Britain’s Greatest Television News Themes: The Not So Perfect Ten

East of the M60’s latest Not So Perfect Ten looks at Britain’s greatest television news signature tunes

…And now, the headlines from the East of the M60 newsdesk:

  • Leading blog’s countdown of the ten best news themes;
  • Countdown includes nostalgic look at best news tunes from the 1950s onwards;
  • Most of which are from BBC and ITN news programmes.

In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and countless news sites (some truthful, and some you wouldn’t trust with your car), television news still plays a part in our media diet. Though more people timeshift their viewing, TV news programmes and channels command a good audience once an important story breaks through.

Though British television news is supposed to be impartial (I shall leave my opinions on that subject for another time) we question their viewpoint. Do we go to ITV because of its balanced reporting, or do we switch over as soon as Theresa May’s on BBC’s Breakfast?

Anyway, that’s not what we’ve decided to parrot on about. If you watch today’s news bulletins in Dear Old Blighty, one thing you would have noticed is each programme’s opening theme. Apart from a couple of exceptions, there is no sense of anticipation or authority for the viewer. There is nothing that screams ‘here is the news’, and few would care if the bleeps of the Beeb’s news theme are replaced by the signature tune from Homes Under The Hammer.

For our latest Not So Perfect Ten, we celebrate the Ten Best News Themes from the UK. There is no particular ranking; each tune’s position in the countdown reflects the time slot it was synonymous with at the time. The years refer to the signature tune’s circulation rather than the programme’s run itself.

  1. Daybreak (TV-am, 1983);
  2. BBC News generic theme (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1981 – 1988);
  3. First Report/News at One (ITN, 1972 – 88);
  4. The Six O’Clock News (BBC One, 1984 – 93);
  5. Look Northwest (BBC One, 1981 – 84);
  6. Channel Four News (Channel Four Corporation/ITN, 1982 – to date);
  7. Non Stop, John Malcolm (ITN bulletins from 1955 to 1982);
  8. The Nine O’Clock News (BBC One, 1988 – 93);
  9. News at Ten (ITN, 1967 – to date);
  10. Newsnight (BBC Two, 1979 – to date).

1. Daybreak (TV-am, 1983)

“Hello, good morning, and welcome… to TV-am. New studio, new news service…” – trilled David Frost on the sofa at Hawley Crescent on the 01 February 1983. The original Daybreak was a heavy news affair presented by the highly esteemed historian, Robert Kee. As this clip shows, poor Robert wasn’t a morning person.

As for the music, well, a rather driving one by David Dundas – him of the Channel Four Fourscore and Jeans On fame. The state-of-the-art graphics and TV-am’s use of the Century Gothic typeface made for a slick production. One seen by very few people. Believe it or not, this fellow (when he couldn’t sleep in his formative years) has vague recollection of its title sequence and David Dundas’ tune.

Golden Hour: sadly, few to recall. Is it fair to say that its golden hour was prior to the Walls Breakfast Television advert fifteen minutes into its first broadcast?

Newscasters: Robert Kee.

2. BBC News generic theme (1982 – 88)

BBC’s generic news theme from 1982 was designed to go with a set of fresh graphics. They worked pretty well with theme’s orchestral leanings. The Rockwell typeface and its very 1980s flickering cursor screamed Britain at the height of Thatcherism. As a news theme it gave the BBC’s nationwide bulletins a sense of gravitas.

On the other hand, the theme music must have discomforted some viewers. Especially as its use coincided with the Falklands Conflict, and The Miners’ Strike for Jobs.

Golden Hour: quite a few including the Falklands War and the Miners’ Strike. The most golden of golden hours was Michael Buerk’s report on famine in Ethiopia which led to Live Aid.

Newscasters: John Humphries, Moira Stuart, Jan Leeming.

3. First Report/News at One (1972 – 88)

If you’re of a certain age and remember this tune, then you had just missed that day’s episode of The Sullivans. Strictly speaking, this tune was in use for sixteen years by ITN. Written by Ken Elliot, a musician from progressive rock group Seventh Wave, it was used for ITN’s First Report, which was launched in October 1972. This was – as the name suggests – ITN’s first bulletin across the ITV franchises. Before then, ITV couldn’t offer a full daytime schedule due to television hours restrictions.

By the 1980s, it was renamed News at One, with the same authoritative theme music.

Golden Hour: Edward Heath’s 3 Day Working Week; Ian Botham’s Test Match record feats; any story featuring the Royal Family.

Newscasters: Leonard Parkin, Martyn Lewis, Peter Sissons.

4. BBC Six O’Clock News

In addition to the generic news titles seen in our second entry, 1984’s set of titles for the six o’clock bulletin had to be special. Launched in Autumn of 1984, they represented a clean break from the unsuccessful Nationwide replacement, Sixty Minutes. Designed by CAL Videographics along with the BBC’s Terry Hylton and Andy Davy (other credits included the Tuc Biscuits in Space titles for the Nine O’Clock News), the signature tune was the icing of the cake.

Composed by George Fenton, it made for an attractive package. It looked pretty decent till its retirement in 1993 and, it is clear that Fenton’s soundtrack was designed around the graphics. In this clip, you also have the bonus of John Mundy and a glimpse of the Northwest Tonight titles.

Golden Hour: the Section 28 protest in the studio; the Gulf War.

Newscasters: Sue Lawley, Nicholas Witchell.

5. Look Northwest (1980 – 84)

Before 1980, the North West of England’s own BBC regional bulletin was an edition of Look North. After then, Look North‘s Manchester broadcasts became Look North West. With a move to the New Broadcasting House on the cards in 1981, the theme music was another break with the past. The synthesized number (seen in this clip one minute and thirty-five seconds in) sounded futuristic. Coupled with Peter Phillips’ graphics, it screamed a ‘1980s’ version of the future.

In other title sequences, we saw a map of the North West of England itself. This includes the North’s motorways. There was changes in lettering: from sans-serif to airbrushed Roger Dean style text with a big ‘Look’ below ‘North West’. Also rounded typefaces. The sports bulletins – under Sport Northwest – had a separate tune.

If you happen to be the proud owner of Max and Paddy: The Power of Two, the signature tune from Look Northwest is used in the title sequence. This appears – 1970s style – at the start of Peter Kay’s and Patrick McGuinness’ fitness DVD release.

Golden Hour: Toxteth and Moss Side riots; Liverpool’s success in domestic and European football competitions.

Newscasters: the now disgraced Stuart Hall, Felicity Goodey, David Davies, John Mundy.

6. Channel Four News (1982 – to date)

For my money, the best news theme on British television, ever. Even now. Since late 1982, Alan Hawkshaw’s Best Endeavours has been the signature tune for Channel Four News. It has had some variations over the 34 years it has been on air. It ticks all the boxes of being timeless and authoritative. It is also worth noting that Alan Hawkshaw’s other credit on Channel Four was for Yorkshire Television’s Countdown signature tune. Which has had similar changes over time.

Believe it or not, there was a previous lesser known theme that sounded like an American news bulletin. Here it is at the start of this clip below, alongside some variations of Hawkshaw’s theme.

Golden Hour: the Miners’ Strike for Jobs; during the strike, Arthur Scargill claimed Channel Four News provided the most balanced coverage. Plus coverage on the Iraq conflict in 2003.

Newscasters: Peter Sissons, Jon Snow, Trevor McDonald, Kristian Guru-Murthy, Cathy Newman.

7. Non Stop, John Malcolm

As they say, the old ones are the best. Independent Television News’ first signature tune was this number by John Malcolm. It was used from 1955 to the end of 1982. Before News at Ten was launched, this was the one-size-fits-all news theme for all ITN bulletins. With First Report and the News at 545 having their own signature tunes, it saw sterling service on weekend bulletins.

Golden Hour: several; some good (England’s World Cup win), some not so good (Suez Crisis, the Cold War). The definitive news theme soundtrack of late-1950s Britain.

Newscasters: Leonard Parkin, Sir Robin Day.

8. BBC Nine O’Clock News (1988 – 93)

It was a toss-up between the flying fish fingers from 1985 (or were they TUC biscuits?) or the thunderclap from 1988. Instead, we chose the latter theme that went well with Martin Lambie-Nairn’s graphics. On arrival on the 17 October 1988, it created quite a storm. Some thought the thunderclap graphics had Nazi leanings. In fact, it symbolised a tower of power with the doppler effect from its airwaves. It was also used on standard bulletins in place of the 1982 – 88 titles.

Golden Hour: the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, 22 November 1990. Need we say more. Also the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Newscasters: Michael Buerk, Martyn Lewis.

9. News at Ten (1967 – to date)

Alongside Channel Four News, the theme tune for ITN’s News at Ten is in the Champions League of British news signature tunes. The original version of the theme (used till the early 1990s) is by far the best example. This wasn’t only the start of ITN’s flagship bulletin. For many children, it also means bedtime.

The present day theme doesn’t quite cut it. Its effectiveness has been diluted by the fact ITV’s other news bulletins have a similar theme. Today’s News at Ten theme has spawned similar variations for Granada Reports, Calendar, Lookaround, and other regional bulletins (well, if the standardised music worked for BBC News, so be it).

Golden Hour: 10 o’clock. 2200 hours. In all seriousness, there has been plenty of golden hours, too many to mention.

Newscasters: Trevor McDonald, Reginald Bosanquet, Anna Ford, Carol Barnes, Sandy Gall.

10. Newsnight (1979 – to date)

The opening titles for Newsnight has had a few changes since its first airing in 1979. By contrast, the BBC’s more detailed news programme has kept the same signature tune. In 2017, it has lost none of its power. In fact, the signature tune seems to be more potent with each advance in technology.

Compare the clip at the top of this entry with one from 2012:

Just to prove a point, the Newsnight theme suits the modern day computerised era.

Golden Hour: Jeremy Paxman versus Michael Howard: “Did you threaten to overrule him” in relation to Derek Lewis in 1997.

Newscasters: Jeremy Paxman, John Tusa, Peter Snow, Emily Maitlis.

And Finally…

I shall leave you with this oddity. Did you know that the late Reginald Bosanquet released a disco single? Well, in 1980, he did just that. In the second episode of Kenny Everett’s The World’s Worst Record Show on Capital Radio (following up 1978’s programme) this was deemed the Worst Record Ever. It had knocked off I Want My Baby Back by Jimmy Cross, which topped his infamous chart.

If you must, here’s Reggie Bosanquet’s attempt at disco. Either enjoy or endure.

S.V., 10 May 2017.

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