12 June 2015

Look! I Can Hear You!

I could not have been more than five years’ old.  My two sisters and brother were at school all day and I was left alone at home with my mother.  I probably played around for most of the day, but the high point always came just after lunch when Mum and I would sit down together by the wireless and listen to the gentle strains of Fauré’s Dolly Suite and the soothing, silken voice of (I think) Daphne Oxenforde, who uttered those magic words; “Are you sitting comfortably? [pause] Then I’ll begin”.  Does the BBC know how powerful a bonding tool it had with its daily Listen With Mother, a moment when (I imagined) children everywhere were sitting with their Mums avidly lapping up whatever story the delightful Daphne told us?  I can’t remember a single one of the stories, but the Dolly Suite does it for me every time; flooding back happy memories of a long-lost childhood and a precious moment with a loving mother whose love I probably never adequately repaid in either word or deed.

"Aye, Janet".  The rare smile prompted, surely,
by the thought of the music about to come.
Then there was Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, the television highlight of the week when the crusty Andrew Cruickshank uttered his immortal catchphrase “Aye, Janet” and another half hour or so of grim and gloomy goings-on in the life of country doctors in the Scottish village of Tanochbrae (which, with Drs Cameron, Finlay and Snoddy, had at least one doctor per non-doctoral resident – how the NHS has changed in Scotland!) held me in thrall.  The stories were grim and forgettable, but I wouldn’t miss a moment in case, somewhere between the opening and closing statements of what remains for me one of the great TV signature tunes of all time, there was a chance we might have a tiny snatch of some other part of this glorious musical score.  For years I sought the music, eventually learning it was the March from Trevor Duncan’s Little Suite.  It was my prized LP until Naxos gave us the whole Suite on CD.  Trevor Duncan may have been a BBC staffer whose real name was Leonard Trebilco, but for my money he was one of the truly top notch British light music composers of the age. How wonderful it was to discover BBC Alba, the Gaelic Television station, re-running the old series again, and, despite having easy access to the music on CD, I still watched avidly with that same anticipation, aching for the end when the lovely music would fade in once more and transport me back to those days huddled with a warm family around our tiny black-and-white television.

Not here...
...but here
When Panorama took on a new and spine-tingling theme tune, I asked everyone I could think of – the music staff at school, musical friends, my piano teacher – what it was.  Nobody knew, and for years it ran around my head as a perpetual irritant, driving me mad with the need to know what it was.  A chance accident solved the mystery.  Having fallen in love with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, I bought an ancient Supraphon LP of it (Mirka Pokorna with the Brno State Philharmonic under Jiri Waldhans). Heavily edited and subjected to the most astonishing performing liberties (many of which I still hanker after when I hear it properly correctly in a live concert), it left enough room for the whole of the first of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  It took a bit of time for me to get round to listening to this, so entranced was I by the Concerto, but when I did I was amazed to hear, at the very end, a very much calmed-down version of the Panorama signature tune.  I bought the whole set of Symphony Dances but the original was not there.  I used up all my pocket money of just about every Rachmaninov LP I could find, and then, on the most expensive (Decca SXL6583) I struck gold.  It was from the final movement of the First Symphony, and there was Walter Weller and the Orchestra of the Suisse Romande playing that glorious moment from Panorama, a programme which did not then interest me in the slightest, but which I never missed just because of the music. 

His Dad may have been lost at the South
Pole, but he was lost when it came to music.
I am not fanatic about wild birds, but I do love them and when my sister gave me, as a recent birthday present, a trip to a puffin colony in the Firth of Forth, I was thrilled to bits; the chance of seeing wild birds in their natural habitat always excites me.  That love of birds, perhaps unexpected in one born and brought up in the middle of London where pigeons, sparrows and the odd crow were the totality of our aviaratical experience, also owes its origins to a television programme which I would never miss, not because of the content but because of the glorious theme music that book-ended it.  How I yearned each week for Peter Scott’s Look! and it’s evocative, soaring, expansive theme music.  But in this case, I remain beaten.  Not a week of my life has passed without its haunting theme coming to mind, yet despite every effort I have made to find it, the music remains unknown.  As a precocious 12-year-old I once met the great Peter Scott himself (he came to an association to which my parents belonged to give a talk on his work at with the Wild Fowl Trust at Slimbridge) and asked him what the music was.  To my horror, he neither knew nor seemed to care.  Did he not know that he was my hero solely because he was associated with some of the most wonderful music I had ever heard? He suggested that it was “probably written just for the programme”, but I doubt that; it was too elevated to be a short jingle by a house composer.  Yet I can get no clues from the music, and I fear my memory has adapted and modified it beyond its original dimensions.  Yet the theme is as vivid as ever (in C major; G up the octave to G, down to E-F-E-D-C lower G-A).  Even the internet, a source some misguided people claim to be the nearest thing to flawless, offers no help whatsoever, and I remain in agonising ignorance of one of the most persistent musical memories I have.

I recall an interview with a member of the production team on Woman’s Hour explaining the pains she took to find the right music to suit the story with which each programme ended.  She told how she would avidly listen to every record she could lay her hands on and make notes for future reference of particular moods or pictures it created in her mind.  Years later, often, she would need to find music to go with, say, a story about a woman in a wheelchair who lived in a lighthouse and, hey presto, there in her card index was just the perfect musical match!  (I started doing this in the hope that, one day, it would come in useful.  It never has, and my huge database of “potential signature tunes and mood music” is now inaccessible, having been finally transferred to a 3 inch floppy disc on my first Amstrad computer – and thereby totally inaccessible today).  Among the real finds she came up with was Richard Adler’s Wilderness Suite (a title which prompted me to hope – in vain as it transpired – it might also have provided the music for Look!) which so perfectly suited a story about American settlers that it was hard not to imagine it having been written especially for it.  Such work is no longer done or valued in the broadcast media as a rule; with music cheaply and painlessly created by dull and unimaginative computer programmers, is there a single theme tune out there which would drive anyone to listen or watch the programme regardless of content, or which will last in the memory over a half a century later? 

The power of this music on an impressionable youngster has been irrefutable.  Would I have felt such a powerful bond with my mother without Fauré prompting me to Listen With Mother, would Scotland have become such a significant place in my life without Trevor Duncan introducing me so sublimely to Dr Finlay’s Casebook, would I have had a deep and passionate fascination with politics and world affairs without Rachmaninov’s urging me to watch Panorama, and would my fascination with wild birds and open spaces ever have been fired without Look! and its, as yet, anonymous musical superstar?  I do not know, but I do know that the music drove me into the arms of these programmes, all of which ended up affecting my life in a lasting and beneficial way, and that without that music, my life would have been immeasurably the poorer.


So I ask, with all sincerity;  kill off the computer music programmers and the dull kids who dutifully churn out 30 seconds of “title music”, the inept and unimaginative producers who see their work as “creative” rather than inspirational, and tell me, for God’s sake, who wrote the music for Look!

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