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The Lost Art of the TV Theme

Comedian and musician Richard Morton laments the demise of the classic, instantly recognisable TV themes of the 60s and 70s and sets out to discover just what made them so great.

Few people who grew up in the 1960s could not now - fifty years on - hum you the tunes from The Persuaders, Crossroads, The Avengers, Blue Peter, Top of the Form, Grandstand, The Saint, University Challenge, Panorama, Dave Allen At Large, The Onedin Line, Department S, Tomorrow's World, Dad's Army, Sportsnight - the list goes on and on. The 1970s gave us Fawlty Towers, Colditz, Mr and Mrs, The Two Ronnies, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served, The Goodies, The Wombles, Blake's Seven, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em - and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, whose theme tune perfectly captured the affectionate nostalgia of the comedy. The melodies became so iconic that those shows which survived into the 21st century - Coronation Street, Mastermind, Match of the Day - have never ditched the theme music familiar to generations of viewers. And we haven't even mentioned Dr Who, whose pulsing theme generated by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963 has since regenerated itself many times over, and inspired enough new music to provide a programme for an entire Prom.

Rich Morton acknowledges that his age defines his taste in themes, as in so many other things. As a composer of very plausible tunes for TV shows and films which never existed, he favours the thrilling, brassy action themes of the 1960s or the jaunty hipster tunes of the 1970s. Yet his suspicion is that programme-makers in the 1980s - perhaps as a result of squeezed budgets - stopped commissioning specially-written music and turned instead to cheaper alternatives, such as adapting instrumental extracts from pre-existing pop records.

Rich argues that, while there are still memorable themes around, far too many shows now have bland or generic music which would defy most people's attempts to hum it, let alone remember it in fifty years' time. In an age when many viewers access TV shows from Netflix, iPlayer or YouTube, the need for an instantly-recognisable theme as a clarion call to gather round and watch no longer applies.

In this programme Rich sets out to ask what it was that made those old themes so memorable, and why the TV theme may have diminished in importance as an art form. He's helped in his exploration by some of the great practitioners of the classic TV theme, such as Tony Hatch and Alan Hawkshaw, and also by one of the most successful TV composers working today, Debbie Wiseman.

Available now

30 minutes

Last on

Fri 1 Apr 2016 11:00

Rich's Top 20 TV Themes

As you can see, my selection is firmly rooted in the Golden Age of ITC. These are some of my personal favourites, all written and recorded in the 60s and 70s - but as a musician I'm aware that the work of some great composers is glaringly absent! For instance, Henry Mancini's brilliant compositions for Peter Gunn and Mr Lucky (American TV shows made before my time) both spring to mind as examples of TV theme writing at its very best.

Please contact me at @richmortonsound to discuss or argue with my choices!

1. The Persuaders

2. The Avengers

3. Hawaii Five-O

4. The Sweeney

5. Mission: Impossible

6. The Champions

7. Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

8. Department S

9. The Saint

10. Dave Allen At Large

11. The Professionals

12. Thunderbirds

13. The Prisoner

14. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

15. Man In A Suitcase

16. Starsky & Hutch

17. The Big Match

18. The Strange Report

19. The Protectors

20. U.F.O.

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