The 15 best TV theme tunes ever

The most memorable opening credit music on television

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A new BBC4 series on movie music – ‘Sound of Cinema’ – begins this week on Thursday September 12 at 9pm. But what about the TV theme tune? With more and more shows buying songs in, it feels increasingly like a dying art – the average age of the very best, as listed below from the well loved to the niche, would seem to confirm it. But are we right? What have we missed? Have your say below or tell us what you think @TimeOutTV.

1. ‘Grange Hill’

Alan Hawkshaw, channelling Chas ’n’ Dave (or was it the other way round?), created this propulsive, knockabout gem. It’s hard to separate it from the opening credits but the music’s squelchy, chugging funk has a joy all of its own. Anyway, give me back my sausage!

2. ‘Are You Being Served?’

In which Ronnie Hazlehurst, surely the Karlheinz Stockhausen of ’70s easy listening, fashions a daring musique concrete rhythm track out of ringing tills and tacks it onto a parping earworm that’s harder to shift than athlete’s foot. It’s this tune, not Mrs Slocombe’s pussy that we should remember this show for.

3. ‘Sorry’

The most depressing sitcom ever (a trapped, despairing, middle-aged virgin fails, suffers and gets depressed, basically) gets an incongruously bubbly and beatific theme full of wonky wah-wah and hyperactive percussion.

4. ‘The Returned’

Purpose-made theme tunes seem something of a lost art. But let’s hope that Mogwai’s sublime shiver of a scene-setter leads to a revival. Its perfect balance of beauty and horror couldn’t fit the material more perfectly.

5. ‘Quiller’

You might never have heard of Denton and Cook. But trust us, they were the Lennon and McCartney of the off-the-peg TV themes game. Seventies spy drama ‘Quiller’ was very much a one-season wonder. A shame because its louche, lithe funk-fest of a theme tune deserved better.

6. ‘The Great Egg Race’

It’s the late ’70s. And even if Denton and Cook’s hearts were in Studio 54 or some post-punk loft party on the Lower East Side, their funky asses were still stuck in a studio in White City. Still, they made the best of it…

7. ‘Six Feet Under’

Crows, clouds and corpses. Rarely have opening credits so perfectly evoked the content and atmosphere of a show. And it’s all underscored perfectly by Thomas Newman’s delightful chamber piece. For all of its brilliance, HBO has never quite set the world alight in terms of theme tunes. This is the honourable exception.

8. ‘Bagpuss’

No one has ever bought a comparable depth of charm, craft and beauty to kids TV as Oliver Postgate. This sepia-toned music box meander evokes his world perfectly.

10. ‘Dexter’

This spindly and sinister tune is the perfect soundtrack to Dexter’s ambiguous morning ritual. If the show itself has run out of steam, the opening credits feel like a creation for the ages.

11. ‘Jim’ll Fix It’

A forgotten victim of the recent, erm, difficulties but with its homely, Beach Boys vibes, David Mindel’s jaunty little confection is cheerily evocative of innocent Saturday teatimes in the '70s. Except now it’s not.

12. ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’

Everything about this cult classic was strange. So in terms of establishing mood, the theme tune and credits approach perfection. A jazz-propelled piano riff is literally brought to life by an twitch of main man Anthony Newley’s fingers. A show that critiqued TV back in the fifties when there was hardly any TV to critique – and this theme sums up its modus operandi perfectly.

13. ‘Roobarb and Custard’

It blares out like someone’s decided to run a kazoo through My Bloody Valentine’s amplification system. It lasts for twenty thrillingly unruly seconds. It’s the punkest theme on our list.

14. ‘Tomorrow’s World’

The Denton and Cook story continues. Here, they invent techno, dropping a tune that could easily pass for an outtake from Detroit techno legend Carl Craig’s 1995 ‘Landcruising’ album. Only in 1980.

15. ‘Happy Days’

We’ve never satisfactorily resolved why the supposedly cool Fonzie hung out with all those preppy, smalltown losers. But this irresistable doo-wop pastiche will never, ever jump the shark.



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12 comments
Angus Gordon-Farleigh
Angus Gordon-Farleigh

Sorry, but that list is ridiculous! Very many other tv themes would knock all these into a cocked hat. Here are some of them, in alphabetic order, noting three already mentioned in replies below (assume 'theme from...' if I only mention a series' name):- 'A Place in Time' ~ from The 4400; A Touch of Frost; A Town Called Eureka; Alias Smith & Jones; 'The Sanctuary' ~ from Angel; Arthur of the Britons; The Avengers; 'Tra La La' ~ from The Bananasplits; Barrier Reef; 'Yakkety Sax' ~ from The Benny Hill Show; Black Beauty; Blott on the Landscape; 'Barnacle Bill' ~ from Blue Peter; Bonanza; Bones; 'Because of You' ~ from Brush Strokes; Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; Cade's County; Callan; Call My Bluff; Camberwick Green; Captain Scarlet; The Champions; Colditz; Columbo; Criminal Minds; Dads Army; Dallas; Dave Allen At Large; 'Chi Mai' ~ from David Lloyd George; Dead Like Me; Dead Zone; Department S; Desert Crusader; Dr. Finlay's Casebook; Doctor Who; Due South; E.R.; Earth Final Conflict; Elementary; Ellery Queen; The Equalizer; Fame; Flambards; Flamingo Road; The Flaxton Boys; 'The Lightning Tree' ~ from Follyfoot; Forensic Files; Frank Herbert's Dune; Freewheelers; 'I'll be There for You' ~ from Friends; Fringe; Futurama; Game of Thrones; Going Straight; The Good Life; The Liver Birds; Hamish Macbeth; Harry Worth; Haven; Hawai'i 5-O; '#1 Crush' ~ from Hex; The High Chaparral; Hill Street Blues; House; House of Cards; The House of Eliott; Howards Way; Hustle; The Inspector; Inspector Alleyn Mysteries; Inspector Gadget; Ironside; It's a Knockout; I am Weasel; Jason King; Jeux Sans Frontieres; Joe 90; Josie and The Pussycats; Kojak; 'Brand New Day' ~ from Lie To Me; Little House on the Prairie; Lost in Space; M.A.S.H. [instrumental]; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Man In a Suitcase; 'Approaching Menace' ~ from Mastermind; Men From Shiloh; Merlin; Midsomer Murders; Mission Impossible; The Monkees; Morse; The Odd Couple; 'Adagio from Spartacus & Phrygia' ~ from The Onedin Line; 'Sleepy Shores' ~ from Owen M.D.; Panorama; The Persuaders; Peter Gunn; Primeval New World; The Profiler; 'Avenues & Alleyways' ~ from The Protectors; The Quatermass Experiment; The Queen of a Thousand Years; Queer as Folk - U.K.; Question Time; Quiller; Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) [original]; Rebus; Rockcliffes Babies; The Saint [original]; Sanctuary; SeaQuest 2032; Seaquest DSV; Spenser For Hire; Stargate Atlantis; Stargate SG-1; Star Trek - Original Series; Steptoe & Son; Stingray; Supernatural; The Survivors [original]; The Sweeney; The Tales of Para Handy; Tales of the Unexpected; Thunderbirds; Time Team; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Top Of The Form; True Blood; Trumpton; The Twilight Zone; 'Falling' ~ from Twin Peaks; U.F.O.; University Challenge; 'Eye Level' ~ from Van der Valk; Veronica Mars; The Virginian; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; The Waltons; Warehouse 13; White Horses; The World About Us; The World at War; Wycliffe; X-Files; 'Johnny Todd' ~ from Z-Cars; This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I don't think any of these would finish behind any of those 'Best 15' - given a proper vote! rofl. Do not pass 'Go', do not collect £200!

Darren
Darren

Written by dumbass trendy with zero knowledge of the 60's or 70's.......the decades of classic TV themes.

Toni Summers Hargis
Toni Summers Hargis

This was obviously written by someone under 40! I've lived in the US since 1990 and hadn't heard of most of them. Grange Hill, RU Being Served, and Vision On I'll agree with. When Jim'll Fix It first came on it wasn't that tune and I couldn't stand Bagpuss so I've obviously erased it from my memory. What happened to Corrie? And Emmerdale? And yes, as someone mentioned "On White Horses", and the old ToTP theme tune which was actually Led Zepellin;s "Whole Lotta Love"? I could go on. I might have to write my own post somewhere. And no Dr. Who? Tut tut.

Toni Summers Hargis
Toni Summers Hargis

This was obviously written by someone under 40! I've lived in the US since 1990 and hadn't heard of most of them. Grange Hill, RU Being Served, and Vision On I'll agree with. When Jim'll Fix It first came on it wasn't that tune and I couldn't stand Bagpuss so I've obviously erased it from my memory. What happened to Corrie? And Emmerdale? And yes, as someone mentioned "On White Horses", and the old ToTP theme tune which was actually Led Zepellin;s "Whole Lotta Love"? I could go on. I might have to write my own post somewhere. And no Dr. Who? Tut tut.

Gaz
Gaz

Dukes of Hazzard! Minder! Auf Wiedersehan Pet! Likely Lads!

John
John

No "Persuaders" , "Tales of the unexpected" or "Dr Who"? And a lot of stuff I've never heard of??? What were they thinking??

brockspur
brockspur

With the notable exceptions of Grange Hill, Jim'll fix it and Happy days, these are really poor choices! Only Fools & Horses, Cheers, Sweeney would be definities. Antiques Roadshow and your pick of Grandstand, Ski Sunday, Golf or Snooker all better than most of these. Dr. Who, THe Magic Roundabout, Mr Benn, The A-Team, Knightrider, Airwolf, Match of the Day. need I go on !?

Aidan Clark
Aidan Clark

No Doctor Who? Are you mental? Are you literally mental?

GazzaW
GazzaW

Oh dear, seriously wrong. No 'White Horses', no 'Doctor Who'?

Rob Sykes
Rob Sykes

Good call on Grange Hill, Roobarb & Custard, Sorry and Happy Days but it seems a shame not to mention the tiki-lounge-inspired theme from The Munsters, the pumping themes to Jayce & The Wheeled Warriors and Ulyssess 31 not mention Clannad's haunting and evocative theme to Robin of Sherwood. Which piece of music better encapsulated the atmosphere of a show than David Schwarz's theme for Deadwood? Hail to the TV show theme composer - too often underappreciated for their craft.

Joe Fonebone
Joe Fonebone

Not a bad 15 however 'Gangsters', 'The Persuaders', 'The Zoo Gang', 'The Sweeney' (especially the alternate moody end credits) and 'Monty Pythons Flying Circus' would have made a better top 20.