Why marches? 

8 March 2016 tbs.pm/1664

To a media generation brought up on a wide variety of music, it now seems odd that the world of TV station daily start-up routines in the thirty-five years after the war was so dominated by what seems at first hearing to be military marches.

The description does no justice to the music as full orchestras played most of these station themes, with lavish string sections well outclassing the marching band ethos that the word ‘military’ conjures up. Some of the marches had gentler passages and more in common with film music than soldiering. To the modern listener however there is no denying a territorial flavour to the music.

This musical genre had a clear feel of authority about it and to understand this we must look at the music in the context of Britain at that time. As the fifties unfolded a defining cultural theme in the UK were that we had just won the war, though with a faint feeling that American help in the endeavour tended to obscure the British contribution. The Coronation of the new Queen in 1953 had created, within press commentary and the aspiring new middle classes at least, a second so called ‘Elizabethan Age’.

These ideas informed a faintly complacent national philosophy in 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 implicit answer which was compulsory and offered no choice was always “Truly Great!”.

At the outset of ITV, classical music apart, there was a dearth of serious thematic instrumentals suitable for use daily as network start up and promotion of corporate identity, even in an era of large stock music gramophone libraries. Those that were available consisted mainly of dance band, big bands or film music. The BBC in the forties and fifties had come to rely disproportionately on the likes of Eric Coates, Wally Stott, Richard Addinsell and other ‘competent’ light music composers. The position in which the BBC found itself was as much through a lack of available choice as lack of imagination.

Those growing up in the 50s and 60s took all this as a cultural norm, finding it axiomatic that broadcasting signature tunes would be dance music or light marches. This was not a problem for those who liked the fare but would stand out to listeners and viewers today a very narrow genre.

When the new Independent Television Authority set out its plans in 1955, with Post Office civil servants setting it up and making the first rules – the Post Office being the government ministry that oversaw broadcasting in those days – it seemed absolutely natural that each new TV station would be required to have a permanent regular “signing on” theme for use as they took to the air each day.

With the regional territorialism that the transmitter arrangements had created, it was not long before the companies decided that of the two genres available – dance bands or light orchestral marches – the latter would better convey the message “our patch” and meet the requirements of corporate identity that these new broadcasting conglomerates felt that they needed to promote their new businesses.

So it was with the launch of Independent Television that there was created a completely new canon of (often specially commissioned) rousing music to accompany the sight of rotating or pulsating screen symbols. A piece of cod ceremonial which would seem an indulgence to viewers today. It was not the tv channel as such that was being promoted, so much as the trademarks and corporate identity of the companies behind the programme output.

At one point in late 1956, the three television broadcasting operations in London – the BBC Television Service, Associated-Rediffusion (weekdays) and Associated TeleVision (weekends) – were all using various Eric Coates marches for their daily startup routines. In an age well before twenty four hour broadcasting the frequent start up and closedown moments it was assumed, had to be marked by some degree of formality and signposting.

As ITV expanded around the country this pattern was replicated, with similar commissioned pieces for TWW, Granada, Southern and so on. Scottish Television rather broke the mould with their tartan biscuit tin medley “Scotlandia” but even that seemed to be based on the same principle though using folk tunes. ABC tried to break away by using “Mr Punch” or “Pastoral Prelude” for the first daily sound to be heard but quickly reverted to type with Sir Arthur Bliss’ special commission “ABC March”, only three minutes later.

Southern countered with “Southern Rhapsody”, which after a promising melodic start sank back into grand march format for the last verse. Anglia saved royalties with two light classics from Vaughn-Williams and Handel but the trend overall was unstoppable. Those who grew up with all this considered it normal but the revisionism that set in after the 1970s ended was a shock – as jazzier melodies now intervened. Rediffusion had experimented after 1964 when their new “Widespread World of Rediffusion” was introduced with a brief melodic middle section and a jazzier undertone and after 1968 the era of ‘company marches’ fairly slowly began to fade.

London Weekend’s “A Well Swung Fanfare” (Don Jackson), “Central Theme” (Bennet, Stokoe, Moran), “New Yorkshire theme” (Chris Gunning) and ITSWW’s “At Pepy’s Place” (Syd Dale) – all now broke the tradition with some determination, they were not marches and surprise surprise, the world did not end.

The ‘start up’ genre took time to fade. Good old Scottish Television hung on to their tartan shortbread biscuit tin until the end came with the start of breakfast time and 24-hour television, when suddenly no meaningful point or purpose remained to put in a “daily opening routine”.

When ITV had first started a new musical canon was created, combining ideas of territory, corporate identity and the promotion of a new broadcasting network. This body of work did not die out for over thirty years.


This article first appeared on Transdiffusion in 2001. It has been substantially revised for republication now.

You Say

8 responses to this article

Paul Mason 9 March 2016 at 4:05 am

Not television but radio had start up themes until relatively recently. From 1978 until 2005 or so BBC Radio 4 played the “R4 UK Theme which was an arrangement of music from England, Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland arranged by the late Fritz Spiegl whose Liverpool home I would often walk past some years ago. This start up theme would be played at the start of programmes at 0530 hrs.
The theme was scrapped amid much protrst, not least from Spiegl’s widow. The National Anthem is played on the run up to 0100 hrs after the shipping forecast and before World Service is broadcast overnight.
I also remember Theme One by George Martin which signalled the opening of transmisssions on Radios 1 and 2 at 0530.This tune was brass led with phasing to make it ” groovy” as it were.
I remember the Picasso cards from childhood and the two tunes used by Granada and the jolly violin tune used by ABC.

Paul Mason 9 March 2016 at 4:18 am

I see mention of Eric Coates, whose music I wasnt that familiar with apart from By a Sleepy Lagoon from Desert Island Discs and the Dambusters March.
Coates died at the end of 1957 so did not live very long into the ITV era.

Paul Mason 9 March 2016 at 1:27 pm

Referring to Theme One it was a George Martin arrangement of someone else’s composition. I am writing on the day (09/03/2016) when the death was announced of Sir George Martin aged 90.

Kif Bowden-Smith 16 March 2016 at 1:31 am

Eric Coates may have died early in the ITV era but he still had time to provide the music for more British Television “daily start up routines” than any other composer, being responsible for four scores in this genre…

Kif Bowden-Smith 16 March 2016 at 1:34 am

The two Granada Marches and the ‘jolly’ ABC violin music referred to by Paul, have all been made available on this site in the past, as part of our occasional series on daily startup routines.

Jim Nugent 25 May 2016 at 6:13 pm

I’m not sure why “Theme One” is attributed above to someone other than Sir George Martin. It is certainly credited to Sir George as composer on every commercial release, including the original United Artists mono single, the various iterations of the “By George!” LP and also on the Polydor LP containing the 1970s re-recording. I can even remember him playing it live on (commercial) television on Christmas Eve 1969, introducing it as his own composition (and introducing the Moog Synthesiser, probably for the first time to a mass audience).

Russ J Graham 27 May 2016 at 4:00 pm

It should be noted that the “Theme One” information is in the comments, not in the article; Transdiffusion is not responsible for the content or fact-checking of comments, for obvious reasons.

Kif Bowden-Smith 27 May 2016 at 5:54 pm

Yes, I spotted that reader’s error, but omitted to write in to suggest it was wrong – wearing my reader’s hat not my writer’s one! :-). But indeed it was all his own work. As my colleague says, we can’t fact-check readers’ letters.

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