Why marches? 

1 Sep 2001 0 tbs.pm/1664 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

Kif Bowden-Smith on the habits of a lifetime

To a media generation brought up on a variety of instrumental sounds, it now seems odd that the world of TV station signature tunes in the twenty-five years after the war was so dominated by what seems at first hearing to be ‘military marches’.

This description does no justice to the music, as full orchestras played most of the tunes in the category, with lavish string sections, and well outclassed the ‘marching band’ ethos that the word ‘military’ conjures up.

Some of the themes had a gentler middle refrain, and had more in common with film music than with soldiering. To the modern listener however, there is a flavour of ‘the state’ dictating the prevailing culture. And this was so.

The genre had a clear ‘imperialist’ flavour, and to understand this, we must look at the music in context, and Britain at that time. As the fifties unfolded the two defining cultural themes in the UK were that we had “just won the war” (with a resentful feeling that American help in the endeavour, though real enough, always obscured the British contribution) and that the Coronation of the new Queen in 1953 had somehow ushered in, for the aspiring new middle classes at least, a ‘new Elizabethan age’.

These twin themes informed the complacent philosophy of the fifties (again at least for the middle classes) in a way that now seems stifling and conformist. To be a child at that time was, if aware of these issues at all, to be taught in subtle and not so subtle ways, that the real issue here was “how great is Great Britain?” and the answer, which was compulsory and offered no choice, was always “Truly Great”. The idea that this was a delusion and that World War II had drained the country of true international power was only obvious in retrospect.

Classical music apart, there was also a shortage of what we now call instrumentals. Those that existed consisted mainly of novelty numbers, dance band themes, or film music. The BBC in the forties and fifties had come to rely disproportionately on the likes of Eric Coates, Richard Addinsell and some of the light classical composers of the time. This was as much through lack of choice as lack of imagination.

Those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s were caught in the backwash of this, and took it as axiomatic that theme tunes would either be dance music or marches – there was really little else to chose from.

This was not a problem for those who liked the fare, but it stands out to younger listeners and viewers today as an era for having a very narrow genre of theme music.

When the ITA set out its stall in 1955 – with GPO civil servants setting it up and making the first rules – it seemed natural that each station would be required to have a daily “signing on” tune.

With the pseudo territorialism that the transmitter arrangements had created, it was not long before the companies decided that of the two genres available – dance bands or ‘filmic’ orchestral marches – the latter would better convey the message “our patch”.

So it was that with the arrival of Independent Television, with its daily opening ceremonials involving rotating or pulsating trademarks and imperious music – an oddity to young eyes today – we were subjected or treated, depending on your point of view, to yet more of the Coatesian form that had so dominated 40s radio.

At one point in late 1956, all three television broadcasting operations in London, the BBC Television Service, Associated-Rediffusion, and Associated Television (ATV) were using Coates marches for the daily startup. The man had a monopoly!

As ITV expanded around the country, this pattern was replicated, with similar commissioned pieces for TWW, Granada and so on. Scottish rather broke the mould with their biscuit tin piece “Scotlandia”, but even that seemed to be based on the same principle. ABC tried to break away by using “Pastoral Prelude” for starters, but reverted to type with “ABC March” three minutes later!

Southern countered with “Southern Rhapsody”, which after a promising start, sank back into march format at the end. (Perhaps Coates rang Addinsell up and warned him off?)

Anglia broke the tradition with two unimaginative light classics, but the trend overall was unstoppable. Those of us who grew up with this considered it normal, but the revisionism of the post 1968 era came as a shock.

Rediffusion experimented after 1964, when their new “Widespread World” was introduced with a non-march middle section, and after that, the glacier began to shift.

A Well Swung Fanfare, Central Theme, New Yorkshire theme, At Pepy’s Place – all now broke the tradition with some violence – and the world did not come to an end. Perhaps the first law of Eric Coates, “For Television themes, ye shall March!” was not immutable after all.

In seeking to explain all this, I find myself caught between two conflicting emotions. A cloying sentimentality that warms me with the security of a happy childhood, and another feeling, that as a child I was unwittingly part of a social engineering experiment – it was all part of perpetuating a national ethos for a country that no longer really existed.

I cannot dismiss the period however – my parents are stuck there for all time, as a young couple bringing up baby and listening to Family Favourites, Radio Newsreel and the Granada March. The past, as they say, really is another country.

Kif Bowden-Smith


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