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You hum that theme tune, we'll exploit it ...

Cost-cutting in TV production companies isn't just affecting people's jobs – it may spell the end of the catchy theme tune. Chris Green meets one composer who is now fighting for his rights

Big George Webley is standing in the kitchen of his basement flat, a few minutes from Oxford Circus in central London, preparing a cup of coffee. Just visible, lying discarded on the hob of his electric oven, are a raw egg and a half-empty bottle of absinthe. Although it's mid-morning, the curtains are drawn and the flat is dark: Big George's line of work compels him to keep late hours.

Webley is one of the country's most successful TV theme-tune writers: he arranged the music used in The Office and the final episode of One Foot in the Grave. He composed the signature tune for Paul Merton's interview show, Room 101. Easily his best-known piece, however, is the music that has started and ended Have I Got News For You since the show was launched in 1990.

But this 30-second piece – as instantly recognisable as the bongs of News at Ten – is currently at the centre of a bitter row between Big George and Hat Trick Productions, the brains behind the phenomenally popular current-affairs quiz, which commissioned him to write the theme 18 years ago.

Webley says that the company has refused to inform him about the exact details of royalties generated from the sale of DVDs and videos of the show, and that the publication of a companion guide in 2006 – in which his handwritten score was reproduced without his permission with new lyrics added – breached his copyright.

"When I did the music for The Office, the BBC told me immediately what my deal would be with the DVD sales," he says. "I've earned more from the one track I did for One Foot in the Grave than I have from 16 Have I Got News For You DVDs and videos. I just don't feel I'm being fairly treated. We work in an industry where you can get shafted all the time, but what you should be doing is the gentlemanly thing."

Hat Trick denies any wrongdoing, and its managing director, Jimmy Mulville, has challenged George to take the company to court over the matter. He is convinced that the composer just wants more recognition for writing what he feels is his most revered piece of music.

"For the past few years, we've been trying to pay George his royalties, but he just sends the cheques back," says Mulville. "He's a nice man, but he has an exaggerated view of himself and where he is. He might think [the theme tune] is worth more than it is, but he's being paid his due, in accordance with the agreement we have with him."

The spat raises wider issues about the importance – or lack of importance –attached to television theme tunes and their composers. Webley himself is the first to point to a decline in standards, which he puts down to cost-cutting by production companies. In the Eighties and Nineties, he says, theme-tune writers were paid a one-off sum, and enjoyed 100 per cent of the royalties every time the music was played on air. Now, most composers are given nothing up front, and are rarely offered more than 50 per cent of royalty fees.

"It's an awful situation," he says. "Getting into the business now is really hard. About 20 years ago, generating a theme tune was a real skill, but now people use computers instead," says Webley.

"It's a lot cheaper and it makes things a lot easier – I've even been guilty of it myself – but it favours people who haven't got a grounding in composing, which seems unfair. I don't think it's going to be long before the producers of a programme just create the music themselves."

An increasing number of production companies are starting to go down this route – especially if they are fledgling outfits with few resources – thanks to the way in which royalty rates are calculated by the Performing Right Society (PRS), the non-profit organisation that is responsible for collecting royalties from the broadcasters and distributing them among their members. As soon as a composer's music is used on television, the composer starts accumulating money by the minute, which increases at primetime (6pm to midnight). So production companies can avoid the cost of hiring a composer, create their own music – and wait for the royalties to roll in.

Jo Prowse, managing director of membership and operations at PRS, says: "Currently, we pay TV royalties according to primetime and non-primetime, since we believe audience share is the most significant identifier of the value of broadcast music."

But according to Big George, who is also an early-morning radio presenter on BBC London 94.9, the minutely rate favoured by the PRS has been exploited by late-night quiz shows on commercial television: producers have realised that they can accumulate vast royalties simply by playing their own background music for the duration of the show.

By contrast, a classic theme tune might only last for 30 seconds, leaving freelance composers such as Webley out of pocket. His Have I Got News For You theme used to earn him £25 a show when he retained the full royalties: having sold a portion of them, he now makes just £15.

This might sound crazy, but if a theme tune is only aired once a week then the chances are it'll earn the composer next to nothing – no matter how famous or popular it becomes.

Webley's biggest earner is neither the Have I Got News For You theme nor that of The Office: it's a loop of "countdown music", the sort you might hear on a movie chart show late on a Saturday night. Even if they loathe doing such throwaway pieces of work, hard-up composers are often forced to, out of necessity. George fears that if the use of self-produced computerised music in television continues to grow in television, the art of the memorable theme tune will die out.

"With something like The Archers, EastEnders or Grange Hill, you need to listen to less than a second before you know what it is," he says.

"And that's the whole point: it's like a calling-card. All those shows use the same technique, with a little figure at the beginning so people have time to shout, 'It's on!' But if I were to ask you to hum the theme tune to Deal Or No Deal, you couldn't do it. If you listen to TV themes now, you can't really distinguish what they are."