The Virginian (Percy Faith) – A waltz has never quite had as much momentum as this western theme by the late Percy Faith. You can’t help but be swept along by its galloping beat and visions of the great windswept western frontier. Knocks other contenders like ‘Bonanza’ into a ten-gallon hat.

YouTube won't let me embed it here so click here to hear.

Jeeves and Wooster (Anne Dudley) – A fabulous pastiche of 1920s jazz/swing by pop keyboardist Anne Dudley (Art of Noise). To replicate the style of the roaring twenties is one thing but to make it sound as recklessly foolish yet endearingly familiar as the Wodehouse novels themselves is a real achievement. Try not humming this for days after hearing it.  Again, YouTube won't let me embed the moving picture version so this static one will have to do.  After all, it's all about the music!

I haven’t even scratched the surface here. Morse, The Sweeney, Batman, The Avengers, The X files…the list goes on and on. Which goes to show how we have taken these small, yet perfectly formed tunes to our hearts.


Perplexio said...

One of my favorites has always been Magnum P.I. which I believe was as good as the Hawaii Five-O theme (what is it about Detective and/or cop shows set in Hawaii?)

This reminds me, I saw a movie a few years back, The Dish it was based on the true story of the satellite dish in Australia that allowed NASA to maintain contact with the Apollo 11 spacecract when the Earth was at the wrong angle to get a direct signal to Houston. There's a scene with an American congressman visiting Australia to check out the facility. And the town where the dish is located gives him a hero's welcome including "the American national anthem" played by the local school band... as the people in the auditorium rise with the congressman for the anthem, the band starts playing the theme to "Hawaii Five-O"

music obsessive said...

Perplexio - LOL!!! What a great story. Just shows how some tunes seem to take on a complete life of their own. I'm sure there are loads of other great themes but I limited myself to 6 otherwise this post would've turned into a book.

luminous muse said...

Now you're barking up my tree! My music gets played TV programs occasionally ( I was proudest of a piece on Homicide: Life in the Streets - a favorite show staged in the Baltimore, where I was born.) But I've never come close to getting a theme. Which is one of the many reasons I'm not rich.

"World at War" - excellent, didn't know that one. My favorite of the Western themes is "High Chapparel."
And great Hawaii 5-O story, perplexio!

music obsessive said...

Luminous - congrats on getting your work onto TV, no mean feat I'm sure.

If you have any interest in WW2 you must see 'The World at War'. It is the definitive documentary on the subject. Check it out on Amazon. That theme will haunt me forever.

Lots of Western themes to choose from and they're all good so it was a tough choice. I went for 'The Virginian' but I can see everyone's point of view on this one. Even the Lone Ranger haha!

agedhipster said...

As much as I like ALL of these, my favorite has to be the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?

I also loved "The Rockford Files" theme from Mike Post, and most of Post's other famed themes. Call me schmaltzy!

music obsessive said...

Hi Aged - I'd forgotten about Jim Rockford. Oh dear, another great theme to add to the list (was Jim the only PI to lose a fight in every episode :)?

Never really watched MTM so this one doesn't resonate with me but good all the same. Seems like we all have our favourites eh?

Music is my guilty pleasure said...

I loved all the themes on this list! I'm glad you included Dr Who, I'm a Dr Who fan and I think the theme is incredibly underrated. I wonder what it is that makes a theme successful?

music obsessive said...

Hi MIMGP, thanks for stopping by. I'm a big Dr Who fan as well, having watched it from the first episode on a damp November day back in '63. Shame they've rather ruined it now with big orchestrations - the original electronic version is still much weirder and more creative than today's, made with a mountain of technology.

That's what makes a great theme - an original idea, simply executed.

YourZenMine said...

Aussies Radio Birdmen did a cover, of a sort, of the Hawaii Five-0 theme years ago - called Book Em Danno.

I've always enjoyed the theme from F-Troop and from a few cartoon shows like The Flintstones and Batfink. My favourites, or at least the ones I find most evocative, are Dr Who and Star Trek, two shows I loved more than any others when I was growing up.


music obsessive said...

Hi YourZ - More themes to add to the list. I'm learning a lot about TV tunes and those who like them. Yes, Star Trek was in the frame but got edged out of the final 6, I'm afraid.

Glad you're a Dr Who fan. Why can't all themes be made with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a signal generator, a pair of scissors and a roll of sellotape? Low budget? Not a chance:)

Jayne said...

Oh but The Professionals? The Sweeney? Agatha Christie's Poirot? Or her Miss Marple, come to think of it? Although you have some gems here. The World at War - those haunting images. I often wonder who those people were.

music obsessive said...

Jayne - I know, I know, there are loads more and I wrestled with the list for ages. Perhaps a part 2 post?

As to 'The World at War', I am given to understand that the small boy with upturned face is none other than...Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the rest are equally well known, but I've no idea. As you say, whoever they are, the effect is haunting.