Review of ‘Matt Berry – Television Themes’ by Paul Ferry

Matt Berry

A teaser from the reviews section of Strange Skins #6, coming soon.

Matt Berry is best known as a comedian in the UK, his bullish persona and booming voice familiar to a whole nation of TV viewers from shows like The I.T, Crowd, House of Fools and Toast of London; but he has another life as a successful musician, producing prog and jazz albums. Television Themes is his sixth album and most likely to grab public attention, for it features a whole host of nostalgic theme tunes familiar to anyone who grew up in the UK during the seventies and eighties.
In these days when writing a TV theme seems to mostly consist mainly of marrying a sawing cello with some booming drums, the themes included on this album are even more vital. It’s worth remembering that a lot of the composers of TV themes in the sixties and seventies, such as Ron Grainer and Ronnie Hazelhurst, had a background in jazz, so these kind of jazz renditions are not out of place. These are not comedy spoofs or clever-clever re-workings of the originals however; for the most part they’re pretty damned close to the tunes we know and love.
We start with the jaunty theme to long-running BBC comedy Are you Being Served, an iconic opening that instils the listener with the sense of fun that pervades this album. The Good Life follows in a similar vein and then we get the first of a trio of mini-tracks that punctuate the album, in this case the distinctive sting that heralded the opening of any programme made by London Weekend Television in the seventies and eighties. These are all recorded with a small ensemble of musician, Berry himself among them, but they produce a meaty sound that showcases a variety of often obscure musical instruments.
Blankety Blank is delightfully silly, with Matt Berry providing one half of the ‘vocals’. It’s followed by the eighties version of the Top of the Pops theme; Yellow Pearl by Midge Ure and Phil Lynott, which originally appeared on Lynnott’s first solo album Solo in Soho (with some very odd lyrics) before being speeded up and de-lyricised for the BBC’s premiere pop show. Matt’s version is stunningly authentic to the latter.
Anyone who remembers the schools’ programme Picture Box will undoubtedly recall its theme tune; a haunting waltz originally played on a cristal baschet, a bizarre musical instrument that involved the stroking of various glass rods (I’m not making this up). Berry forgoes the rod-stroking behaviour in favour of the much friendlier Mellotron and Mini-Moog, but still manages to reproduce the distinctive sound of the original. Be warned though; this is an absolute ear-worm and you won’t be able to get it out of your head for days, or possibly weeks.
Stripped of its vocals, the Scaffold’s theme for The Liver Birds is a tad repetitive. You’ve got to admire the musicianship, but it still comes out of this as my least favourite track on the album. Another interlude, the station ident for Thames Television, leads into the theme to lunchtime kids’ show Rainbow. With vocals by Matt Berry, the Rainbow theme retains its infamously trippy middle eight, which makes the song sound like it could have been lifted from an LP by Velvett Fogg or some other lesser psychedelic outfit.
Prominent on the cover, and the track you’ve all been waiting for, is Doctor Who. It starts off very fait-hful to the Delia Derbyshire original, then kicks into a jazzy foxtrot, which works incredibly well. It’s done primarily on retro synths, but there are bass, drums and percussion holding together the beat. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, a lot of Doctor Who fans are very arsey about this sort of thing, but personally it is one of my favourite renditions of recent years.
A fun version of the theme from wildlife show Wildtrak is followed by World in Action, complete with intimidating Hammond organ track recreated by Berry from the original by Mick Weaver a.k.a Wynder K. Frog. It retains all of the doom-laden atmosphere of the original, so it’s nice that it’s followed by the far friendlier theme from Ronnie Corbett sitcom Sorry; a jaunty reggae piece whose oddly syncopated percussion never fails to delight.
The minimalist sting from The Open University puts a lid on what will surely have been an absolute nostalgia-fest for anyone in their forties and a revelation for anyone under that age. Great stuff!

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