May 28, 2004

Medleys and Marches

Tune into BBC Radio 4 at 0530 most mornings and you'll hear the last remnant of what was once a universal practice in British broadcasting - the startup sequence. Startups marked the beginning of the broadcast day for decades, giving viewers a few minutes for their TV sets to warm up and engineers time to check that everything was in order for the start of programming. When ITV came along each regional broadcaster was required to register a piece of instrumental music with their regulatory authority, the ITA (later the IBA), to be played out at startup time along with an ITA/IBA tuning signal slide and a stern, official pronouncement that the company was indeed broadcasting on the, say, Midlands transmitters of the Independent Television Authority (the so-called authority announcement). Many broadcasters commissioned their own music for this, and especially in the early days many of these pieces were medleys of music related to the area the company served. It's interesting that music for use only at obscure times when hardly anyone watching was specially commissioned and recorded despite being doomed to obscurity - this demonstrates just what a Serious Business television was back in the days before Rupert Murdoch.

Anyway, medleys ruled the roost. You know the kind of thing - a bit of Bobby Shaftoe for Tyne Tees, variations around the Floral Dance for Westward, and so on. Those pieces which weren't medleys were almost always light marches - fans of the Dambusters who find the original ATV startup march Sound And Vision strangely familiar will be unsurprised to learn that it was written by Eric Coates. In the early years, however, the medley was king. Some of them are fantastic works which deserve wider exposure, including Arthur Wilkinson's Three Rivers Fantasy (used by Tyne Tees for decades) and Westward Ho! by Hastings Mann, used by Westward during the 1960s. I've only heard the last 30 seconds of the latter, but I'd like to hear the rest as word of mouth is that it's a good'un. Anyone got a recording sitting around?

Auntie Beeb had no need for authority announcements, of course. She was authoritative enough by herself, and didn't need permission from some upstart Authority to be on the air. With no regulatory requirement to use them, the BBC was one of the first broadcasters to drop television startup sequences once television sets became good enough to reliably need less than an hour to settle down into providing a stable picture, instead bringing the network up with testcard and (if they were feeling adventurous) maybe a bit of in-vision CEEFAX. Now that broadcasting's a 24-hour business and the regulatory requirements for ITV have been dropped, startup sequences are a thing of the past on British television. I suspect it's only because of the number of complaints they'd get if they dropped it that Radio 4 still play their own medley of British folk tunes every morning between the end of the overnight sustaining service (a feed of the World Service) and the start of Radio 4 for the day. The Radio 4 UK Theme (for that is its name) was arranged by Fritz Spiegl, and apart from that little is known about it. It's well worth a listen at least for the curiosity value if you happen to be up early, as it's the last of the great startup medleys and a little piece of broadcasting history.

Posted by mpk at May 28, 2004 2:07 PM | TrackBack

Try for TV theme goodness.

Posted by: Julie Ellis at May 28, 2004 3:42 PM

I do indeed recall the Westward sequence, for which a Band III television and aerial pointing at Huntshaw Cross (Channel 11) Caradon Hill (Channel 12) or Stockland Hill (Channel 9) was required. There was something thrilling about the conclusion of the sequence where the gaiety of such moments as the floral dance, and cameos of fishing villages gave way to pictures of the then-new Derry's Cross television centre, and a majestic closing sequence of the station's icon, a solid silver(?) replica of the Golden Hinde which gracefully moved into position above the word 'Westward' through a slow zoom out to form the stations logo. Images of the visual end point and the model of the galleon can be seen at or indeed a lo res version of the whole thing seen at Julie Ellis' link.

As far as the Radio 4 UK Theme is concerned, I am convinced this has gone through a number of incarnations. For instance, it used to be quite a bit longer with amongst other things a slow Greensleeves section. I'm also convinced it has quite recently been re-recorded. It would be good if an archive were avaiable of this piece in all its various forms.

Posted by: William Isaac at December 9, 2004 10:57 AM

I remember watching what i think was the bbc startup sequence before broadcast, in which the same medley of music was played and the same selection of landscape photo picture stills was shown. The only picture that I can recall seeing was of one or two Kentish oasthouses, and i can only recall a vague snippet of the music that was played to accompany the pictures. For nostalgic reasons i would be interested to know if anyone else remembers what any of the other pictures were or if the music is available on any format still?

Posted by: dave Todd at January 27, 2005 5:17 PM
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