Tom Sutcliffe: A really great title sequence will make me salivate like Pavlov's dog

A critical view

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The Independent Culture

I've honestly tried my hardest with Game of Thrones. My wife loves it, as does my oldest son. It's been recommended by friends who are high of brow and severe of judgement.

But, while I can see what they see in it, I can't honestly feel it for myself. The scripts are good, the fantastical world intricately imagined, the wenches buxom. But I still can't get over the hurdle of all that hair and all those pelts. What I do love unreservedly, though, is the title sequence – a swooping flight over an animated map of the seven kingdoms of George R R Martin's fantasy, to a martial theme tune by Ramin Djawadi. It's one of those title sequences you can watch again and again, for the pleasure of its clockwork (literally in this case, since the map cranks itself into three dimensions like some medieval orrery) and for the satisfaction of its details (really serious Thronists will see far more in it than mere tourists). But more than that it's one of those title sequences you actually want to watch in its entirety, however impatient you might be to get to the drama that follows.

It doesn't always work like that. In fact, I found myself thinking about the qualities of title sequences after getting restive with the opening of a series I have actually been following with some eagerness – Homeland. Homeland's title's are as terrible as Game of Thrones's are good – over-determined, over-pretentious and over-instructive. The acid-test in this matter is the DVD box-set and the digital television recorder. Watch Homeland off air, in either format, and I think you'd almost certainly fast-forward through the strained surrealism of the titles, which clumsily blend together a back-story briefing for new arrivals with art-house imagery of mazes and Diane Arbus-style oddities. After one or two viewings it's an irritation not an inauguration, which is where it goes wrong. Because the best title sequences don't really tell you anything about what's to follow. They realign your mood so that you're ready to receive it. Without wanting to get too pretentious about this – it's a sacramental moment, not a literary one.

That's what happens with my candidate for one of the best title sequences ever – the processional opening for The Sopranos. The song – "Woke Up This Morning" by the British band Alabama 3 – helps a lot of course, moving in just the right way from the ordinary to the exceptional (it ends on the line "Got yourself a gun") but the messy, hand-held visuals are perfect too. Seeing it for the first time you might imagine it was Tony on his way to work, an early-morning commute along the New Jersey Turnpike by a man absolutely at ease with his own bulky power (that cigar, that bearish forearm). But then the car swings up the drive way and you realise that he – and you – are on your way home. The swipe of a needle across a groove and the slam of the car door mark the moment the ritual ends and you're primed for novelty.

The obvious explanation for the pleasure such sequences give us is that they're just a form of transferred affection. We love the drama, so we're naturally inclined to love anything that tells us it's on the way. In that light our appreciation of a great title sequence isn't much difference than the rapture Pavlov's dog will have felt on hearing his bell, which had nothing to do with its intrinsic tone. We're about to be fed our favourite food. Unlike Pavlov's dog, though, we can skip the bell and jump straight to the meal. The mark of a great title sequence is that you don't want to do that because your appetite simply wouldn't be the same without it. And, as I know from Game of Thrones, that can work even when you only want to pick at what follows.

Aha! Partridge the movie star

There's no great mystery as to why Armando Ianucci and Steve Coogan have decided to bring Alan Partridge to the big screen, what with The Inbetweeners demonstrating that TV comedy spin-offs can break records at the British box office. But I confess I felt a mild dismay on hearing the news. The record of television-to-film transfers is not distinguished, with television gold often being transmuted to big screen tin. It happened to Morecambe and Wise, Steptoe and Son, the Likely Lads and Porridge. If anyone can buck this dismal trend it's Ianucci and Coogan. But I can't help wishing they'd spend the budget on creating a new boxed-set series of six. That I could look forward to without trepidation.

When the accent's on erudition

There was an affecting celebration of the life of the critic, novelist and screenwriter Gilbert Adair at Bafta last Sunday – one-time contributor to this paper and The Independent on Sunday. It sent me back to look at some of his journalism, including the Double Takes column he wrote for Sight & Sound – a perfect outlet for his erudition and playfulness. Particularly touching was this cinematic clerihew, one of 10 he wrote to kick off a competition: "Howard Hawks/ Hung out with jocks/ Hunters, aviators, speedway motorists/ And auterists". A friend told me the other day that Gilbert was baffled when his opening rhyme was queried. To his ear it sounded perfect. And indeed when he read it aloud it was, because of his unique, self-made Scottish brogue. For most readers it looks like a mishit. But make it work and you can hear Gilbert talk. Or tock.