Friday, 17 June 2011

"We Stand at the Cross-a-roads/Which Way Do We Turn..?"

I've never been all that bothered about the pre-watershed suburban Greek tragedy stylings of the programme proper, but I do have an abiding fascination with Tony Hatch's theme tune from Crossroads. Harmlessly banal and unsettlingly wrong at the same time, it is, I'm convinced, and Picture Box notwithstanding, the strangest theme tune ever made for a television programme. It's also, perhaps for this very reason, the most needlessly rewritten.

The opening sting (which sadly isn't on the clip above, but you know how it goes) takes no prisoners – that nine-note phrase for doorbell guitar that always sounds like it's going out of tune. You want avant garde? The rest of the orchestra, instead of rising as one man and turfing the jangly Judas out on his ear, try to “play around” him as if nothing's amiss. Seeing as this “orchestra” consists of a piano, harpist, bass, oboe and drums, is probably just as well they don't kick up a fuss, as they're hardly in a position to talk. But it somehow, madly, works, the stately oboe carried along by the prissily brisk percussion like Amy Turtle holding her head nobly aloft in search of gossip as she pushes her rattling trolley down the corridors. Everything about this music is so unabashedly, defiantly wrong it's hard not to come away from it thinking that perhaps the real problem is with the rest of music as a whole.

This version served the series for decades (notwithstanding a rotten cover, with full orchestra and no pizazz, which turns up on theme compilations in lieu of the original giant). Then Paul McCartney intervened. Macca has pioneered many pop idioms in his time, but the ironic cover of the TV theme is probably his least celebrated innovation. After Macca, the deluge: The Dickies' Banana Splits, Half Man Half Biscuit's Drugs Flies by When I'm a Driver of a Drugs, and all manner of acid house novelties featuring Richard Easter in an armchair on Top of the Pops. Turning the original's Trusthouse Fortissimo into an eye-winking stadium stringbender, Macca and Wings were at the head of this long and ignoble tradition, unless Joe Brown did a skiffle version of the Twizzle theme.

(NB - ignore the weird "Stiltskin fan art" visuals. Not sure what's going on there.) Fine as an album track, but when it hit the screens, the TV Times was in for a lively mailbag. “How much longer do we have to suffer Paul McCartney's treatment of the Crossroads theme?” fumed Janet Bosworth from Louth. Martyn Finch of Croydon concurred: “The Crossroads theme was bright and happy. Now it has plunged into insignificance. The rhythm has gone and the roll of the credits no longer fits the music.” This last audio-visual criticism was a perceptive one – the infamous crossover credit rollers did indeed come and go in reasonably good time with the old doorbell theme, and Macca's languorous noodling spoilt that delicate balance. For Mr Gerwyn Davies of Bournemouth, however, such nice details were beside the point. “This lifeless concoction, a travesty of the original, merely serves to ruin the ending of each episode. I have yet to find a single friend who does not agree with me.”

Caught in the gathering storm, producer Jack Barton was forced into compromise. Even this did nothing to assuage the masses. “A few weeks ago, people were complaining to you about the new version of the Crossroads theme by Paul McCartney and Wings,” wrote Mark Hitchin of Stone, “which I thought was magnificent. Now I'm shocked to hear the outdated Tony Hatch version being used again. Why, after 11 years, has it been brought back?” Later that same week, more consternation. “What is Jack Barton playing at?” hollered D Strick from Penzance. “That ghastly rubbish by Paul McCartney is back again. Surely it's been proved the majority of viewers don't like it. Bring back Tony Hatch.”

Barton attempted to smooth things over. “We are using both arrangements,” he carefully explained, “the original Tony Hatch version for normal endings and the Paul McCartney version for downbeat and dramatic, cliffhanging endings.” This was a fudge that Barton vainly hoped would be sorted out in the near future. “I am hoping that Paul McCartney will write us another, more uptempo, version of the Crossroads theme,” he practically begged. Good luck with that one, wack.

Eventually, someone did do a “more upbeat” version, and look what happened. The intent's painfully obvious – get a solo piano in for a more sophisticated John Miles/Bruce Hornsby feel – and the result's an ad for Mellow Birds minus any redeeming Lumley action. It was a symptom of the new ITV franchise holders – in this case, Central, although TVS were generally the worst offenders – seeking to give their output a more upscale, glossy, ABC1 feel, and ending up with odd-looking wood effect Formica in the process. The '80s in miniature perhaps, but when advertising cease to become a target of 'proper' telly's mockery and starts looking like a role model, things are looking dodgy. “There's just one thing... the company car's got to go!”

Down, down, deeper and down. In 1987 the show was undergoing a weird, piece-by-piece transformation from the old, shabby, motel-based Crossroads into King's Oak, centred on the snazzier country hotel nearby. They got as far as the interim Crossroads: King's Oak before the plug was pulled, but did manage to briefly air this completely new theme tune, a sort of palm court rip-off of Scarborough Fair, co-written by Raphael Ravenscroft, the Baker Street saxophonist doomed forever to have his most famous musical contribution jokingly attributed to Bob Holness, who was also making inroads into Crossroads's pre-prime time audience with Blockbusters.

And last but not even deserving of the epithet “least”, the 21st century revival in all its “with any luck they'll think they're watching Hollyoaks or something” glory. It got even worse as the revival wore on, with both theme and graphics turning into one of those interstitial montages you get on sub-par Eurovision nights, with the Moldovan entrants larking in pastel-coloured puffa jackets around famous Helsinki landmarks. But, really, that's more than enough. Wake up, Jane!

1 comment:

  1. A strange beast, the Crossroads theme. Whenever it comes to mind, I think of cheesy 70's-ness and yet none of its various incarnations are actually all that bad.

    The McCartney version still looms large in my memory. It was quite heartbreaking in its ability to convey sadness and desperate longing (stick with me on this one) and of course was latterly used to full effect at the end of an episode where a character was killed off.

    All good stuff, and good on you for packaging all the important detail together for posterity. :)