In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team…
If, like me, you are now in early middle age, you probably know the above text by heart. This snippet of voiceover commenced the opening credits for the first four seasons of The A-Team (NBC, 1983-87), telling audiences all they needed to know about the four protagonists’ backstory before launching into yet another hour of testosterone-fuelled righting of wrongs. As exposition goes, it’s a classic (more than can be said, perhaps, for the series itself); Mike Post and Pete Carpenter’s bombastic theme beats out its patriotic tattoo while a montage of clips and juxtaposed captions (employing, of course, military typeface) introduces not only the actors’ names but also those of the characters they play. Plenty of ancillary information is also provided en route: Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (George Peppard) is a cigar-chomping master of disguise, his leadership signified by Peppard’s precedence in the roll-call; ‘Face’ (Dirk Benedict) is the squad smoothie, and has an amusing moment with a passing Cylon (a pleasing meta-textual reference to Benedict’s previous role in Battlestar Galactica (ABC, 1978-80)); ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch (Dwight Schultz) is, well… mad as a brush (at one point he is seen talking to a glove puppet; a sure signifier of insanity); and B.A. Baracus (Mr T) provides the muscle – but has a heart of gold (as well as numerous rings and neck chains). In addition, there are a plethora of bullets, explosions, helicopters and spectacular stunts; clearly, this programme is not going to be deeply rooted in psychological realism.
As a ninety-second piece of exposition, this sequence still does what is asked of it today, even for the uninitiated. While my undergraduate charges are too young to remember the original series (though some had seen the 2010 film), upon viewing they were easily able to discern who the protagonists were, what their goals might be, and what the series was about. Since most of The A-Team’s need-to-know facts are either literally vocalised or spelt out on the screen (a reflection, perhaps, of either the estimated age range or intelligence of the original intended audience), this should come as little surprise, but after three decades the programme’s titles still clearly convey their message – even if this was received with no small amount of derision by my class.
Opening title credits have long been utilised as a key form of exposition (introducing setting, character and motivation) and redundancy (repeating this information often enough to remind viewers of the basic premise). It is a procedure that has a long and (arguably) noble television history, but in recent years has come to be more honour’d in the breach than the observance – of which more anon.
The expositional voiceover employed by The A-Team is an obvious yet simple technique for explaining to audiences where they are and what is going on, and has a particularly strong tradition in the telefantasy genre. From Star Trek (CBS, 1966-69) to Life on Mars (BBC, 2006-08), first-person narration has frequently been made use of – a fact that is perhaps indicative of the oft-perceived ‘difficulty’ of that particular genre for casual viewers. Some series take longer to find the ideal spiel than others; Quantum Leap (NBC, 1989-93), a personal favourite, experimented with the anecdotal intro until season two, when the (admittedly fairly complex) circumstances surrounding Doctor Sam Beckett’s body-swap time-travelling were finally outlined in the third person by actress, writer and executive producer Deborah Pratt (later revealed to be the voice of Beckett’s rarely-seen supercomputer, Ziggy); the whole package was sealed by another infectiously upbeat Mike Post melody.
The spoken word is of course not the sole – nor even the most effective – means of conveying information. Here in Britain, our closest equivalent to Mike Post was probably the late Ronnie Hazlehurst (1928-2007), maestro of the jaunty sitcom tune. Hazlehurst’s mood-setting contributions to title sequences are too numerous to accommodate in a single blog, but notable contributions include Yes, Minister (BBC, 1980-84), in which the chimes of Big Ben were elaborated into a musical accompaniment to Gerald Scarfe’s caricatures of the Whitehall protagonists, and Last of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1973-2010), wherein the wistful strains of Hazlehurst’s guitar and harmonica composition virtually spelt out the programme’s title without words (when lyrics were added, for the 1981 and 1983 Christmas specials, they didn’t have quite the same effect).
Of course, there’s nothing like a catchy theme to establish the mood for a television programme, but these can occasionally set up false expectations. John Barry’s atmospheric score for The Persuaders!(ITV, 1971) immediately puts one in mind of something mean, moody and magnificent, but sits rather ill-at-ease when the titles descend into a jolly montage of Roger Moore and Tony Curtis racing speedboats and ogling bikini-clad beauties. Better by far is Edwin Astley’s melancholic harpsichord opus for Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (ITV, 1969-70), which effortlessly sets the tone for that series’ ghostly investigations.
Given that a title sequence should capture the feel of its parent show in this way, what happens should that programme itself receive a significant overhaul, as for example in the form of major cast changes or a change of narrative direction? The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69) specifically re-vamped both music and title sequence when the show switched from multi-camera studio to single camera film production in 1965. Gone was the downbeat jazz of the original, Laurie Johnson’s debonair new score fanfaring the arrival of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel with a much faster-paced photographic montage that was all leather and carnations. When the series moved into colour the following year, effectively re-branding itself for the US market, the new titles emphasised the ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship between Steed and Mrs Peel still further, Patrick Macnee and Rigg camping it up magnificently with a bottle of champagne.
Minder (ITV, 1979-93) is another case in point. When original star Dennis Waterman quit in 1990, the production team were forced to re-record the famous theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good for You’, removing Waterman’s vocal as he no longer featured in the series (fun fact: although Waterman performed the song, it was not – contrary to popular belief – actually penned by him; the compositional co-credit in fact refers to the actor’s then wife, Patricia). The original opening title sequence – a rare example of a specially designed and enacted mini-narrative, as opposed to a simple cobbling together of footage from random episodes – perfectly encapsulates the dynamic between the leads, wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley (George Cole) and his titular bodyguard, Terry McCann (Waterman). Terry’s (clearly justified) mistrust of Arthur as they negotiate the purchase of a second-hand Ford Capri is interspersed with a series of black-and-white ‘flashback’ stills, signifying the former’s ‘rough diamond’ past as a jailbird and boxer, in addition to later photos of Arthur greeting Terry as he emerges from prison. The titles end with a reluctant handshake – clearly against Terry’s better judgement – which seals both the deal and their partnership. In just one minute, the audience has been shown everything they need to know about the central duo, leaving even the most infrequent viewer in no doubt as to their blend of exploitation and mutual dependence.
Dennis Waterman continues to fly the flag for the more traditional music and montage introductory titles with New Tricks (BBC, 2003- ), yet such no-frills exposition has begun to seem a little old-fashioned – its overt redundancy itself now redundant – in the modern televisual age. Title sequences today adopt an increasingly abstract approach to their subject matter, from the animated opening of Mad Men (AMC, 2007- ) to the rich cornucopia of sound and image (analysed here by Eric Gould back in January) utilised by Homeland (Showtime, 2011- ). This may be indicative either of increased sophistication on the part of programme-makers, or of a rise in their estimation of target audiences’ ability to ‘read’ TV; clearly, we’ve come a long way from George Peppard chewing on his cigar.
However, at the other extreme many shows have opted to dispense with the title sequence altogether – an approach which in the UK dates back at least as far as the subject of my last blog, Inspector Morse(ITV, 1987-2000). While that programme’s (eminently hummable) score, by Barrington Pheloung, would play mournfully over the closing titles (increasingly truncated as the series’ run grew longer, and audiences’ attention spans shorter), episode openings contented themselves with a series of simple caption cards. Appearing like somewhat lengthy examples of subliminal messaging, these were interspersed between segments of screen action. While the story for that particular week would receive its own title card, the series itself did not; ‘John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse’ would be the only indication for viewers that they were watching the right programme, along with an obligatory credit for Colin Dexter. This minimalist approach has continued through Lewis (ITV, 2006-13) and Endeavour (ITV, 2012- ), and is arguably now as strongly associated with the series brand as any cleverly thought out title sequence could possibly hope to be.
The absence of opening titles was not unheard of even before Morse; Columbo (NBC, 1968-78; ABC, 1989-2003) never featured any, the series’ reversal of the standard whodunit narrative presumably being such an established trademark that none were deemed necessary. More recently, however, the lack of opening sequences has become almost a statement of intent, shows such as Being Human (BBC, 2009-13) seemingly flaunting their narrative complexity via the kind of rapid-montage ‘Previously on…’ sequence of the type once so memorably parodied by Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98). The message here seems to be: ‘A lot has already happened; work it out for yourself.’ As with the more abstract of modern title sequences, this could be seen as a back-handed compliment to audiences’ televisual literacy, but speaking as one weaned on the ‘easy reader’ opening credits lovingly unpacked earlier, I sometimes wonder how effective such bite-sized compilations are in terms of bringing casual viewers – as opposed to regular audience members – up to narrative speed. To this end, I recently conducted another short experiment with my students. Immediately after they had ‘enjoyed’ the A-Team intro, I played the ‘catch-up’ sequence for episode 4 of crime serial The Fall (BBC, 2013- ) – now unfortunately no longer available to view online. None of the class had previously seen the programme in question, and the selected sequence – featuring (extremely) brief clips from the previous three episodes – left them largely bewildered. The majority view put forward was that this was a drama about a serial killer (correct), and it was clear to just a handful that the character played by Gillian Anderson was a senior detective who had slept with a colleague. Enough in itself, one might suppose, to engage the interest of someone unfamiliar with ‘the story so far’, but it did little to spark the enthusiasm of my undergrads. This might, of course, be explained by simple demographics, my youthful cohort being more enthused at the prospect of The Vampire’s Diary (CW, 2009- ) (a programme whose total lack of exposition or redundancy leaves this viewer nonplussed whenever his partner persuades him to watch) than a slow-moving character piece.
It would seem that there is still a need for the well-executed title sequence in the fast-moving environment of modern television, though it might employ subtleties undreamt of in The A-Team’s balmy network heyday. While such straightforward fare has since been affectionately parodied in programmes such as Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4, 2004), there is something rather reassuring about having the basics of the programme one is about to spend upwards of thirty minutes to an hour watching laid out in a quick, easy-to-comprehend manner.
What, then, are the main ingredients for a successful title sequence? Well, as already seen, these are largely dependent on the programme itself. If it is to be a long-running success, the titles in question will be seen week in and week out, so something novel is required. An infectious theme tune is a definite advantage, and while it is useful to include some visual information on the lead players or characters, this is perhaps not essential; the key is to set the scene and engage the audience’s interest from the outset, providing them with a taste of what is to come. Now in its fiftieth year, it seems churlish not to cite Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 1996; 2005- ) as a classic example of the form. The programme has seen narrative, cast and production changes too numerous to list here, and while the same could almost be said of the various permutations of Ron Grainer’s theme to have emerged over the years, the overall approach to the titles has not really altered in any essential way. The original arrangement, by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, powerfully evoked the show’s other-worldly nature, neatly matched by the abstract ‘howl around’ images of the title sequence; an effect achieved by pointing a camera directly at a television monitor, and recording the results. As a child, I always interpreted the distorted hissing and whooshing that followed the opening bars of music as the menacing whispers of whatever alien terrors were about to menace the Doctor from within the television set. While not in the habit of hiding behind the sofa (ours backed against the wall; I simply ran into the kitchen to inform my mother whenever the Daleks appeared), this unnerving aural and visual blend always placed me immediately in the zone of (pleasurable) fear that became – and has remained, if the reactions of my friends’ offspring are anything to judge by – the programme’s hallmark.
As with so many of the programmes recalled here, the fact that such powerful emotional responses are retained long after the details of particular episodes have been forgotten demonstrates the potential of opening title sequences both to capture the interest of the viewer – orientating them immediately in the on-going world of the narrative – and to tempt them back for repeat visits; always a concern in the increasingly serialised world of episodic television.
If the traditional opening title sequence has, in recent years, been increasingly eschewed by a certain school of television drama, I for one don’t imagine that it will be going anywhere soon.
One should, after all, give credits where credits are due.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London, and the University of Arts. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming, 2013).