15 Dec 2010

Thank you for the Channel 4 News music

Actor Julian Rhind-Tutt recently revealed that our theme music is one of his favourite pieces. Its composer Alan Hawkshaw tells Channel 4 News that it has been used in some unexpected places.

Former Channel 4 News presenter Peter Sissons

In the Radio 3 programme Private Passions, among more renowned selections such as Bach and Mahler, the star of the Channel 4 comedy series Green Wing explained why he had made the unexpected selection of the Channel 4 News theme as one of his favourites: “I love Jon Snow. I like Channel 4 News. This (causes) one of those strange moments of elation that I feel sometimes when I listen to music, although it is a very curious choice.

“Sometimes you can fall upon moments of strange genius and I think this is one of them. For me it is a fantastic fanfare and it does the perfect job of introducing a news programme without falling over the edge into pomposity. I just feel rather joyous every time I hear it.”

Best Endeavours

Although TV themes provide an audio backdrop to many people’s lives, the composers who write them are not usually very well known. Yorkshireman Alan Hawkshaw is the man behind “Best Endeavours” aka the Channel 4 News music.

He has several memorable programme themes to his credit, such as Countdown, Grange Hill and the Dave Allen Show, as well as countless scores for other TV programmes and films, but still his name might be unfamiliar to most. He’s been writing about his career for his autobiography, “The Champ (the Hawk talks)” which is due out in Spring next year.

He told Channel 4 News that Best Endeavours began life as a generic track which originally lacked the “fantastic fanfare” beloved of Julian Rhind-Tutt: “The piece is a library piece, therefore it wasn’t commissioned especially for Channel 4 News.

“It was part of a corporate image album in progress which the then head of music at Channel 4 chanced to hear and thought had potential as a news theme. But they wanted an added fanfare which I hurriedly wrote for piccolo trumpet.”

The current music has heralded the start of the programme since 1982 and replaced the long-forgotten original theme after the programme underwent a revamp. Although it has been re-recorded and updated several times since (see the rather unique, groovier version above,) it has been pretty much unchanged and unlike its predecessor has survived a number of subsequent programme revamps.

Alan Hawkshaw says he is not surprised that it has lasted so long but was surprised it was chosen in the first place: “We weren’t actually sure if it was going to be used right up until the programme was broadcast as there were another two pieces on the shortlist.

“We were sitting watching TV waiting for the programme to start and when my music came on, I was just absolutely delighted!”

Clint Eastwood

Because it was originally a library piece, not one commissioned especially for Channel 4 News, it has turned up in some unexpected places. You may or may not imagine Jon Snow as a lone cowboy riding out in the American West but the music has certainly conjured up that image for some.

Alan says when he was composing Best Endeavours he had a corporate theme in mind, but thinks that the eventual piece has “an almost Western theme to it, an Elmer Bernstein feel”. And he is not wrong. In an example of familiar music being used in particularly unexpected places, the piece turned up on the score of the acclaimed Clint Eastwood film Pale Rider.

But Alan says it has also appeared on another news programme this time on the other side of the world: “Channel 7 in Australia also used the music for their news programme but there was uproar because it wasn’t written by an Australian composer or performed by Australian musicians in line with their union demands.”

The composer of the Channel 4 News theme Alan Hawkshaw


Another stalwart of the Channel 4 schedules is Countdown and that is one of Alan’s compositions too, although he recalls it had an inauspicious inception: “When the Countdown theme was commissioned, they said they wanted an opening and closing theme plus some ‘building clock music’.

“Under pressure from another series I was scoring, I basically forgot about it until I had a phone call from Yorkshire TV asking me how it was coming along, at which point I lied that it was nearly finished, so I had to do it pretty quickly.

“The story which did the rounds was that I’d written it in the toilet and I think I probably did.”

And he thinks the fact that people take comfort from familiar music such as TV show themes actually helped when Countdown was in line to be cancelled: “When Carol Vorderman left Countdown and there was speculation the programme might be axed, one of the arguments put forward for why changing presenters would work was that if the theme and format stayed the same, it wouldn’t matter so much who was presenting it.”

But Alan still has a soft spot for Best Endeavours even though only a short extract of it is ever used: “I do have a few other pieces which musically I would prefer to call my favourites, but I still regard the Channel 4 News theme as an intelligent piece of writing, especially the middle section which is never heard.”