Tom Sutcliffe: Let's hear it for the theme tune

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The news that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences are contemplating dropping the Emmy Award for the Best TV Theme Tune is likely to prompt murmurs of confusion from anyone old enough to hum their childhood – even if it makes a kind of sense to the Academy itself. They argue that the theme tune is dying out anyway, squeezed out of existence by the increasing pressure to cut to the chase. Besides, they point out, the theme music award has never been that big a deal anyway – it hasn't featured in the broadcast version of the awards for some time. On the other side there's the rest of us, who can't quite square the Academy's notion that theme tunes aren't quite awardable anymore with that Proustian short-circuit between melody and memory. I haven't heard Edwin Astley's theme tune to Ivanhoe for more than 40 years now, but I'm willing to bet that if I heard it tomorrow I'd be six again, and beside myself with excitement at the prospect of spending another 30 minutes in the company of Roger Moore's somewhat unconvincing Arthurian knight.

It's hard to deny that the Academy has a point. There are contemporary television series with indispensable theme tunes – sometimes borrowed, as in the case of The Sopranos' use of "Woke Up This Morning" or The Wire's use of "Way Down in the Hole" – and sometimes specially composed – such as Danny Elfman's sprightly music for Desperate Housewives. But the old convention that a series would be preceded by a mini-overture is long gone, disrupted both by the increasing paranoia of the remote-control world, in which oblivion is only a thumb-press away, and new ways of telling a story. If you start your drama with a pre-credit sequence, after all, then a familiar theme tune may break the spell rather than magnify it. That's not the idea at all. Theme music should be a mood modifier that tunes you into the television programme in question, adjusting your mental frequencies until the reception is pin sharp.

I'm not really talking about sitcom theme tunes here, even though they can be much loved, of course, and can stir an almost Pavlovian reflex of anticipation. It's an effect that's always worth bearing in mind when thinking about theme tunes. That perky little number that introduces Cheers isn't necessarily likeable for itself – as you would probably discover if you ever tried to listen to it independently as a stand-alone track. It's likeable because you associate it with the satisfaction of an appetite. Pavlov's dogs probably thought "I really love that noise", as their saliva-glands started to gush at the sound of the buzzer. And there may be times – it's true of a lot of British sitcoms, with their regrettable weakness for jaunty, nudging bassoons – where you simply have to endure the theme tune to get to the meat. Sitcom theme-tunes also seem to have a looser association with the programme they top and tail. Elfman's music for The Simpson's may have its virtues, but it's nevertheless relatively easy to imagine it attached to a different kind of comedy altogether.

Truly great theme tunes, by contrast, have a role that is half sacramental and half hypnotic, and become inseparable from our memories of the programme itself. Take Geoffrey Burgon's music for Brideshead Revisited, as an example – a contribution to the success of that series which was criminally under-rewarded in terms of trophies (only a Bafta nomination, and not a mention at the Emmys). That's a soundtrack that effectively instructs you how you're to watch what follows, and makes it possible for you to see its virtues. At the time Brideshead was daringly torpid for British television, conducted at a pace that was entirely at odds with almost everything around it. Burgon's music provided a deeply seductive feeder-lane, giving you time to decelerate while simultaneously drawing you into a necessary mood of melancholy nostalgia.

That instructive element can sometimes be critical. The Office, as its early reviews and viewing figures will testify, was one of those series that viewers had to learn how to watch before they could come to love it. And the version of "Handbags and Gladrags" that introduced the show was one of its most effective teaching aids – reassuring you that the programme was aware of its pathos too, that you shouldn't fret too much if it occasionally made you uncomfortable. It's not that you can't imagine it with a different theme tune, just that it may well have been a different series too if another set of notes had run over the credit sequence. And, whatever the Emmy organisers decide, that's too important a function to disappear or be overlooked. If they drop the award it won't be long before someone brings it back again.

A Liberal view of EastEnders

Those considering voting for Nick Clegg on the oxymoronic principle that he's not really a politician might find some support in his responses to Radio Times's questionnaire on cultural tastes. It is presenting all three party leaders with the same multi-choice options about their preferences with regard to pop music, Dr Who actors, favourite films and soap operas. And two of Clegg's answers suggest a refreshing indifference to electoral fall-out. Asked to choose between Coronation Street, EastEnders, The Archers and The Bill he replied "I don't watch or listen to any of these I'm afraid", ignoring the risk-free opportunity to look down-to-earth. And given a choice between Terry Wogan, Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross he opted for Ross, the one answer which delivered no conceivable return at the hustings – or in Daily Mail editorials. Gordon Brown would have us believe that one of his favourite television shows is Glee. Clegg opted for David Attenborough instead. Has no one told him that there's no way of checking his answers?

Hair, make-up, reading glasses

Mark Twain famously made a fortune on the lecture circuit in America, but it's intriguing to see that contemporary essayists and cultural commentators are also dipping their toe into showbiz. Malcolm Gladwell is back for a four-date British tour, having sold out theatres on a previous excursion, and now another New Yorker writer – the music critic Alex Ross – is launching what he mischievously describes as "the Rest is Noise stadium tour" – a piano-accompanied spin-off from his prize-winning book about modern music. I hope their riders are suitably demanding. "A freshly ironed copy of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books to be available at all times. One fresh Moleskine pocket notebook to be supplied daily. Apple MacBook Pro, with subscription to the Online Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary available in dressing room. Backstage staff are expressly forbidden from making invidious comparisons with pantomime-season box-office take or from asking the talent to hum Schoenberg."

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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