A theme is emerging here

I thought it was just me – I often think it’s just me, usually I’m right – but last week’s musing on the unappreciated art form that is the television title sequence
showed me I was wrong. It’s far from unappreciated. Over Twitter, Facebook and email I had people wanting to tell you and me about great sequences.

Curiously, some of them were rubbish. They were poor as pieces of filmmaking, they were narrated and in such a expository way that they plodded. This is only some of them, you understand, but those ones also had theme tunes that were so desperately dated that they could now be parodies. Or worse. They could be lift muzak.

Only, that’s a big thing. The theme tune. I was thinking of the entire sequence, visuals, music, the lot, but there are themes that have gone on to have lives outside their shows. Sometimes they’re borrowed by other series years later, quite often they get released on record, just once or twice they become hits. Big enough hits that they got on Top of the Pops.

Okay, I think that only happened once. But it was funny seeing TOTP throwing up its arms and having no idea how to include a track that had no performers who could or would come to the studio. I seem to remember watching the studio audience dancing for the whole three minutes instead. That was enough to put you off this and nothing should put you off this:

How many times can that C-Plus store, corner of People’s Drive, get robbed anyway? Mike Post and Pete Carpenter wrote the theme to Hill Street Blues and surely it was key to that show’s success. It set the tone for a police show that was complex, that didn’t have happy endings, that often didn’t have endings at all. That often had the bad guys getting away with it.

I’m fascinated by how you set the tone for a piece and I am also, separately, fascinated by editing. The theme to Cheers occupies both halves of my fascination. As aired, this is a surprisingly sad tune to open a sitcom.

Yet the full version is funny. Somehow the full one is exactly as sad as the aired, yet it also contains jokes that are clever and natural.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, and sung by Portnoy. Cheers still stands up, by the way: its spin-off Frasier gets a lot of praise for its utterly perfect pilot but the opener to Cheers is also an exquisite example of screenwriting.

I don’t think you can say the same about this show, but you know the theme and it was another hit.

Eye Level by Jack Trombey (real name Jan Stoeckart) and arranged by Simon Park to be performed by his orchestra was famously the theme to Van Der Valk – but what’s less well known is that it wasn’t written for the show. It was written to be stock or library music. There’s another very famous theme that wasn’t written to be a theme too.

This was written for the TV show it eventually became the theme for but it was just one of many pieces Lalo Schifrin wrote to be used over and over again on the soundtrack to episodes of Mission: Impossible.

It’s that theme music that is the reason we now have five Mission: Impossible feature films with a better arrangement of the theme: star and producer Tom Cruise says that’s what got him interested. On such small things do franchises turn.

Hawaii Five-O, as if you needed telling. I don’t follow the new Hawaii Five-O but actually I think it’s done the theme better. It’s just done it shorter. Still, I remember an interview with the producers where they said that whenever they told anyone they were planning a Hawaii Five-O reboot, people would think for a moment and say “Don’t screw up the theme”.

The original show ran from 1968 to 1980 and when it was cancelled, there were all these film crews and production facilities in Hawaii with nothing to do. That’s the key reason that a certain other show was set there: not only did it use the same facilities, not only did the show itself make regular reference to Five-O, but it became a hit and its theme is great.

That’s not the show’s original theme. Magnum, PI is worth a watch again because its stories still work – chiefly because creator Don Bellisario had a rule that in any episode as much action as possible should happen wherever Thomas Magnum wasn’t. So he’d always get a flat tyre on the way to something important. I suppose it was cheaper but it also kept the focus on the character and so he grew to become much more interesting than a standard detective. It’s like the way that Columbo villains are fascinating characters because they have to be: it’s one baddie versus Columbo for 90 minutes so we’d better be riveted by them.

There was also a kind of rule that every other episode would strongly feature Vietnam: then still a controversial topic that most TV shows avoided. (Though I think the first drama to really address it was Lou Grant: there’s a season 2 episode called Vet that is superb. Writer Leon Tokatyan won the Writers’ Guild of America’s best writing award for it.)

If you do go watch Magnum, PI again, though, brace yourself for a disappointment for about two-thirds of the first season: it has a different and far, far, far less memorable theme. Both the dud and the hit were written by Mike Post and I’ve just remembered he also did this:

The Rockford Files. Sorry about the quality on the start of that. It’s surprisingly hard to find a good, clean cut of the theme, though you could come round here and watch my DVDs. My favourite of all those opening Rockford Files answering machine messages, by the way, goes “This is the message phone company. I see you’re using our unit, now how about paying for it?”

Hang on. That’s seven themes so far and six of them are American. Maybe America just does themes better – though there’s an irony there as it’s America that led the way against having title sequences at all. How’s this for a British series whose theme is far more famous than its own episodes?

That’s The Protectors and – what, sorry, you’re wondering where the lyrics are? Here you go.

Tony Christie singing Avenues and Alleyways. He’s still singing it today yet the series only lasted two seasons in 1972 and 1973. It’s going to be in my head all day now.