What makes a great children’s television theme tune?
What we watch in our formative years shapes the way we think in later life. It is the same with any good book, film, or theatrical production. The programme I have contributed to as a co-writer, Pablo, is making the same impression with children and parents on the autism spectrum. A one-act theatre show is on the horizon, and it should be up and running by the time our theatres start to reopen post-lockdown.
Pablo has a fantastic signature tune which describes the character and his friends in a few seconds. The incidental music is also good, thanks to the arrangement skills of the Ulster Orchestra. It is, far and away, one of the best signature tunes of 2010s children’s television.
Due to the length and breadth of children’s television themes, we thought that a bog standard Not So Perfect Ten wouldn’t do this blog post justice. Instead, we will be looking at some theme tunes by category order. For example: loud and soft tunes; mad and sad songs; also the surreal and painfully real.
Our sideways journey through the annals of children’s television history will look at theme tunes from the 1950s to 2020s. There may be some British tunes, some great tunes from imported programmes, and a few rarities (one never knows). Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
1. “For more information, please reread this poster*”
If we chose to judge children’s television themes in the same way as bus maps or website design, a TV theme which describes the point of the programme would be given a Distinction grade. Pablo as I said earlier is a great example of this school of thinking. The theme tunes to Noddy, Bob the Builder, Ralph McTell’s Wind in the Willows theme are fine examples. Ditto the above with Jackie Lee’s theme tune from The Adventures of Rupert the Bear (which spawned a fantastic cover version by The Toy Dolls).
Whilst on the subject of ATV programmes, a honourable mention should be made for Tom Bright’s TISWAS theme. Before 1980, ATVLand’s finest Saturday morning televisual export had to make do with a piece of library music. Then Tom Bright was asked to write the theme music which opens with a bugle call, a gear shift and Mr. Bright belting out “Saturday, Saturday, Saturday is TISWAS day…” By 1980, TISWAS was taken on by most ITV franchises with the programme at the peak of its powers.
Also at the peak of its powers in 1980 was Bob Block’s Rentaghost. With the pantomime schtick turned up to 11, the series continued to make a star out of Molly Weir (Hazel McWitch). By then, the soon-to-be-creator of Prime Suspect Lynda La Plante (as Lynda Marschal) was replaced by Sue Nicholls (Nadia Popov). The real star of the show was arguably the late Michael Staniforth (Timothy Claypole), who lent his vocals to the opening and closing theme tunes.
The one that really deserves UEFA’s Champions League Winners status is the theme music to BRB Internacional’s Around the World With Willy Fog. Written by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis (who also recorded under the name of Oliver Onions), it not only describes the programme’s premise beautifully. The music is instantly hummable and has been enjoyed (almost) around the world.
Though the animated adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel was first aired in 1983 on Spanish television, the English version enjoyed some success in the mid-1980s on BBC One. In 1988 and 1990, when Children’s BBC re-ran the series, it gained a greater following. One factor was the showing of Michael Palin’s Around The World in 80 Days (genius scheduling by the Beeb). The other was thanks to its infectious song – so much so that The Broom Cupboard was inundated with requests for song lyrics.
For old times sake, here’s the tune from the English version of Around the World with Willy Fog.
Best Descriptive Children’s Television Theme Tune
- Around the World with Willy Fog (BRB Internacional, 1983);
- TISWAS (ATV/Central Independent Television, 1974 – 82);
- Rentaghost (BBC One, 1976 – 84).
2. No-Holds Barred Bombast
If you preferred mass-market robotic toys or mortal beings partaking in mutually assured destruction, the last thing you wanted was a prissy theme tune. You wanted a theme tune that was heavy on testosterone or power pop music. Well, it always seemed that way if you watched M.A.S.K, Ulysses 31 or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. Of the three programmes, it is the last tune that has better arrangement and better lyrics. The theme tune of The Mysterious Cities of Gold shows you that power pop has no monopoly on bombast. Its Latin style beat has aged better than the M.A.S.K theme.
Though the 1980s cartoons have given us some great theme tunes, they cannot hold a candle to Barry Gray’s theme tune from Thunderbirds. That tune can be arranged and converted for any musical instrument and still sound amazing.
Straddling the middle line between power pop and orchestral arrangement is Hoyt Curtin’s theme from Battle of the Planets. The theme music is clearly a product of the late-1970s with its symphonic rock and disco leanings. Why it didn’t get a Geoff Love’s Big Disco Sound or James Last style arrangement, I don’t know (it should have).
Not long after Battle of the Planets came to British screens, there was also Star Fleet. Known as X-Bomber in its native Japan, it used puppets instead of anime. In the UK, where it was known as Star Fleet, it was premiered on ITV on the 23 October 1982. Paul Bliss wrote the theme music for the English language version, and this inspired Brian May’s cover version.
On an episode of The Saturday Show (the one that Big Daddy should have hosted, not the one with Dani Behr), Brian May was inspired by his son to record an EP called Star Fleet Project. As Brian May and Friends, his friends include fellow Queen member Roger Taylor, Fred Mandel on keyboards, and the late great Eddie Van Halen on guitar and backing vocals. If you have sympathetic neighbours, turn the volume up on this bad boy…
Best Bombastic Children’s Television Theme Tune
- Thunderbirds (Gerry Anderson Productions/ITC Entertainment, 1965 – 66);
- Battle of the Planets (Sandy Frank Entertainment, 1978 – 80);
- Star Fleet (Go Nagai, 1980 – 81).
3. Knowing Your Place
Not quite as ubiquitous as the usual descriptive, quiet or We’ve Got To Sell Some Action Figures type signature tunes are children’s television themes that have some geographical identifiers. In other words, a bit of pigeon-holing. Or theme music written by local groups where the programme had geographical links.
It could be something that squeals ‘Northern’ like J.A Greenwood’s The Acrobat, which was used in Jonny Briggs. It suited the BBC’s template for Children’s Kitchen Sink Comedy Drama with the obligatory scruffy dog. And a teacher who was Ruth Beckett in Threads. Or Mike Amatt’s Two of a Kind, his own composition for Children’s BBC’s Mop and Smiff, the low impact adventures of a dog and a cat in the North West of England.
If we fast forward our way to 1989, one of North East England’s finest and underrated 1980s groups gave us the theme tune to Byker Grove. Yes, that group was The Kane Gang, better known for The Closest Thing to Heaven (1984). It ticked the local box correctly and tried to ‘get down with the kids’ by lifting the Ooh, Gary Davies Radio One jingle. A streetwise, pleasing number.
Our Number One choice for The Kes Award for Parochial Theme Tunes goes to Clint Boon and Co. – The Inspiral Carpets. Adapted from Find Out Why, the theme tune to The 8.15 From Manchester ticked the local box and won the youth vote by not trying too hard. Whoever chose The Inspiral Carpets for Ross King’s and Charlotte Hindle’s Saturday morning programme made a cracking move. 31 years down the line, it still sounds ace, every bit as exciting as Manfred Mann’s 5-4-3-2-1 did on Ready Steady Go!.
The Kes Award for Parochial Theme Tunes
- The 8.15 From Manchester (BBC One, 1989 – 91);
- Byker Grove (BBC One, 1989 – 2006);
- Jonny Briggs (BBC One, 1985 – 87).
4. “May Contain Mild Peril”
Sometimes, some of the most memorable children’s television theme tunes would be filed under “May contain mild peril” because of jumpy arrangements. If you are familiar with Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the last signature tune they would use is the theme from Andy Pandy.
Over in the UK, we can do scary too. It can be anything from spirits of dark and lonely water or frisbees hitting substations. Or the 1970s Yorkshire Television ident. Or a fun size coffee jar on a darkened turntable with a purple velvet cloth. If you guessed Granada Television’s Picture Box, give yourself a gold star.
Another contender for the Mild Peril category could be Dudley Simpson’s theme for The Tomorrow People. As well as fitting in the bombastic category, it is better suited to the Mild Peril one thanks to the title sequence. Still, what a tune. It was also used for the Channel Five quiz show, Topranko (Tony Wilson’s list-based precursor to Tenable).
Finishing in second place on goal difference to Picture Box is the theme tune to Russell T. Davies’ Dark Season. The theme music, composed by David Ferguson, is very Doctor Who-esque and heavier on the synths. As well as falling under the Mild Peril bracket, it is an exhilarating piece that deserves great attention.
Best Scary Theme Tune
- Picture Box (Granada Television, 1966 – 93);
- Dark Season (BBC One, 1991);
- The Tomorrow People (Thames Television, 1973 – 79).
5. I Can’t Believe It Sounds Like…
Couldn’t get the rights to use an existing piece of copyrighted music? Many sound engineers and musical directors would have two options at their disposal. Plan A is sourcing some suitable library music. If all else fails, they can find someone else to pen a theme tune that sounds similar to a chart single. One that is in the words of Eric Morecambe (“I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”).
There is only one candidate for this: Central Independent Television’s and Granada Television’s 1985 Saturday morning television series TX: Ready for Transmission (or plain TX). If you listen to these titles, you would find more than a passing resemblance to Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F. If you look at it another way, it is a lot better than the disco version of Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey on The Mersey Pirate (1979).
6. Even in the Quietest Moments…
Some of the greatest children’s television themes are quiet compositions. A gentle theme can ease the viewer into the programme, and this was something that Smallfilms got off to a fine art. Take the theme from Bagpuss for example. It is a gentle theme that complements Oliver Postgate’s guide vocals to the saggy, old cloth cat’s world. Likewise with the minimalist composition of The Clangers‘ theme which is accompanied by strong ambient music.
The Trumptonshire trilogy gave us some great music. Not only their signature tunes but also the treasury of incidental music featuring the characters. (That it also inspired Half Man Half Biscuit is no bad thing either). Its music worked a treat with the stop-frame animation and the dulcet tones of Brian Cant. We could have just given the entire Trumptonshire Trilogy our award for The Greatest Quiet Children’s Theme Tune. Instead we treated each instalment separately and decided that the music to Trumpton had a special place in our hearts.
A honourable mention should go to the pastoral music of The Stories of Snowy and the Buttercup Buskers. The high pitched yet genteel tune was a good fit for Walter Farr‘s travelling menagerie, which was once a regular sight in Cambridge city centre. Snowy’s busker cart had to be seen to be believed with ducks, cats, a hedgehog, and a dog in tow.
After a series of books were published by Piccolo and Methuen (Chris Callery and Margaret Chamberlain), The Stories of Snowy and the Buttercup Buskers got its own television series on ITV. Each episode is beautifully made, shot on film instead of videotape which adds to its charm along with Percy Edwards’ narration and animal impressions. I probably would have looked at Snowy’s programme with a bit of a ‘meh’ response in my formative years. Today, I love this kind of thing, for its technical aspects, storytelling and the Legend With His Heath Robinson style busker cart. That should have been saved for the nation!
Best Quiet Children’s Theme Tune
- Trumpton (BBC One, 1967);
- Bagpuss (BBC One, 1975);
- The Stories of Snowy and the Buttercup Buskers (CPT Production/ITV, 1983 – 84).
7. Sounds Synth-sational
The creation of Children’s BBC, Children’s ITV and (on cable) The Children’s Channel coincided with the rise of synthesizer music. From its early rise via Kraftwerk and experimental phases (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, etc), every Tabitha, Richard and Harriet wanted a keyboard in 1983. Even a Casio VL-1.
With the synthesizer/Computer Age tropes in full swing, the early 1980s was fertile ground for this Casio/Yamaha/Moog jiggery-pokery. The most 1980s synth-based children’s television theme has to be the one for Chockablock. From 1981 onwards (thanks to numerous repeat showings), each episode saw Fred Harris or Carol Leader coming into the studio in their Chockamobile. They would interact with a prehistoric version of Alexa in a specific and educational way. As for the music, a nice of bit vocoded/Sonovox goodness.
Sticking with transport in specific and tenuous way is Junior Campbell’s theme from Thomas The Tank Engine. The synth-based theme is a departure from his usual work as part of Marmalade and remains (for me) The Greatest Thomas The Tank Engine theme. Its chord progression is reminiscent of Matthew Wilder’s Break My Stride, which charted several months before the programme’s Autumn 1984 premiere.
Even more 1980s sounding is the theme to Children’s BBC’s Finders Keepers. Not to be confused with the US import on Children’s ITV, the Beeb’s version was a quiz show hosted by Richard Stilgoe. One team of three contestants faced another team of three – both of which representing a school. Just to confuse things a little, Finders Keepers had two theme tunes: one was sung by soon-to-be-Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and sounded like a lost track from their Please album.
The other tune was sung and written by its presenter Richard Stilgoe. In each episode, he created a little rhyme for each competing school. (For your ears here, we have TV Cream to thank for this megamix).
Taking the cake for The Most Synth-Sational 1980s children’s television theme was TV-am’s first attempt at Saturday morning television. Before The Wide Awake Club there was Summer Run (no prizes for guessing which season!) and Data Run. The theme tune was written by Yazoo and features Alison Moyet’s vocals (which is worth a few 1980s brownie points if you recognise their work). Check out that 1980s goodness in the video and audio effects!
Best Synth-Based Children’s Theme Tune
- Finders Keepers (BBC One, 1984);
- Data Run (TV-am, 1983 – 84);
- Chockablock (BBC One, 1981).
8. “This is the song that doesn’t end…”
For every beautifully arranged orchestral score, children’s television is not without its dross, kitsch or cringeworthy compositions in the music department. There are some songs that are plain dull and need a few rocket boosters to excite its viewers. There are some that will literally get on your nerves or get you thinking bad thoughts.
Right at the top of the Joe Pasquale Department (“I know a song that will get on your nerves”) is The Song That Doesn’t End. Though not a signature tune in the truest sense, it is associated with Lamb Chops Play-a-Long (which used to go out on the pre-digital era of Sky One – and the Sky Channel before then).
As for theme tunes that are really bad, special mention must be made of the Orm and Cheep theme tune. The schmaltziness, did nothing to endear me to the programme (the best bird that couldn’t fly for me was Orville The Duck). I could never get in to the programme.
Another programme I couldn’t make head to tail of was Wizbit. Yes, it was based on magic, but why did Wizbit have to take its design cues from a certain white supremacist group or a Dunce’s cap? As for the theme tune, the lyrics seem to have inspired Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson’s “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” and “Build, Build, Build” speeches. For me, the best part of that programme was Wooly’s dad dancing in the end credits.
The theme from Wizbit succeeds on being hummable and truly naff at the same time. Which is an amazing achievement, and a worthy winner of our This Is The Song That Never Ends Award (in association with New Zealand Lamb).
9. Forgotten Themes
For our final category, we look at the children’s television theme tunes that could be considered as Forgotten Classics. Under-appreciated gems because the series had a short life, or had been largely forgotten about in the mists of time.
Right at the top of our forgotten list is the music to Return of the Antelope. Granada Television’s adaptation of the Willis Hall book had music by the late Wilfred Josephs. The real highlight of this theme was James Galway’s flute playing. Forgotten even more (because the programme only went out in Scotland) is the theme tune of The Untied Shoelaces Show. It is a neat example of a singalong descriptive signature tune. One that was written and sung by its main presenter, ‘Tiger’ Tim Stevens (formerly of Radio Clyde).
Just as obscure, despite going out across the UK on Saturday mornings in Spring 1992, was the original theme to Parallel 9. Despite its dotty premise and meandering title sequence, the theme tune that followed was pretty good. Inexplicably, the full theme tune was never released. Perhaps it might have just been the last 37 seconds of the opening themes that was of note. Like Babylon Zoo’s Spaceman, it could have had two key changes with the first downward key change drifting into some North West Counties Football League level Indie Music. Then after about two minutes of sub-par Happy Mondays/Railway Children style dirge, back to the opening titles music with a synthesized “bum-bum-bum” at the end.
As to what is probably The Greatest Forgotten Children’s Television theme, our vote is going to Maid Marian and her Merrie Men. The lyrics ticked the ‘descriptive’ box to high heaven; the tune was hummable; and (at the very least) should have had its lyrics printed out in an issue of Fast Forward or two. How could we fault the gospel style arrangement? A class act by David Chilton and Nicholas Russell-Pavier. For old times sake, we have the theme music in its full glory.
Before I go…
Could you add to our list of Classic Children’s Television Themes? Do you love instead of loathe the Wizbit theme tune? Does J.A. Greenwood’s The Acrobat deserve a bit more love? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 16 October 2020.
* Gloriously borrowed from Richard Littler’s excellent Scarfolk website and Twitter feed.