January 25, 2006

Radio 4 UK Theme

I was.. well, surprised to hear that the controller of Radio 4 has deemed Fritz Spiegl's gosh-it's-early-in-the-morning Radio 4 UK Theme to be a historical anachronism and that what people want at 0530 is, in fact, more news. So I emailed the Today programme about it..

(note - there's more here in an earlier post.)


I'm sure you're sick of listeners emailing you about the Radio 4 UK Theme, but I was surprised on hearing your piece on the subject to hear no mention of the wider historical use of similar medleys both within broadcasting in general and in the BBC.

The spiritual predecessor of Spiegl's theme was the "Fantasia on National Airs", universally known as "Nat. Airs", arranged by Jack Byfield and used as a startup theme by the BBC Television Service from the mid-1950s alongside Eric Coates' better-known "March for Television". Spiegl's piece has definite echoes of Nat. Airs, in particular with its use of "Early One Morning" as its key theme and in the appearance of "Danny Boy" (aka Londonderry Air), and it's highly probable that Spiegl wrote his piece as a natural successor to the Airs rather than as a wholly original concept. So while Spiegl's piece is only 30 or so years old, its roots go much deeper.

Other regional medleys were extensively used by the various regional ITV companies as their own startup themes. Some of them are masterpieces, most notably "Westward Ho!", a medley of West Country tunes used by Westward Television and Tyne Tees' superb "Three Rivers Fantasy". But over the years the regional medleys dropped away as regulatory requirements loosened, and with the introduction of 24-hour broadcasting the only one left was the Radio 4 UK Theme. It's the last of a long and honourable line, which is why it's so sad to hear that it's an endangered species.

Incidentally, your controller's vague assertion that the R4UK Theme is "five to six minutes long" is slightly odd. He's talking about continuity music here, and the Theme is precisely five minutes long - a nice round number, especially given its past use as an opening piece for the station itself in the days when Radio 4 opened from dead air at 0600 rather than carrying a sustaining feed overnight from the WS.

I understand that broadcasting has to change and not ossify - after all, that's a lesson which the BBC itself learned rather painfully on such occasions as the introduction of Radio 1 and its reaction to Independent Television. But saving five minutes at what my girlfriend's American father refers to as "zero-dark-thirty" to give a nod to a broadcasting tradition which goes back for at least fifty years seems to me a much better thing than injecting yet another news bulletin to replace the one which comes after the UK Theme anyway.

The UK Theme is part of the cycle of the broadcast day on Radio 4. From the UK theme in the morning, through Today and Woman's Hour to PM and the Book at Bedtime and ultimately Sailing By and the national anthem, it's part of what keeps the station ticking over, part of its 24-hour respiratory cycle. To get rid of it would not only be a shame, it would be throwing away one of the few remaining moments when broadcasters can still pause and remember those who came before them and built the industry in which they work totally from scratch in a remarkably short time.

It would, in short, be the worst decision made by a controller keen to make their mark since.. er.. well, who was the last person to try and scrap "Sailing By"?

Mike Knell

Posted by mpk at January 25, 2006 11:00 AM | TrackBack

Thanks so much for putting a name to a face, as it were. I remember Westward Ho! as a small child living in the depths of the Lizard and I'm sure it's what has drawn me to the UK Theme.

You are completely right: the UK Theme and Sailing By punctuate my days and those of many others.

More rolling news? A deed designed to make people turn off from the news altogether but then maybe that's the idea.

Posted by: Sheweevil at January 27, 2006 8:43 AM

Many thanks Mike for your timely screed; The demise of the 'Theme' actually represents a sort of Last Stand for stylish, orchestral interval music within British broadcasting, certainly outside Radio3. Spiegl's wonderful concotion mirror's that well of tuneful tunes which Radio 4's Sunday night prelude to the Shipping Forecast cherry-picked so delightfully during the '70's and early eighties. The good news is that many of these original recordings are available on 'A British Light Music Festival' double CD in the ASV
White Line Series. Believe me, this collection will evoke some very pleasant memories for almost anybody over the age of 45. And no, I do not have any connection with ASV!!

Good luck with this music resistance movement and please,BBC Radio4,I for one, absolutely do not need an increased diet of news at 05.30 or any other time!

Chris Burton

Posted by: Chris(topher) BURTON at January 29, 2006 12:20 PM

My mother has always been a painfully early riser, and the UK theme reminds me strongly of being up, dressed and sipping a life-giving cup of black tea some hours before school. The idea of its removal from Radio Four is heartbreaking - the '24 hour respiratory cycle' you referred to is exactly how I feel it. Radio Four is the constant backdrop of my mother's house in Manchester and my husband's father's house in Oxford - and will shortly be the soundtrack for our first home. Mark Damazer, please do not take away our cultural history before we officially grow up! When I was a child I imagined the theme being played to sleepy people throughout the country, the rousing opposite of the sleepy sailing by, and I knew that life was Tidy and Well-Ordered. There are times for Getting Up and times for Being Ready for Bed, and Radio Four kindly marked the limits on each like the deputy head girl ringing the handbell at the end of lunch at school.
We - or at least I - need the UK theme now more than ever, in these days of terror attacks and the global community. Where is home if the UK theme is no longer heard? Will the BBC soon be preventing my mother from burning toast and letting me wash my face in warm water as well?

In hope of a reprieve,
Rachael Stos-Gale

Posted by: Rachael Stos-Gale at January 29, 2006 8:39 PM

Well said, Rachael and Mike. The Radio4UK theme is so much more than a quaint reminder of times past- it is an oasis of sanity and a punctuation point in our society's obsession with living a 24/7 lifestyle. Human beings were just not designed to function this way, and having this gentle, pleasant reminder of the start of another day, every day, is as important to our well-being as the breakfasts so many of us skip, or the other daily rituals.
The UK theme's genius is that it can serve either as a musical snooze alarm or a reveille: those that need to get up find it a helpful reminder of time marching on, while those that want to or can- like me, usually, can get just the right bite-sized chunk of news following it, the shipping forecast as a reminder of our island status and of weather trends, and then the prayer for the day.
If the Beeb fail to respond to the amount of good feeling there is to this well-crafted musical melange, they are heartless and heedless of those who pay their salaries.

Posted by: Mark Savage at January 31, 2006 6:52 AM

If the BBC wants a rolling news service it has ample opportunity to create one on DAB. I has proved in News 24 that it can do one rather well. What it should not be doing is stealing what may be the last thought provoking radio channel in the world and homogenising its internal structure by removing the punctuation.

I hate "Sailing By" but I'd leave it in place too because it reminds me that if I don't pack up and go to bed, I'll soon have Fritz Spiegl's medley reminding me how tired I'm going to be next day.

Posted by: Paul Jessop at January 31, 2006 2:23 PM

A further article on the use of medleys of familiar tunes in broadcasting:
"Regional Airs" by yours truly.

Posted by: Richard Elen at March 28, 2006 5:57 PM

Oh how I love Radio 4, it is worth every penny of my licence fees, but please leave the UK theme - everything worth saying about it has already been said eloquently - the pleasure of waking early and knowing that this eminently British theme precedes other such wonderful programmes as Farming Today or Something Understood, that is if I haven,t snuggled down and gone to sleep again in the comfortable knowledge that I live in the best country in the World!

Posted by: Chris at March 28, 2006 10:49 PM

Thanks for putting it into words Mike. I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Paul Taylor at March 31, 2006 9:43 AM
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