BBC World Service
Last updated: 13 march, 2009 - 14:07 GMT

What is the BBC World Service signature tune?

The BBC World Service melody is a five-note motif created by British composer David Arnold. It is heard every hour in idents before programmes, programme themes and other elements of our on air identity. Over the years this melody has been interpreted and arranged by several composers and branding companies including Anthony and Gaynor Sadler and Adelphoi.

The tune Lilliburlero is also a well-known part of our identity and has a long history and association with the BBC. It is played on the BBC World Service before the five-minute World News bulletin at certain hours. The current version was introduced in 2000 and is arranged by David Arnold and played by a string orchestra.

We regret that we are not able to supply copies or audio files of programme themes, idents or Lilliburlero but some information about Lilliburlero follows:

Lilliburlero - A Brief History

The tune used as the World Service in English signature for the news since 21st November 1955 is most commonly known as Lilliburlero. It started life as a jig with Irish roots, whose first appearance seems to be in a collection published in London in 1661 entitled 'An Antidote Against Melancholy', where it is set to the words "There was an old man of Waltham Cross". It was arranged for polite society by the English composer Henry Purcell in 1689, and has been published in his keyboard work 'Musick's Handmaid'.

In 1687, however, the tune was set to different words, at a time when the Roman Catholic King James II was becoming increasingly unpopular. These were satirical verses with the Irish Gaelic-based word "Lilliburlero" as a refrain, referring to the appointment to the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland of General Talbot, just created Earl of Tyrconnel. In this guise, the song was subsequently adopted by William of Orange as a marching tune for his Protestant troops.

Lilliburlero's military association was rekindled in the Second World War, when it was played on the BBC Home Service programme 'Into Battle' in 1943, and as a result was chosen as the regimental march for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

At the same time it was chosen as the theme tune for our Chinese Service (by the poet and critic William Empson), before being poached by the English network, (then called the General Overseas Service). The version of Lilliburlero now heard replaces the version by BBC music producer David Cox which was in use for 30 years.

Lilliburlero has always been a controversial tune for the BBC to employ as an anthem. In 1972, the poet Robert Graves wrote a letter to 'The Times' newspaper complaining about the use of the tune in light of its anti-Catholic connotations. It survives, however, and remains one of the world's most distinctive tunes.