20. TV Theme Song

‘Are You Being Served?’ – David Croft and Ronnie Hazlehurst

A few months ago, I was in the lift in a Japanese-themed hotel in Manhattan. New York is surely the spiritual home of elevator music, so naturally there was piped music in my lift. What was surprising, however, was that the music was instantly recognisable: it was the theme from Are You Being Served?, a very British sitcom from forty-odd years ago. What do you call the opposite of culture shock?

Or perhaps it’s not so strange. After all, this particular TV theme is a spoof of elevator music. Nevertheless, it takes something special to turn elevator music into a TV theme – the two genres are effectively the opposite of each other. The first is designed to be unobtrusive, to be subliminally calming while remaining anonymous, steering clear of recognisable hooks or motifs. It’s music that you can join or leave at any point, which can be cycled on a short loop without peaks in the dynamics that would make this repetition sound absurd. Theme music, on the other hand, has the opposite job. Theme music is there as a fanfare, an announcement – “Hurry up with the tea, it’s starting” – as well as a jingle, a distinctive identifier. (I like it when instrumental themes mimic the show’s title in the music: Dynasty, it’s Dynasty… etc.)

The joke of the Are You Being Served? theme is that it takes the indistinctive and makes something recognisable from it. The ambient noise of a cash register becomes the percussion track; the other instruments – a burst of sax and strings – are pure muzak, going nowhere, repeated endlessly. The masterstroke, which brings these elements together, is to make the connection with elevator music explicit: instead of a theme song, we get those spoken-word floor announcements for vocals. It’s a lovely, witty piece of music – at once a joke about genre and a theme that’s still instantly recognisable on a different continent, in a different century.

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