A Powerful Theme: an exploration of theme tunes by Night Terrace’s David Ashton

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Recently, I’ve been very excited by a new Kickstarter project –  the SF comedy radio serial Night Terrace, about Anastasia Black (Jackie Woodburne of Neighbours fame) a retired world-saving adventurer who finds her quiet life irritatingly interrupted when her house starts inexplicably travelling through space and time. Stuck with her (or indeed the other way around) is Eddie Jones (Ben McKenzie), who was trying to sell her something at the time.

Of course, the show needs funding first!

Music is an important part of the TV and radio experience (and I hope to the reading experience of Kitty and Cadaver!) With this in mind, I’ve asked David Ashton, responsible for the theme tune and other sounds of Night Terrace, to write about TV and radio theme tunes. Read on! (or skip straight to pledging support for Night Terrace at Kickstarter.)

A POWERFUL THEME

by David Ashton

I have the ‘Sound Designer’ job for Night Terrace. If the project meets the Kickstarter goal then I’ll be making whizz-bang spacey sound effects and stuff. Kind of like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop working on Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

In other words, this is pretty much my dream job.

I also have to come up with a theme tune. Television and radio themes are among the most evocative pieces of music there are. Once, when I was working at the ABC, I unexpectedly heard the BBC Match of the Day theme wafting across the airwaves, instantly transporting me back to childhood Sunday teatimes listening to the UK soccer results. When I mentioned it to the broadcaster he said that several people had called in to say the same thing – obviously I wasn’t the only one with an English Dad.

Theme tunes do a vital job of setting up the mood and tone of a series. Take Nerf Herder’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme for example. It starts with an ominous descending pipe organ riff – the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a Vincent Price movie – before suddenly becoming an upbeat, punk-ish guitar instrumental just on the ‘edgy’ side of mainstream. What better way to say “we’re going to take all your boring old ideas of what a vampire story is and replace it with something clever and youth-oriented”?

Or compare the ‘adventure in space’ theme from the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica (by Stu Phillips and Glen Larson) to the elegiac theme to the 21st version of the series (by Bear McCreary) and you’ll know immediately all you need to know about the two approaches to the same story.

Sometimes a really good theme tune can lift less-than-stellar material too. The Walking Dead is too often a mediocre series but usually the best moment in any given episode is towards the end of the cold open when the arpeggiated violins start to fade in.

I should admit at this point that I’m enough of a theme tune nerd that I don’t just have favourite theme tunes, but favourite moments in theme tunes. I even have a favourite hi-hat hit in the Cowboy Beebop theme (its at about 29 seconds if you’re interested.)

My favourite era of TV themes is probably the ‘spy-fi’ era of the sixties (with some overlap to the fifties and seventies). Shows like Danger Man, The Man From Uncle, The Prisoner, The Avengers and so on. These programmes manage to pack more action and intrigue into their theme tunes than most shows manage in a whole series. If you’ve wondered how Tom Cruise keeps having hits with those Mission Impossible films – well, you can thank Lalo Shifrin for that.

I want to make a special mention here of Barry Gray, who created the many classic theme tunes for Gerry Anderson’s TV series. He’s best known for the military bombast of the Thunderbirds music, but his U.F.O. theme is classic spy-fi and the Space 1999 theme is spy-fi given a wakka-wakka disco groove for the 1970s. My favourite of his, though is the absolutely manic theme for Stingray. “Anything can happen for the next half hour” goes the voice-over, but really that promise is there in the theme tune.

Here are six Fun (And Slightly Opinionated) ‘Facts’ About Theme Tunes You Might Not Already Know:

  1. The singing in the theme music for the Battlestar Galactica re-boot is actually real lyrics in Sanskrit.
  2. Hollywood composer John Williams began his career writing theme tunes for television, including the great themes for Irwin Allen’s TV productions such as Lost in Space and one of my favourites The Time Tunnel. Back than he was credited as “Johnny Williams.”
  3. The original version of the Doctor Who theme was made in 1963 – before synthesizers had even been invented. Delia Derbyshire, working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, realised Ron Grainer’s composition by taking a lot of individual sounds (including some made by electronic testing equipment and some made plucking a piece of string) re-recording them at different speeds to create the right pitches and the sticking all the resulting pieces of tape together in the correct order to make the tune.
  4. Douglas Adams was a brilliant writer with terrible taste in music, but he did good when he picked Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles to be the theme music for the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series.
  5. The theme to Futurama is heavily inspired by the 1967 track Psyché Rock by Pierre Henry. The opening theme and animation for Archer is just a straight rip-off of Cowboy Beebop.
  6. One theme tune to have an impact on the pop charts was Angelo Badalamenti’s theme to Twin Peaks (with vocals by Julee Cruise.) What you might not know is that the Badalamenti/Cruise/David Lynch style of spooky twangy jazz actually came about when Lynch wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s version of Song to Siren in his movie Blue Velvet. When they couldn’t afford to license that track they instead went about re-creating their own version of ethereal-vocals-and-guitar pop, which then carried over to become the musical identity of Twin Peaks.

WHAT IS NIGHT TERRACE?

Night Terrace is a new audio comedy from the minds behind ABC1′s Outland, ABC2′s Bazura Project and the hit podcast Splendid Chaps. It follows the adventures of Anastasia Black (played by Neighbours veteran Jackie Woodburne), who used to save the world for the government but now just wants a quiet life in retirement. So when her house inexplicably starts travelling in time and space she’s understandably miffed. She’s also not exactly thrilled about Eddie Jones, who happened to be on her doorstep at the time and is now her unlikely fellow traveller. University hasn’t prepared Eddie to cope with other worlds or time paradoxes, but he still thinks they’re a step up from selling electricity plans door-to-door.

Together Anastasia and Eddie will face alien invasions, hideous monsters, and a shadowy figure known only as “Sue”. All the while hoping the house will eventually take them home…

The team are crowdfunding the first series of Night Terrace right now. Jane Badler, chanteuse and actress (the original Diana of the original V!) is also slated for a role if the show is funded. They’re over two thirds of the way to their goal – and you can help them reach their funding goal at Kickstarter. I have a Key to the Terrace, but if you’re really keen you can be listed as a producer!

What’s your favourite theme tune (or Kitty song?) Feel free to leave a comment!

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7 thoughts on “A Powerful Theme: an exploration of theme tunes by Night Terrace’s David Ashton

  1. I love the theme tune to the original version of Survivors. The opening synth drone terrified me as a child and really set the mood for the rest of the series.

    • I really like the rendition of the Blake’s 7 theme tune that plays as the ‘holding’ music on the first season DVD set. It’s soft and a bit haunting without all those brassy horns fanfaring the tragedy to come.

  2. In regards to the Twin Peaks music, I remember catching a late showing of “Experiment in Terror” on TV years ago and swearing that the music had connections to Lynch’s show.

    And from memory, the title card is displayed over a street sign – “Twin Peaks”

    • I’ve only this week finished rewatching the second season of Twin Peaks, and that theme music and the other soundscapes remain incredibly evocative and affecting. I had a look at the IMDB entry for the 1962 film and it contains a big chunk of text all about how Lynch was inspired by (and took things from) the movie for Twin Peaks and other films: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055972/

      So it’s probably no coincidence at all!

      The music in ‘Experiment in Terror’ is by Henry Mancini.

      As an aside, a month or so ago I was watching Drive with my nephew and the music felt familiar, not in melody but in mood, and sure enough, it was Badalamenti.

  3. No mention of the Tomorrow People (original series of course)? It may not be the greatest of themes, but it is certainly one the most memorable for me.

    I’m looking forward to hearing the music for Night Terrace.

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