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

The week in culture

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee