Radio days: Tales behind the UK tunes

Radio 4 has announced it is to axe its early-morning signature tune. Ciar Byrne investigates the history of the songs which Austrian composer Fritz Spiegl wove together for a 5.30am fantasia
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For more than 30 years, the UK Theme has coaxed early morning listeners awake, announcing the end of the BBC's night-time World Service and the beginning of the Radio 4 schedule.

But in three months, if Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer has his way, the four-minute medley of traditional British tunes, including "Early One Morning", "Rule, Britannia!", "Londonderry Air", "Annie Laurie", "Greensleeves", "Men of Harlech", "Scotland the Brave" and "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor" will be put to rest.

When Fritz Spiegl was commissioned to create a piece of music that would signal that Radio 4 was a service for the entire United Kingdom, rather than just the south-eastern corner of England, he produced a medley of tunes from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England. Some were old, some were new, but all inspired feelings of patriotism.

In keeping with Britain's diverse heritage, Spiegl was himself born in Austria and did not speak a word of English until he moved to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1939, at the age of 13. He developed a passion for the UK's musical heritage, using a Liverpool sea shanty as inspiration when he wrote the signature tune for the television series Z Cars.

Now, days after Gordon Brown called for a clearer view of what it means to be British, the BBC has been accused of political correctness over its decision to scrap the early-morning medley. Two MPs have tabled House of Commons motions calling on Mr Damazer to reverse his decision.

Radio 4's online message boards have been inundated with e-mails from listeners, and one fan has set up a website dedicated to saving the UK Theme, thought to have been first performed by the Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1973. A petition on the website has already attracted 7,000 signatures.

Radio 4 remained defiant yesterday, insisting it would press ahead with changes to the schedule that include starting 10 minutes earlier with an extended shipping forecast followed by a "pacy" news briefing at 5.30am.

"We hope the listeners will give the new schedule a try," said a BBC spokeswoman.

Early One Morning


One of the best-known traditional folksongs in Britain, sung by generations of schoolchildren, this ballad was given a new lease of life by Jim Moray on his award-winning album Sweet England. However, little is known of the song's origins.

In his 1859 book, Popular Music of the Olden Time, William Chappell names "Early One Morning" as "one of the three most popular songs among the servant-maids of the present generation", along with "Cupid's Garden" and "The Seeds of Love".

Chappell adds that he had heard "Early One Morning" sung by servants in Leeds, Hereford, Devonshire and "parts nearer to London".

The song was first printed in Chappell's Collection of National English Airs, but he believed it had been recorded in earlier songbooks including Sleepy Davy's Garland and The Songster's Magazine.

Chappell noted that scarcely any two versions of the song's lyrics agreed after the second verse (a common feature of many folk songs). But all shared a common refrain - a damsel's lament for the loss of her faithless lover: "O, don't deceive me/ O do not leave me!/ How could you use a poor maiden so?"

Rule Britannia


In 1700, the Scottish poet James Thomson composed the memorable lines: "Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;/ Britons never will be slaves."

Usually depicted as a regal, warlike woman, wearing a helmet and carrying a trident and a spear to symbolise Empire and militarism, Britannia was the name bestowed by the Romans on what are now England and Wales.

In 1740, the English composer Thomas Arne set Thomson's poem to music for Alfred, a masque about Alfred the Great, which was first performed at Cliveden House in Maidenhead, then the residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales, to mark the anniversary of the accession of King George I and the birthday of Princess Augusta.

The song was first played in London in public in 1745, when it became an instant hit. Handel quoted it in his "Occasional Oratorio" the following year, inserting the words "War shall cease, welcome peace!" Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a set of variations on the theme and Arthur Sullivan also quoted from "Rule Britannia".

The song has become an unofficial national anthem and is belted out with vigour at the Last Night of the Proms.

Scotland the Brave


In the recent Kenneth Branagh film, Shackleton, the men on Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition were seen singing "Scotland the Brave". But the scene was an anachronism - the Scottish journalist Cliff Hanley did not write the lyrics until the 1950s.

Lines such as "Towering in gallant fame/Scotland my mountain hame... Land of the shining river/Land of my heart forever/ Scotland the brave", were set to a traditional piping tune. The same tune is also used for the song "My Bonnie Lassie".

Hanley, born in Glasgow in 1923, wrote the song for Robert Wilson, a performer and producer who owned a music shop in Sauchiehall Street. Wilson needed a song to conclude a musical review he was performing at the Glasgow Empire Theatre.

"Scotland the Brave" quickly became a hit and has since become one of Scotland's unofficial national anthems, alongside The Corries' "Flower of Scotland" and "Scots Wha Hae", from the poem by Robert Burns.

The song is the official pipe band march of the British Columbia Dragoons of the Canadian Forces.

Cliff Hanley died in 1999.

Annie Laurie


It is traditionally thought that William Douglas, a soldier in the Royal Scots, wrote the words to this old Scottish love song after falling for the daughter of Robert Laurie, the first baronet of Maxwelton, three miles east of Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway.

Also known as "Maxwelton's Braes" (riverbanks), the lines attributed to Douglas speak of a lovers' pact with "bonnie Annie Laurie". The soldier, who rose to become a captain before his Jacobite allegiances resulted in his exile, is believed to have had a romance with Anne Laurie while she was still in her teens.

If there was any romance, it is likely her father opposed the match, either because his daughter was too young, or because of Douglas's political beliefs. Both went on to marry other people, Laurie marrying the Laird of Craigdarroch and Douglas eloping with a Lanarkshire heiress.

The words were first recorded in 1823 in Sharpe's Ballad Book. It became popular with soldiers in the Crimean War thanks to Lady John Scott, who modernised the verses and set it to music. In the late 1850s, she published the song as part of a collection of verse sold to benefit the widows and orphans of those who had fought in the Crimea.

Londonderry Air


One of the most popular Irish tunes, "Londonderry Air" is commonly associated with the song "Danny Boy". It has been claimed that the melody was composed by a blind harpist, Rory Dall O'Cahan, who lived between 1560 and 1660. In 1851, Jane Ross, of Limavady, Co Londonderry, wrote down the music after hearing it played by an itinerant fiddler.

Prudish Victorians, fearing the name bore too close a resemblance to the phrase "London derrière" preferred to refer to it by the title "An Air From County Derry".

The air became popular with the Irish diaspora, especially in America, and in 1910, Frederick Edward Weatherly, an English lawyer, wrote the now-famous lyrics which begin: "Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling" after being sent a copy of the tune by his sister-in-law.

What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor


One of the oldest known Anglo-Saxon sea shanties, "Drunken Sailor" was the only song the Royal Navy allowed its crew members to sing on board. A work song, mainly sung on bigger ships with large crews, it was often chanted by sailors as they hoisted the sail or raised the anchor, hence the chorus: "Wey, hey, up she rises."

Set to a traditional Irish air, the music was first recorded in 1824 in Cole's Selection of Favourite Cotillions. It was sung by the Indiamen of the Honorable John Company and appears with music in Incidents of a Whaling Voyage by Francis Allyn Olmstead, published in 1841.

The lyrics are humorous if coarse. Suggestions for what the crew might do with the inebriated mariner include: "Shave his belly with a rusty razor" and "Put him in the bed with the captain's daughter".

Successive generations of performers have recorded arrangements of the song, including the King's Singers, James Last and Pete Seeger. In 2005, Toyota used it in a US television commercial.



According to popular tradition, Henry VIII composed "Greensleeves" as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The line "to cast me off discourteously" is thought to refer to Boleyn's refusal to succumb to Henry's attempts to seduce her. Others disagree, saying this well-known English ballad was written in a style that was not known until after Henry's death.

Shakespeare refers to the tune in The Merry Wives of Windsor when Falstaff cries out: "Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'."

The ballad has inspired many later works, including Ralph Greaves's orchestral arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' from his 1935 Falstaffian opera Sir John in Love, and Leonard Cohen's 1974 song "Leaving Green Sleeves".

Strangely enough, the tune is the official marching song of the Canadian Forces' Dental Branch.

Men of Harlech


This military march was made famous by the 1963 film Zulu, in which a Welsh regiment is seen singing an adapted version in response to a tribal dance: "Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming/ Can't you see their spear points gleaming?"

Whether the song was actually sung at the battle of Rorke's Drift is not known, but the original song commemorates another confrontation - the showdown between the forces of Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr and the future Henry V of England at Harlech Castle in North Wales. After more than a century of Welsh attempts to besiege the garrison, Glyndwr's men finally seized control in 1404, although Henry won it back four years later.

The song symbolises the Welsh struggle to retain a separate identity from England and it has become a Welsh anthem ("Land of Our Fathers" is the official national anthem).

First published in 1784 as "March of the Men of Harlech" in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, the march also appeared in the 1860 volume Gems of Welsh Melody, edited by John Owen. There are many different versions of the English lyrics.