Forget Brexit, the handling of Covid-19, or immigration, if you want to get a really good debate going round the pub table (please be sure to observe social distancing) then try and come up with the ten best TV theme tunes of all time. Only now you don’t have to, because here is the definitive list. It shall henceforth be written in stone, the management’s decision is final, and all dissent will be stamped out ruthlessly. Here, then, in no particular order, are the best TV theme tunes ever committed to celluloid.
Hill Street Blues
Any list of the best theme tunes of all time is pretty much bound to include something by Mike Post, who wrote the hugely evocative theme to Hill Street Blues, at once emotive and yet with more than a hint of 70s cool about it. Post’s other TV themes include The Rockford Files, The A-Team and Magnum PI, any one of which could have justifiably made this list. What gives this one the edge is the iconic piano intro, as well as the smooth guitar work of Larry Carlton, who performed with Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell in a glittering career. With its large, diverse cast, multi-episode stories and innovative approach to storytelling, Hill Street Blues was also a superb show in its own right, as 98 Emmys eloquently testifies.
All Creatures Great and Small
Inevitably, there is more than a little of the personal about this list, and All Creatures Great and Small formed a huge part of my childhood. I think it was the first TV show I ever cried in (when James went off to war) and I’m sure that Carol Drinkwater (the first Helen) was my first TV crush. But even personal bias apart, you couldn’t argue with the inclusion of this jauntily uplifting number. Far from being written for the show, though, it was actually a piece of library music called Piano Parchment, composed by Johnny Pearson. Pearson also conducted the Top of the Pops orchestra for 16 years, and wrote the themes to Captain Pugwash, 3-2-1, and the ominous tones of ITN’s News at Ten.
The classic TV series M*A*S*H, one of the most melancholic yet hilarious comedies of all time, was a spin off from Robert Altman’s movie of the same name. The heart-rending theme tune, Suicide Is Painless, was also taken from the film. The music was written by Johnny Mandel, while the lyrics (which don’t ultimately feature in the TV theme) were knocked up by Altman’s 14-year-old son Michael, supposedly in five minutes. Altman Sr made $70,000 directing the film, while his son made around $1million for co-writing the song. Not bad for five minutes work. The song reached No. 1 in the UK charts in May 1980.
Of all the tunes on this list, this one caused me the most angst. Not because I don’t love it – it’s one of my absolute favourites – but because I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to include only one sports theme. And including this meant leaving out the utterly brilliant themes to Pot Black, Formula One, the BBC’s cricket coverage, Wimbledon, The Grand National, and Grandstand. But the Ski Sunday theme, a library music piece called Pop Looks Bach, by Sam Fonteyn, tips the balance thanks to its ability to instil a sense of joyous urgency with its breathless speed and excitement. Also because it reminds me of Sunday afternoons in front of the telly with my dad.
Of course Cheers is on the list. How could it not be? One of the best theme tunes ever, to one of the best shows ever. The Boston bar was indeed the place Where Everybody Knows Your Name, and Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s simple, pared back song was the perfect accompaniment to a show that was, at its heart, about community and friendship. It was the fourth song that the pair had submitted for the consideration of producers Les and Glen Charles, and it’s fair to say they chose the best one. Both TV Guide magazine and the readers of Rolling Stone chose it as their number one all-time TV theme.
The idea of ITV doing an 11-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s highbrow novel Brideshead Revisited, about fading aristocracy, Catholic guilt, homosexuality and alcoholism might sound absurd today, but in 1981 they did just that. The result was one of the most heralded drama series of all time, and made a star of Jeremy Irons. Even as a nine-year-old, watching with my parents and sisters, I loved the scale and beauty of the production, even if I didn’t have a clue what was going on. But now, almost 40 years later, I find Geoffrey Burgon’s melancholic score immediately takes me back to those opening episodes at Oxford University and at Castle Howard. It sold over 100,000 copies, and won him an Ivor Novello.
In Desert Island Discs, they ask guests to choose their one favourite record. On this list, this one would be mine. It’s probably unknown to any of you who weren’t sci-fi geeks in the early 1980s, but it is a work of thrilling, uplifting magnitude, filled with soaring strings and echoing brass. The Battlestar Galactica theme was written by another TV-composing great, Stu Phillips, who was also behind the themes for Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and The Six Million Dollar Man.
The Adventures of Black Beauty
ITV’s drama ran for two epic series in the early 1970s, a continuation of Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 novel rather than an adaptation. Today, it is remembered by a generation of fans as much for its classic theme tune as anything else. The tune itself was called Galloping Home, and snared its composer, Denis King, an Ivor Novello Award for Best Theme in 1973. Even now, it’s impossible to hear those instantly recognisable opening chords without seeing a black horse cantering through a lush field in slow motion, like a cheesy Lloyds Bank advert. The tune was also used as the theme music for a Finnish comedy show, Studio Julmahuvi. So now you know.
Little House on the Prairie
One of the programmes that was unfortunate not to make this list was Only Fools and Horses, which actually boasted a classic theme at the beginning of the programme, and another one at the end. Well, Little House on the Prairie boasts a similar distinction. The opening credits see Charles and Caroline (Pa and Ma) drawing up in their wagon and watching their three girls, and dog, gambolling down a hill, through a field of wild flowers. The closing credits feature just Laura Ingalls and her pet dog Jack running through the field. To be fair, there wasn’t much to do in 19th century frontier America except run through fields. Anyway, what’s important here is that the theme music, in both cases, is a thing of beauty.
Last of the Summer Wine
Ronnie Hazelhurst’s gorgeously gentle Last of the Summer Wine theme puts one in mind of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, as used in the Hovis ads. The show ran for 295 episodes over 31 series, so there’s little chance anyone over about 30 isn’t familiar with it. Hazelhurst also wrote other classic themes, including Are You Being Served, Yes Minister, and Only Fools and Horses. Interestingly, the BBC initially rejected this effort, deeming it too slow for a comedy show. Eventually sense was seen, and a classic TV show had the theme tune it deserved.
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