Ronnie Hazlehurst, the man who set the BBC to music, dies aged 79

Ronnie Hazlehurst, the composer behind some of television's best-loved theme tunes – from Blankety Blank to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em – has died at the age of 79. The former BBC former musical director wrote the scores for a host of popular variety shows and sitcoms, including The Two Ronnies, Yes Minister, Are You Being Served? and Last Of The Summer Wine. He was also closely involved with the Eurovision Song Contest, conducting Britain's entry seven times.

Hazlehurst died peacefully in hospital in Guernsey on Monday night after suffering a stroke last Thursday. His partner, Jean Fitzgerald, said he never regained consciousness.

"He was a perfectionist in his profession and a very kind and generous man. To write that sort of music you have to be sensitive," Ms Fitzgerald added.

The broadcaster Michael Parkinson described Hazlehurst as "a marvellous and talented musician". "He was also a funny north country man with a great sense of humour," he said. "When I was at the BBC, I did a series of specials with him. He was one of the great unsung heroes of the music business and a great professional."

One of Hazlehurst's trademarks was to make his themes fit the title of the programme. For example, for Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em – the classic comedy starring Michael Crawford as the effete Frank Spencer – he used a piccolo to play the letters of the title in Morse code. He once said: "I wouldn't prostitute a tune, to bend it every which way to fit the title, but if I can make it so, I do."

Jon Plowman, an executive producer at the BBC, said: "Ronnie was the composer of many of the best-loved signature tunes of the past 40 years of television – and his work is still heard today. He is associated with some of the best-loved shows of our lives."

Alan Bell, the producer of Last Of The Summer Wine, told the BBC: "His music captured the mood immediately. If a character was walking, all the footsteps would be in time with the music and, if there was a little hand gesture, there would be a little figure that would accompany that.

"He was very precise with it. The musicians said they didn't know how he did it – it was so painstaking. Musically, he was the king."

Hazlehurst also wrote the themes to To The Manor Born, The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin and Sorry! Born in Dukinfield, Manchester, he began his music career as a jazz trumpeter and joined the BBC in 1961, eventually becoming the musical director at BBC Light Entertainment.

As well as writing theme tunes, Hazlehurst directed the music at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, 1977 and 1982. He famously conducted Britain's 1977 entry – Rock Bottom by Lynsey De Paul and Mike Moran – with a rolled-up umbrella instead of a baton. Renowned as "the John Williams of British TV themes", he conducted several Royal Variety Performances. In 1999, he received a gold award from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. He is survived by Ms Fitzgerald and two sons.

The Hazlehurst archive

Last of the Summer Wine

Hazlehurst liked to set the title of a programme to music, even if the words were never sung out loud: try singing "Last of the Summer Wine" to the opening phrase of this melancholy harmonica theme. The signature tune was recorded only a few days before the first transmission: Hazlehurst was told off for writing something insufficiently comic, but there wasn't time for anything else. Just as well: it lends an air of mournful nostalgia that the long-running comedy sorely needs. Do you remember the good old days before it was on TV? Of course you don't.

Blankety Blank

In this case, the words of the title do get sung aloud: the tune consists, in essence, of the phrase "Blankety Blank" repeated – over and over again, with a couple of extra "Blanketys" to fill out the rhythm. It successfully established an atmosphere of cheerful moronism, against which Les Dawson's mordant wit could shine out more brightly (it worked less well for Terry Wogan). It is one of most perfect examples ever composed of what in German is called an "Ohrwurm" – literally, an earworm, a tune that burrows into your head and can't be got out.

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

On the surface, the brief, staccato theme for the long-running comedy is both the strangest and the most apt of all Hazlehurst's tunes – barely a tune at all, in fact. A pair of piccolos pipe out foreshortened phrases with shrill harmonies: it is almost a picture in music of Michael Crawford's Frank Spencer, with his boyishness and inadequacy to every situation; though its brevity and austerity are at odds with the broadness of the gags. But Hazlehurst arrived at the stuttering rhythm by taking things literally: the tune spells out the programme's title (not including the apostrophe on 'Ave) in Morse code. A few seconds of genius, for which he earned a princely £30.

Yes, Minister

The Westminster chimes given a touch of Elgarian swagger on strings, with brass fanfares building towards a climax, and electric guitars lay on a bit of funk in the background: though it's damnably memorable, the Yes, Minister theme is not one of Hazlehurst's successes – the little pop music squiggles signal a little too desperately that you should prepare to be amused, and the ceremonial blandness makes for the wrong sort of contrast to the Gerald Scarfe drawings it accompanies, not to mention Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's scripts.

Are You Being Served?

The work here is done by Stephanie Gathercole, playing the lift announcer over an accompaniment of cash registers (perhaps inspired, it's been suggested, by Pink Floyd's "Money"): "Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery..." David Croft thought that bit up; but Hazlehurst's tune amplifies the melody implicit in Gathercole's intonations – very Steve Reich, that – as well as the lift's upward movement, and the brass punctuation between verses gives it a sophisticated, lounge-lizard sheen. If only the scripts had followed suit.

Robert Hanks