Great TV Themes by Daniel Pemberton, from Shouting at the Telly edited by John Grindrod (Faber & Faber)

“Proust would have made a great TV reviewer,” writes John Grindrod in the introduction to Shouting at the Telly, the collection of rants and raves about television which he has edited, and which has just been published by Faber & Faber. “He had three key attributes,” Grindrod continues, “firstly he didn’t get out much; secondly, he had a fondness for nostalgia; and thirdly, an appreciation for how the trivial and the profound are inexorably linked.”


In the absence of Proust, Grindrod has drawn together an eclectic array of  writers, critics, comedians, actors, and broadcasters, including Travis Elborough, Rebecca Front, Emma Kennedy, Matthew Sweet, and Boyd Hilton, bringing ire, satire, insight, wit, and celebration to every genre of programme, from reality to factual, soap to sitcom, cult to comedy.

Whilst along the way salient questions are answered: Is Freddie from Scooby-Doo a colossal pervert? How do you win America’s Next Top Model? And if you play the theme from Inspector Gadget in a nightclub will people dance? The answer to the latter is to be discovered in Daniel Pemberton’s Great TV Themes, which follows in full below.

Daniel Pemberton is the BAFTA nominated composer behind many of the themes and sounds you hear everyday on TV. His credits include everything from cult comedy series (Peep Show, Suburban Shootout) to mainstream reality shows (Hells Kitchen, Love Island, Bad Lads Army); acclaimed dramas such as Born With Two Mothers (starring Sophie Okonedo and Lesley Sharp) and Vincent Van Gogh biopic The Yellow House (starring John Simm) to BAFTA and Emmy award winning documentaries (Hirsohima , George Orwell – A Life In Pictures); top rated lifestyle programmes (Great British Menu) to big budget family adventures (Prehistoric Park). His ability to jump genres effortlessly yet still bring a unique and recognizable sound to every project saw him named as ‘one of the hottest people working in television today’ by Broadcast magazine, who praised him as ‘a composer prepared to take risks’.

Great TV Themes

I do hope the great TV theme is not a dying breed. It would possibly seem so in today’s modern media environment. While 1960s shows like The Prisoner had amazing title sequences and themes that lasted almost two minutes (!), their modern equivalents, like Lost and Heroes, just have a noise that is over in five seconds. Boring. Or they just use some bland by-the-numbers rock song that really has nothing to do with the show at all. More boring.
The key, I think, to a good TV theme is first to create an interesting sound palette – use an unusual array of noises. Then write a great tune. And then try and get it played as often as possible. If you can tick all three of these boxes then you should have a classic. It’s amazing we don’t have more of them. A lot of TV execs like themes that sound like something else they’ve heard before. Or they want you to do a million different things in ten seconds leaving no space for an actual tune. Or they want it to have a ‘big impact’ ending. You really don’t need a big impact ending – it’s often the biggest false economy there is. But still they persist, making you rewrite something that was great into something that’s not. I’ve been there – many, many times. However every now and again someone slips one through the net and produces some gogglebox gold. Here are my personal favourites:

Grange Hill
Written in an hour by renowned TV composer Alan Hawkshaw (the only man who could not only write the themes to Countdown and Channel 4 News but also the legendary b-boy breaks tune The Champ), Grange Hill originally started life as a piece of library music called Chicken Man that was chucked into a recording session at the last minute. It has since become an icon of British childhood, it’s bizarre funkiness instantly transporting you back to a time of Mr Bronson telling someone off and a sausage on a big fork. Wow. They foolishly changed it in the nineties to some synth tosh that no one liked. Idiots.

Knight Rider
Knight Rider. What a fucking amazing ahead-of-its-time tune. Obviously everyone else now also realises this which is why it has been sampled to death by everyone from Timbaland and Busta Rhymes to So Solid Crew and their contemporary Crazy Frog. The tune was written by Stu Phillips and the show’s creator Glen A. Larson. I’ve always wondered whether Glen A. Larson actually did anything at all on it or whether he just wanted a slice of the action because it was his show (much like Simon Cowell and his ‘songwriting’ credit on The X-Factor theme) and thus he could do what he wanted. If anyone knows Glen A. Larson please could they find out as this one has puzzled me for years.

The South Bank Show
I agree it is not often you get to read someone citing Andrew Lloyd Webber as an influence. But his theme tune to The South Bank Show is awesome. Taken from his crazy classical rock mash-up album Variations, the reclaiming nostalgia from tv theme tunes theme is based on a piece by Paganini and it still sounds good today. I know it’s really uncool but I do wish more people would make records like that today. I secretly love them.

The Krypton Factor

This was one of the few TV themes written by The Art Of  Noise. Like much of their commissioned work (also listen to the rather patchy soundtrack of the Dan Akroyd Dragnet film) it seemed to use exactly the same noises as their records of the time. Namely lots of sampled horn blasts and that ‘dum dum dum’ noise that was all over Close to the Edit and the drums from Beatbox. Maybe Trevor Horn had just bought some expensive new glasses and didn’t want to spend any more money on memory for his Fairlight sampler. We will never know. Anyway it’s one of those made-in-the-eighties tunes that has aged remarkably well. But whatever happened to the show’s
spooky host Gordon Burns?

Inspector Gadget
Do-do-do-do-do Inspector Gadget. Another fantastically groovy TV tune that you are probably humming to yourself right now. But did you know that the theme is pretty much a rip-off of the classical tune In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg? Work it out on the piano to see what I mean. I used to love watching the show not just for this but also for its super funky moog synthesiser underscore. I even once tried to DJ it at a night in Shoreditch many many years ago. I had previously convinced myself that this was going to be a massive dancefloor filler and send the crowd into a frenzy. It didn’t. It cleared the room. Oh dear.

Treasure Hunt
Helicopters. In the 1980s helicopters seemed to be on TV all the time. Helicopters and motorcycle display teams. Where are they today? One show that used them heavily was Treasure Hunt. The theme tune was a super pomp synth rock monster that built to an epic crescendo. The music said ‘this could be the most exciting thing you will see on TV all year’. The show said: ‘Oh look here’s Kenneth Kendall and a married couple who look like they last had sex seven years ago, standing about in a room full of fake books’. What a swizz.

The Great Egg Race
I don’t know how many of you remember this show but it has got one of the most killer theme tunes of all time. I tried to seek it out again researching this piece and I was shocked at how fresh it still sounded – a tight punky kinda beat with some horribly catchy Moog drops on top. It got me wanting to dance round my studio in about two seconds flat. If someone like Simian Mobile Disco sampled it up they’d have a massive hit on their hands. A gem waiting to be rediscovered.

Tour de France
Again this is a bit of a personal choice but the old theme from the Channel 4 version of this was ace. It wasn’t – as many believe – Kraftwerk’s track of the same name but a rather spacey sounding synth tune by some bloke who used to be in The Buzzcocks that somehow managed to incorporate French kids’ tune ‘Frère Jacques’ and still sound cool.

Doctor Who
Not much more needs to be said about this. Originally written by top TV composer Ron Grainer (who also did classic themes to The Prisoner and Tales of the Unexpected), it was warped into crazy electro freakout territory by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Grainer, apparently so impressed at what the now legendary soundsmith had done with his track, offered her half the royalties. Ludicrous BBC staff guidelines, however, meant, sadly, she couldn’t accept them. The current arrangement, by the normally superb composer, Murray Gold, is, in my opinion, no match for the original whatsoever. Boo hoo.

Roobarb and Custard
A viciously funky weird theme tune that sounded like a Fender Rhodes put through about six different distortion and filter pedals. In my various TV works I have tried to rip the sound off more times than you care to mention. It fitted the jaggedness of Bob Godfrey’s visuals perfectly. Best not to think about the rather dodgy rave version knocked up in the nineties by the blokes from Global Communication before they were cool.

© 2009 Daniel Pemberton

Shouting at the Telly: Rants & Raves about TV by Writers, Comedians & Viewers
Edited by John Grindrod
Faber & Faber £9.99


Daniel Pemberton

Shouting at the Telly

Faber & Faber


Comments are closed.