The elaborate TV title sequence fell out of favour – but now it’s back

From ‘The Prisoner’ to ‘‘Mad Men’, one of the keys to a great TV series is its title sequence. But why, asks Gerard Gilbert, does the art form have such a chequered history – and is credit for the credits due once more?
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The Independent Culture

A quick quiz: can you put a name to these television shows from the descriptions of their opening credits?

1 A man steers a Lotus 7 furiously through the streets of Westminster in order to deliver his resignation letter, before returning home to be gassed through his front-door keyhole.

2 Naked women in silhouette swirl in front of flames to the accompaniment of barrel-organ music.

3 A cigar-smoking middle-aged man drives past New Jersey's smokestacks and lorry parks before pulling into the driveway of a leafy suburban mansion.

4 The cartoon figure of a suited executive enters his office, which then dissolves around him before the figure is seen falling down the side of a skyscraper.

The answers to questions that presumably won't have taxed seasoned television viewers, are: (1) The Prisoner (1967-8); (2) Tales of the Unexpected (1977-88); (3) The Sopranos (1999-2007); and (4) Mad Men (2007-2015). The dates are significant because they mirror the decline, fall and rise again of the TV title sequence – a distinctive art form that flourished in the 1960s and 70s with the likes of The Prisoner, The Persuaders and The Sweeney, and then almost vanished between the mid 1980s and the turn of the millennium.

American network TV, with its endless lists of individuals legally required to be crammed into their credits (all those honorary producers and executive producers), came to prefer to jump straight into the story – "opening cold" as it's known – leaving the acknowledgements for the end.

"It has been like that for years," says the writer Peter Lenkov, whose Hawaii Five-O reboot uses credits that echo the 1970s originals. "Maybe going back as far as Seinfeld, but certainly with 24 [on which Lenkov also worked] and Lost, which simply flashed the title of the show on screen. I have no idea why the title sequence faded as an art form."

Well, you could also suggest the fact that a US network show, already sliced like sashimi by countless commercial breaks, isn't going to have time to indulge in a two-minute title sequence. In fact, the saviour of the art form has no advertisers to please, only its discerning subscribers – the type of viewer who would appreciate a memorable title sequence. Paid-for cable TV stations like HBO and Showtime, and now their online imitators such as Amazon and Netflix, are the Medicis of the TV opener.

It used to be that broadcasters would devote vast budgets to promoting themselves as an entity, but now, with the sheer volume of television series being made and the many varied means to access them, it is the programme itself, not the broadcaster, that is most marketable – and each piece of product requires something to make it stand out.

"Opening credits are all about branding," says Asra Alikhan of London-based creative agency Liquid TV. "You've got to have a concept that takes people on a journey, even though it can sometimes be only 30 seconds long, and then lead them to your brand logo."

If that sounds nakedly commercial then it belies the artistry that goes into these mini films-within-films. The opening credits are often what live on long after people have forgotten everything about the individual episodes, and they have to have what Alikhan calls "shelf life".

So what makes an enduring opening sequence? "All the best stuff is the original," says Alikhan, citing the dark American crime thriller Dexter (2006-2013) as a prime example. "It was a very clever concept because he's getting ready to go to work, and loads of titles have done that, but this was so clever in the way it was realised."

Made by the American design company Digital Kitchen, Dexter's nearly two-minute credit sequence, entitled "Killer Breakfast", introduces the darker themes of a show that starred Michael C Hall as a secret serial killer who hunts down other serial killers. That morning routine – cooking an egg, eating, getting dressed – becomes deeply sinister. Is he pulling on a shirt or being smothered? Tying a shoelace or being garroted? According to the chief designer of the sequence, Eric Anderson, it also illustrates "the sociopath's ability to focus on the little things".

Not everyone is a fan. Anderson's namesake, Peter Anderson, whose London graphic design company created the opening credits for Sherlock and the rebooted Doctor Who, thinks the Dexter sequence is too linear. "Storytellers like it because it's filmic", he says. "For me those sequences are lovely to watch once, but if I have watch the same idea again and again and again I get bored. I like the idea that you have to unpick a title sequence over a long period of time."

The Dexter title sequence's reflection of "the sociopath's ability to concentrate on small things" is however echoed in Anderson's title sequence for Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the updated Holmes. "We were trying to have 30 seconds where you were inside the head of Sherlock you were seeing the way he sees," says Anderson, explaining why he used "tilt shift", the camera technique that can make crowds of real people look like miniature models. "He's looking at people as little insects."

More influential than Sherlock's title sequence, evocative as it is (especially coupled with Michael Price and David Arnold's John Barry-esque score), has been the method invented by Anderson and his team that answered a growing problem for film and TV dramas in the online age. That is, how to show emails and texts on screen without continually cutting away to the phones or the computers on which the messages were appearing – a technique that's both intrusive and clunky. His brilliantly simple solution was to have > the typography appearing on screen rather like a subtitle, with no reference to the gadget producing it.

"Now we take it for granted that when someone goes on a mobile phone or uses technology, something jumps up on to the screen", he says. "We didn't think of it as a big deal at the time, but I think that's as radical as anything Saul Bass did."

Bass was the pioneering graphic designer who created the animated cut-out of a heroin addict at the start of Otto Preminger's 1955 film noir The Man with the Golden Arm, and invented the kinetic typography used to introduce Hitchcock's North by Northwest and Psycho. Anderson is not however impressed by the Bass-inspired Mad Men title sequence, "Falling Man", described at the top of this article.

"In a way I kind of think Saul Bass did that, why repeat it?" he says. "Even if you did a 1950s drama now, it should have a modernity about it, because you're saying it's a programme that's being made now."

Far more influential than Bass on the post-HBO breed of TV drama has been designer Kyle Cooper's credits for David Fincher's 1995 movie Se7en. Shades of Cooper's stylised mash-up of scratched frames and fuzzed-up, glitchy graphics can be seen in the credit sequences for such shows as The Sopranos, True Blood (swamps, sex and roadkill as an atmospheric introduction to Louisiana), True Detective and Homeland. In fact it's fast becoming a bit of a cliché.

But what happens when a designer is asked to refresh an already iconic title sequence, as was Anderson with Doctor Who in 2005? "It was recognising the fact of who the audience was – it was fundamentally a 12- to 16-year-old audience, plus a whole group of older fans", he says. "When we started off making the sequence we went much darker, but then we pulled back. I think the producer made the point of saying it has to be the best ride you'll ever have on a Saturday night."

Anderson, who studied graphics at St Martin's and has an MA in fine art, first made his name creating large-scale typographical installations – the move into television coming with a "phone call out of the blue" to work on a documentary about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. Typography is still key to his work.

For the controversial BBC thriller The Fall, starring Jamie Dornan as a serial-killer preying on young women, for instance, he used female underwear as a texture within the title. "It's subliminal, but the typography also has a story to tell... the tiny details have meaning," he says. "In The Missing the typography is blurred... you can't quite catch it and in Indian Summer the m's in "summer" are drawn to be the Himalayan mountains."

Allowances for such attention to detail are evidence of the importance that opening credits are now being given. "The producers are taking title sequences very seriously – they know they're a major form of branding, and elements of a title can grow into a global marketing campaign", says Nic Benns of Momoco, the design company behind the "openers" for Luther, Fortitude, Misfits, Hannibal, Ripper Street and his greatly admired (particularly among his peers) work on the 2012 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. "Branding isn't limited to typeface; simple things like moments of red in a clean white space can say Hannibal."

Producers, Benns says, are also much less worried now about not featuring the cast, a process which can become political, since actors have to appear in a strict order. "Luther appeared almost silhouetted, while the producers for Fortitude were happy for us to go completely abstract and explore the theme of nature being beautiful but terrifying – a theme revealed late in the series."

An increasingly made request, says Benns, is one that harks back to The Prisoner's title sequence – that the titles form a prologue to the series. "It builds a sense of established history, bringing us up to the present story, as has been done in Homeland in the US." Homeland may be one of the most influential title sequences of the modern era – its dreamlike montage of jump cuts, grainy footage and super-impositions giving us both the political backstory and the motivations of the main character, CIA counter-terrorism agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), as she grows up a troubled child watching acts of terrorism on TV. The sequence's influence can be seen in the opening credits of The Americans, Odyssey and Humans.

But programme-makers are now becoming wary of this imitation game, says Benns: "There was a time when producers would say they love True Blood or Se7en, but now the market is so crowded, with amazing dramas premiering almost weekly, studios know that the series needs to be uniquely identifiable. In fact they now list shows they don't want us to be inspired by. For example, we're currently working on an epic fantasy series and the producers brief was simply 'At all costs, don't do Game of Thrones'. " µ

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Producers are taking title sequences very seriously – they know they're a major form of branding ∑∑

From 'The Prisoner' to ''Mad Men', one of the keys to a great TV series is its title sequence. But why, asks Gerard Gilbert, does the art form have such a chequered history – and is credit for the credits due once more?

Peter Anderson and his team, whose work includes 'Sherlock' and 'Doctor Who'. Right, Anderson's creative process

Saul Bass pioneered the title graphics for 'The Man with the Golden Arm' (left), which inspired 'Mad Men' (above)

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