The Compleat Top BBC TV Themes

Top BBC TV Themes (BBC Records And Tapes, 1978).

Between 1978 and 1981, BBC Records And Tapes released four volumes of Top BBC TV Themes, a compilation series collecting small screen theme tune highlights from their recent back catalogue with a couple of outsourced extras from popular shows that – gasp – had the temerity to have used that dreaded ‘commercially available’ music. Some of the inclusions are absolute overlooked monsters of hidden funk grooves and early synthpop minimalism that are the main reasons why these albums are so keenly sought after by collectors now. Others are sluggish brass band trudges that sound like they might even fall off the record before they’ve finished and it’s difficult to see why they were even considered worthy of a commercial release in the first place, never mind included on a highlights compilation. All of them, however, are a fascinating snapshot of what was actually popular with viewers – regardless of what slung together histories of television might try to tell us – and while some of the shows in question might now have been forgotten even by the people who were in them, they were once considered ‘top’ and here is the vinyl to prove it. Oh and Parky shows up on one of them too.

As a not in any regard particularly subtle excuse to plug Top Of The Box Vol. 2 – The Story Behind Every Album Released By BBC Records And Tapes – available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here – here are the entries from the book for all four volumes of Top BBC TV Themes. If you enjoy them, you know what to do. No, it’s not ‘sample that break from Washington Behind Closed Doors‘…

REH310 Top BBC TV Themes (1978)

Top BBC TV Themes (BBC Records And Tapes, 1978).

Noting the chart success of some of their recent singles, as well as the steady stream of income generated by labels like K-Tel and Music For Pleasure with their albums of re-recordings of ‘Your Favourite TV Themes’, BBC Records And Tapes began planning a compilation album collecting some of the more popular current and recent BBC television themes which would be presented and marketed like one of its commercial rivals. RESL50 The Water Margin, RESL51 Who Pays The Ferryman? and RESL52 Hong Kong Beat had all been substantial hits, RESL45 The Duchess Of Duke Street, RESL37 Wings and RESL38 Sailing had sold well without charting, and BEEB014 Angels and BEEB022 Gangsters had performed well as a cult favourites, so these were all obvious choices for inclusion. Overdramatic almost to the point of sarcasm, Dominic Frontiere’s theme from imported ABC blockbuster Washington Behind Closed Doors had previously been released as a single by ABC Records; taken from BELP004 The Old Grey Whistle Test, Stone Fox Chase by Area Code 615 was the cause of much viewer correspondence and a strong selling point for any such collection; Kenny Ball And His Jazzmen followed up their theme from Pebble Mill At One (see REC306 Down At The Old Pebble Mill) with an entertainingly jaunty song to introduce the weekend late-night spinoff Saturday Night At The Mill, complete with ‘behind the scenes’ references in the lyrics, previously released by Spiral Records on the album SPJ9000 Down At The Mill; Norrie Paramor’s rendition of the Last Of The Summer Wine theme was drawn from REB238 40 Years Of Television; and Gheorge Zamfir’s panpipe-driven Doina De Jale, originally released as a single by Epic in 1976, was used as the theme to BBC2’s spiritual contemplation documentary strand Light Of Experience; his then current popularity on account of his contributions to the soundtrack of the 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock doubtless helped secure its presence here. More puzzling was the presence of the theme from Softly Softly: Task Force, previously released as RESL35, which had ceased production over two years earlier and with the best will in the world could scarcely be described as a ‘Top’ TV Theme. With a simple but effective collage cover replicating those of ‘pop hits’ compilations, the album was a major success and led to several further volumes. Although the presence of Gangsters, Angels, Hong Kong Beat and Stone Fox Chase make this one of the most keenly sought after of the album’s labels, it remained on catalogue for many years and is also one of the easiest to find.

REH365 Top BBC TV Themes Vol. 2 (1979)

Top BBC TV Themes Vol. 2 (BBC Records And Tapes, 1979).

Another collection of popular themes from current small screen favourites including The Great Egg Race from RESL65, Blake’s 7 from RESL58, Sexton Blake and Don’t Forget To Write from RESL57, The Last Farewell from REH357, Telford’s Change from RESL63, Love Theme From The Aphrodite Inheritance from REB356 and A Horseman Riding By from RESL55, along with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra’s reading of Adagio of Spartacus And Phrygia as actually used on screen for The Onedin Line, and a handful of tracks drawn from other labels. Johnny Pearson’s Piano Parchment had been published by the KPM library in 1968, and had been sitting around unnoticed for years until it was picked up as the theme for All Creatures Great And Small, BBC1’s adaptation of the humorous veterinary memoirs of James Herriot, which ran to unprecedented popularity between 1978 and 1980; this very close re-recording came from an All Creatures Great And Small soundtrack album released by Rampage Records in 1978. Empire Road, a light drama that ran on BBC2 between 1978 and 1979 set in Birmingham and featuring – to some internal consternation – an entirely black cast and production team, boasted an authentic reggae theme song by South London band Matumbi which had been released as a single by EMI’s Harvest imprint earlier in 1978. Starring Paul Nicholas and Su Pollard as newlyweds who end up having to share their home with squatters, BBC1 sitcom Two Up Two Down ran to a single series in 1979, partly on account of it being promoted to entirely the wrong audience; as an established chart star himself Nicholas was inevitably called on to perform the theme song, which was released as a single by RSO. BBC1’s 1979 adaptation of Howard Spring’s novel My Son, My Son was introduced by Rick Wakeman’s Birdman Of Alcatraz, originally released on his 1976 A&M album Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record. Approaching Menace, an appropriately ominous KPM library track by Neil Richardson, has served as the theme music for the highbrow quiz show Mastermind since its launch in 1972; this particular music was a frequent subject of viewer correspondence well into the eighties. Despite featuring a number of then highly popular shows, this album did not feature as commercially strong a line-up as the first volume and does not appear to have sold as well; the inclusion of the much sought-after themes from Blake’s 7, Empire Road and The Great Egg Race in particular have since made this the most difficult to find of the Top BBC TV Themes series.

REH391 Top BBC TV Themes – Vol. 3 (1980)

Top BBC TV Themes Vol. 3 (BBC Records And Tapes, 1980).

More big themes from the big shows of the day including Dallas and Knots Landing from RESL87, Tomorrow’s World from RESL78, Pride And Prejudice from RESL77, Shoestring from RESL67, Greenwich Chorus from RESL98, Penmarric from RESL71, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII from RESL1, Breakaway from RESL74, and The Enigma Files from RESL68, along with the expected handful of tracks licenced from other labels. Starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a retired Intelligence officer who uncovers a plot to betray Britain at the height of the Cold War, BBC1’s 1979 acclaimed adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy was introduced by The St. Paul’s Cathedral Boys Choir’s rendition of Geoffrey Burgon’s arrangement of Nunc Dimmitis, which narrowly missed the top forty when released by Different Records in 1979. BBC2’s provocative current affairs documentary strand Man Alive had been introduced by Tony Hatch’s catchy theme music since its launch in 1965; although the original version was released that same year by Pye, this inferior new arrangement came from Hatch’s 1974 Pye album Hit The Road To Themeland. Gordon Giltrap’s instrumental Heartsong was a top twenty hit on The Electric Record Company in 1977 before it was adopted as the theme for BBC1’s holiday the following year, while Harry Stoneham’s Michael’s Theme – the jazzy introduction to chat show Parkinson – came from his 1973 EMI album It All Happens On Saturday, featuring a memorable cover shot of Stoneham and Parky sharing a ride in a pedalo. Featuring several notable themes and with an overall more highbrow air than the other instalments in the Top TV Themes series, this is widely considered to be the best of the four.

REH424 Top BBC TV Themes Vol. 4 (1981)

Top BBC TV Themes Vol. 4 (BBC Records And Tapes, 1981).

A fourth and final collection of recent small screen big hitters, featuring Juliet Bravo from RESL84, Maybury from RESL89, The Chinese Detective from RESL91, Hi-De-Hi from REC436, Speak For Yourself from RESL85, Chi Mai from RESL92, Mackenzie from RESL82, We The Accused from RESL83 and Goodbye Darling from RESl75. Also featured were The Grant Hossack Orchestra’s previously unreleased theme from Nanny, a period drama starring Wendy Craig that ran on BBC1 between 1981 and 1983; the similarly previously unreleased full-length version of Nic Rowley’s theme from Not The Nine O’Clock News – in the absence of any previous release it is possible that both of these could have been intended for cancelled singles on the label; Marcus Dod’s themes with the Pro Musica Symphony Orchestra for the acclaimed adaptations of Poldark by BBC1 in 1975 and I, Claudius by BBC2 in 1976; and Heaven And Hell 3rd Movement by the award-winning multi-instrumentalist Vangelis, originally released on his 1975 RCA album of the same name and included here due to its use as the theme to Cosmos: A Personal Journey, a 1980 documentary series presented by Professor Carl Sagan and made as a co-production between the BBC and PBS in America. RCA had assembled a soundtrack album from Vangelis’ music that was used in the series, and shrewdly licenced this track and Alpha to BBC Records And Tapes to release as a single to accompany the series. This was released – owing to the details of the licencing arrangement – with the catalogue number BBC1 in December 1981, and was later included on REH442 Space Invaded. An overall listless and uninspiring collection seemingly assembled simply from what was closest to hand, this sold disappointingly and is now one of the more difficult to volumes of the series – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not continue after this.

Top Of The Box by Tim Worthington - the story behind every album released by BBC Records And Tapes.

Top Of The Box Vol. 2

Top Of The Box Vol. 2 – the story behind every album released by BBC Records And Tapes – is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Reading

Listen With Hamble is a look at the various children’s albums released on BBC Records And Tapes’ ‘Roundabout’ imprint; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can find BBC Records And Tapes-related Looks Unfamiliar chat with Gabby Hutchinson Crouch on Mr. Men Songs here, Tim Worthington on Something Outa Nothing by Letitia Dean And Paul J. Medford here, Catrin Lowe on Singing In The Band – Songs From Play School And Play Away here, Richard Littler on Sound Effects No. 13 – Death And Horror here and Mark Griffiths on Off Beat Sound Effects here.

© Tim Worthington.
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