10 Classic TV Themes
As you'll know when you watch television, the theme to the programme is one that sticks in your mind and makes it memorable, and something that almost becomes the signature theme of the show. Some of them even got released as singles, such as the theme from (ugh!) Prisoner Cell Block H and stuff like that. Still, what follows are ten undoubted classics in the TV theme world. They're in no particular order, but some that you might enjoy nonetheless. So let's tune in and chill out to this lot.
1 - Superstars
Well, this just had to be there. The theme as we know and love it actually started off being used as the theme to the Monday night American Football game, and was used from around 1969 onwards, some four years before Superstars started in earnest. Even then, it wasn't used initially until around the 1975/1976 series. The tune is "Heavy Action" by Johnny Pearson, and really has all the elements of a great theme - a full on introduction, a middle section that comes in with a really nice building crescendo, and it just has some great full on parts that give you tingles down the neck - and that's what it should all be about. And of course that end bit that really crashes in and gives you bucket loads of atmosphere. When the new series comes on BBC1 in January, it'll just be like old times. Johnny Vaughan (one of the presenters these days) calls it his all time favourite theme - and for him it must be a dream come true to present it!
2 - Hong Kong Phooey
Animated classics of the 1970s don't come much better than this Hanna Barbera effort. The theme tune was sung by no less than Scatman Crothers (you know, that guy who did "I'm a Scatmaaaan!") and certainly suited his unique style. The intro sets it all off: "Who is this superhero? Sarge? No. Rosemary the telephone operator? No. Henry, the mild mannered janitor? Could be!" and just the way it builds up is really cool. Not least as well when our hero starts muttering some odd words towards the end which I'm sure no one has a clue what the hell he's going on about. "Hong Kong Phooey - fanriffic!" Can't see that word ever being allowed on Countdown, mind you.
3 - Weekend World
Ah, the days of Brian Walden and hard hitting politics on a Sunday that made Jeremy Paxman look like a complete amateur in comparison. And London Weekend Television didn't go for any old tune either - someone on the show must have quite liked prog rock band Mountain's uber-classic "Nantucket Sleighride" and so it turns out LWT hired a session band to do a cover version of the theme (see this interview with Mountain here for more info) which was cheaper and easier for them. Nonetheless, they did a bloody good job, with all the crashes and full on rock of the original present. And didn't you used to love the ending, which just crashed down with guitars and drums together:" dudunnnnnnnnnnnn!" Oh yes.
4 - Magpie
More prog rock abound in this title theme - perfect for when it first started in 1969 and had the likes of Susan Stranks for the males to swoon over. A bit more cutting edge than Blue Peter, and certainly more aimed at the less posh kids (hence it being on ITV of course) it certainly needed a good theme to remember it by - and by hell did they get one. None less than the Spencer Davis Group (who were pretty big then) got together and recorded a real full on prog fest, with tons of hammond organ and some great lyrics and vocals from Steve Winwood along the way. Nice female backing vocal too in the full two and half minute version, with some really good drums. On the telly, the theme tune at the end of the show ended with the same sort of crashing sound that Weekend World had, which gave it extra credit points. And don't even mention the rather lovely Jenny Hanley!
5 - Monkey
No mention of TV themes could be complete without a bow to the 1970s Japanese classic that is.. Monkey. Based on an old book "Journey to the West" the series followed Monkey along with Sandy, Pigsy and the boy priest Tripitaka (played by a woman in the TV series) in many adventures as they went to seek the holy scriptures. Of course, the classically bad dubbing and the storyline and action sequences made it cult viewing (might want to look here if you want to know more) - and it's actually a really good series once you get into it. The theme tune and all the incidental music was produced by Japanese band Godiego, and the theme tune "Monkey Magic" was released as a single on BBC Records, no less (it's quite hard to find too, but I have a copy). The theme tune is really good as the lyrics mention all about the quest and also has that Japanese spirit within it of being a little cheesy, but a really good pop tune, with some really neat synth work and it's quite funky as well. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!
6 - BBC Snooker (usually the World Championships)
Why snooker? Surely some people think it's a dull sport? Well, it's not dull. And certainly every April when the World Championships are on at the Crucible the atmosphere's always great, and especially helped by the constant close games and high breaks and that unique theatre that the Crucible is. And when the television's on, cue David Vine in the old days introducing the snooker, with Ron Wood's "Drag Racer", a perfect two minutes or so of nice distorted guitar work with some acoustic backing and great work to seam it all together, it seems the perfect tune for the perfect stage in Sheffield. So why the hell the BBC decided to get it remixed a few years ago was beyond me. If it does turn out to be the last time the World Championships are in Sheffield next April, they should bring back the old theme tune as a tribute - because it's a great one. Actually, a few years back my friend and I were playing on a pool table down a cybercafe we used to hang out at, and the DJ (no less than Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets) whacked this tune on while we were playing. How cool was that?
7 - The Streets of San Fransisco
Michael Douglas' breakthrough role, no less, and a feature of late night television in the 1970s. Cue opening theme with that superb twenty seconds or so of drum breaks all the way in matched with prog rock synths, and then comes into what would be a standard for cop themes for many years, with plenty of nice saxophone touches as the stars of the show would be introduced: "Starring.. Karl Malden.. and Michael Douglas". Of course the opening atmosphere would be helped by various shots of the city itself, and of course when the classic film Dirty Harry was made the year before in 1971, it made the city a cool place for a cop show. And that theme tune always stuck out in the mind as Granada went to midnight on a weekday and it was the last show before closedown. Respect to Pat Williams, who composed this excellent theme.
8 - The A-Team
A great theme tune that actually always had the original spiel that told you all you needed to know about the show: "In 1972 a crack commando unit.. " etc etc. Plus with the dramatic drums kicking in while the narrator was telling you all this, then the gunshots as he proclaimed "Maybe you can hire... the A-Team!" really kicked in. The rest of the theme tune was classic Glen A Larson at his best - full of loud explosions, rock guitars and the odd string instrument thrown in there to make the hairs stand on end. Every Saturday you know where you were with this one, a great theme that made you sit down and enjoy the hour of madness, knowing full well at the end of the show that BA would drink some milk and end up on a plane somewhere. Oh, and a great parody of the A-Team was on the TV series "Max and Paddy's Road To Nowhere" recently.
9 - Match of the Day
Football just had to feature here somewhere, and they don't get much more classic than Barry Stoller's tune "Offside" which became the second and most used theme tune to BBC's Match of the Day (the original theme was Arnold Steck's "Drum Majorette" when it started out in 1964, in case you ever wondered) - and the version of Offside we know and love today has been going for years. And the BBC haven't changed it - a good job too. For some reason it seems to fit the opening salvo of football and goals perfectly before it heads to the studio where these days Gary Lineker and Alan "look at that sloppy defending!" Hansen seem to reign these days. Whether it's the simple melody or that bit at the end of the tune that just brings the whole thing to a crescendo I don't know, but it just works really well.
10 - Jamie and the Magic Torch
I make no apologies for another children's TV theme here, as this one used to be one of my favourites. And Cosgrove Hall certainly had the right idea. Make it a slow brooding piece as Jamie's mum settles him down to sleep (or so she thinks anyway) and then gradually blend in and give it a full on prog rock type workout as Jamie and his faithful dog Wordsworth snuck out of the bedroom down the slide into Cuckooland - and certainly the characters they met made you wonder if the makers were on something at the time! Anyway, dontcha just love the wah wah guitar effects as it really develops, with some great vocal work and gets you straight into the show. And love the wobbly bits as the end as it goes "Switched on.." Ah, the memories.
Love your themes? Well, why not try TV Cream's themes section? Something probably there for you. And if you want to buy some classic themes on CDs, find (if you can) TVT's "Television's Greatest Hits". Those are seven different CDs of TV themes, mainly from US shows, but of course in the UK we get most of them so you should find stuff to remember. Also worth mentioning is the compilation "The Great Sporting Experience" on the EMI Classics label, which has oodles of sporting themes, such as Ski Sunday, BBC Cricket, Darts, Rugby Special, Superstars, World of Sport etc etc. But whatever you do, don't buy this CD!