Over the past 10 years I've written the music to a lot of television shows. Some of these - like Peep Show, Hells Kitchen, Bad Lads Army, Love Island and Great British Menu - are quite well known. Others not so. But I've always held the belief that no matter what type of show you're watching - whether it's Gordon Ramsey swearing and throwing shallots at a sous chef, fat people having sex or Calum Best acting like a prick - it could always benefit from some decent music.
Growing up many of my favourite bits of music were TV themes. I would watch shows like The Great Egg Race, Treasure Hunt, Inspector Gadget and Channel 4's Tour De France (it's synthesizer opening written by a moonlighting Pete 'Buzzcocks' Shelley!) just because I liked their intro music. They had crazy noises, funky beats and great melodies. I cherished my tape of BBC Sporting Themes, which featured powerhouse tunes from Grandstand, Wimbledon, BBC Cricket and a strange personal favourite - A Question Of Sport. So when I originally started touting about the idea of TVPOPMUZIK - a contemporary album of my own TV work - I was slightly distraught to be met with a level of enthusiasm previously reserved only for a boxset of Gareth gates b-sides.
“Who the hell would want to listen to that?” was pretty much the stock response. Was I the only person left in the world who adored the weird and wonderful of TV music? Luckily it turns out I'm not. As part of his Meltdown festival Jarvis Cocker has reunited some of the leading lights of the heyday of great British TV themes to play their hits - amongst them Grange Hill, Grandstand and Countdown - under the guise of the KPM Allstars. But where TV of yesteryear seemed to be choc-full of great instantly recognisable themes today's schedules seem somewhat less inspiring. Ever tried whistling the theme to Wife Swap or Dragon's Den? Exactly. So here's some pointers I think can help redress the balance:
The key to most theme tune's longevity is the simple fact that they were as catchy as hell. But while there are notable modern exceptions - the super hooky Strictly Come Dancing is a great example - the majority of current TV themes seem less than memorable. Unless you are going for some crazy sound design tour de force (aptly demonstrated by shows like 24 and even the current BBC news theme) there's one simple litmus test - can the postman whistle it?
See: Match Of The Day, Inspector Gadget, Strictly Come Dancing
One of the secrets to being a successful TV composer is being able to come up with something as quickly as possible. Legendary composer and KPM Allstar Alan Hawkshaw bashed out the Grange Hill theme in a matter of minutes: “We were doing this library session in Munich I think,” (archaic MU rules at the time meant that a lot of classic TV themes weren't actually recorded in the UK), “and we were short of material. So I said give me an hour and I'll write something. I didn't really know what I was doing, I just wanted to do something quirky. It ended up as the Grange Hill theme. But then I got a call saying they wanted to use it for Give Us A Clue as well. I said 'You know that's already the theme to another show?' and they said 'yes but we like it'. Bizzare.”
See: Grange Hill, Dave Allen, Give Us A Clue
The reason why so many of the old TV themes so sound so amazing is they had real instruments played by the baddest boy session musicians of the time. The horn sound of Keith 'Grandstand' Mansfield is so popular it's still regularly sampled by the likes of Dangermouse and Madlib. Today however, with the majority of TV companies sadly not giving a flying one about the quality of their title music, budgets rarely allow this to happen. When they do - as Joby Talbot's fantastic League Of Gentlemen theme showed - the results can be quite spectacular. But if your budget doesn't stretch that far then don't - as the embarrassingly bland Deal Or No Deal soundtrack demonstrates - try and get the same sound off the 'funky horns' preset on your Garage Band plug-in. It will sound rubbish. If you can't get the proper instruments then don't try and ape them, do something else.
See: Grandstand, Ski Sunday, Little Britain, Treasure Hunt
In the late 70's it was de riguer for any TV composer worth their salt to try and get as many stupid and weird noises onto a track as possible. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest things about TV music ever. Half the output of the seminal BBC Radiophonic Workshop seems to have been written solely with this principle in mind. If you have an understanding producer or director you can get away with murder. The advent of sampling has made it even easier to 'build' instruments out of anything - rulers, crisp packets, bubbles, you name it - from which you can make the weirdest noises in the world and get them heard by millions. My proudest moment to date is getting myself singing through a drainpipe over a drumbeat onto primetime ITV for Bad Lads Army AND still getting paid for it.
See: Doctor Who, The Great Egg Race, Roobarb and Custard
Every now and again foolish TV execs try and stamp their mark on a show by getting a new version of the theme tune made in a desperate bid to 'get down with the times'. The awful, and quickly recalled, cheesy saxophone updates of Eastenders and Neighbours, are testament to this folly. Very occasionally this can be done well - BBC2's current snooker remix is pretty tasty - but generally, if something ain't broke, don't try and fix it. Having already done a rather shoddy job on a Blue Peter spin-off show myself (I wanted to get a badge OK?) by the time I was asked if I 'fancied a go' at The Bill theme I had luckily learnt my lesson. If only the normally superb Murray Gold had said the same thing about his new arrangement of Doctor Who.
See: Eastenders, the 'controversial' new Doctor Who theme, Neighbours
Even the worst tune, if heard enough times, can become a classic just through mind-numbing ubiquity. When Big Brother first hit the screens I thought the theme tune was pish - I'd just bought a new keyboard, which was obviously the same one that Paul Oakenfold's engineer had bought that week too, and you could recreate the theme tune by pretty much holding down the first four buttons on it. I dismissed it at the time as generic trance by numbers - how wrong I was. By ensuring the show is always trailed with it's music the makers Endemol have created one of the most recognisable and iconic theme tunes of our times. By the time the rubbish X Factor tune had arrived BB sounded like a work of superlative genius.
See: I'm A Celebrity, X Factor
One of the most iconic pieces of British TV music is Alan Hawkshaw's Countdown theme. But it almost didn't happen as 'The Hawk' recalls: “At that particular time I was very very busy and I got a call from Yorkshire TV asking if I could knock together a jingle for this quiz show by Thursday. There was no way I thought I could do it but they told me it wasn't that much work. So very reluctantly I slung something together with these real cheap synthesizers - I had this one where you blew through a tube to get a trumpet sound - and gave it to them. It sounded crap. I saw the pilot. I thought 'this is one of the worst things I've ever seen - it'll never get made'. But I was totally wrong. We re-recorded the tune and it's been on Channel 4 since the first day it started. I've now set up a foundation to use all the money from it to help underprivileged musicians.”
See: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Weakest Link
In the old days if you'd written a great TV theme there was a pretty good chance it might see a commercial release. But with a theme only lasting thirty seconds or so stringing it out to a full three minutes could often push the patience of the listener. The answer? Two minutes of wah-wah solos bookended by the theme. If you were really lucky sometimes these would even get aired - old episodes of The Bill with longer than normal credits would often feature the crazily funky synthesizer middle eight breakdown. If you caught one of those you felt pretty special, like when they played episodes of Grange Hill with no end credit music because someone had died overdosing on Pritt Stick or something. Unfortunately my own homage to this (a re-wigged version of the theme to a David Starkey late night chat show no one saw) actually blew up the keyboard I was doing the solo on due to some rather over zealous knob twiddling. Oh dear.
See: The Bill
The producers of I'm A Celebrity.. couldn't clear their original choice of theme tune - “My Name Is” by Eminem
Not content with writing the theme to the Channel 4 News Alan Hawkshaw is also behind one of the most famous and heavily sampled (Redman, KRS-One, DJ Shadow to name but a few) hip hop breaks of all time - 'The Champ'.
Like The Sweeney (The Sweeney, The Sweeney, Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na), but perhaps not as catchy, you are supposed to be able to sing the title of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire to the show's theme tune.
The original theme tune from The Bill was in the crazy time signature of 7/8. It sounded great. Some of the updates changed to a more pedestrian 4/4. They sounded rubbish.