Saturday, 8 February 2014

A theme tune for works of investigative journalism

The 10-piece Philip Jones Brass Ensemble

One late night whilst listening to probably every factual programme there is to listen to on bbc iplayer (while working on my NewBiologist project into the wee hours of the night) I suddenly made a shocking discovery. The so-called "BBC Outlook opening tune" that I have been searching for quite some time is actually the "BBC File on 4 opening tune". It is actually called Fanfare for a Brass Quintet, written by Richard Rodney Bennett and performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.

For some reason I had become familiar with the song being used to introduce various pieces of investigative journalism about serious problems or injustices, but I must have completely confused it with Outlook which has a similar topic focus on major issues. Outlook's programme differs from File on 4 in that it is always about the viewpoint of people who have experienced something directly (hence their personal "outlook" on an issue) - whereas File on 4 usually involves a broader investigation and more interviewees giving a range of diverse views about one serious issue. (Last year I actually went so far as to listen to all the Outlook programmes for the last few years, searching for the brass theme tune, and when I still did not hear it, I even tried to write a letter to Outlook asking them what happened to their theme tune. They never replied; they must have thought I was crazy.)

File on 4 always begins with a short (and serious) introduction and perhaps a soundclip of the affected parties describing their ordeals or situations, punctuated by this brass band opening song before going on with the rest of the programme.

For me, the song chosen as File on 4's theme tune seemed to only have the sole purpose conferring upon the story a greater sense of stately gravitas. Why else would you choose a brass theme tune, and one with a particularly "english" character at that? However, what I perceived in the past (and what made me so interested in this song) was how the use of the song was made complicated by the fact that some of the stories were not strictly UK centric but also frequently involved other stories from around the world, including some sensitive stories about race, ethnicity, religion - stories that might be about africa, the middle east, or even islam and its practice in the UK - stories with which an English brass song intro would sound a little strange!

In some cases, I felt that instead of lending a lovely, quiet dignity to the story, it actually had the effect of producing a rather curious juxtaposition (and I like it when there seems to be something ever so slightly wrong or jarring about things). Don't get me wrong, I completely love the song. But all the same I can see how it is a very conscious artistic direction for the programme, unlike Outlook which uses the songs and sounds from its stories to open its programme instead of having a fixed theme tune. But in the end, is there any perfect theme tune out there for works of investigative journalism? I suppose File on 4 is fortunate in that I guess it can be as stately as it wants. But let's say one were without all these cultural baggage of being the BBC and being "british" then what on earth would constitute a suitable theme tune for an investigative journalism programme? It would be so hard to make an objectively suitable song.

Another delightful programme by Philip Jones Brass Ensemble

Other rants about theme tunes - see also:

Shipping Forecasts, Subtopias, Bohemias, and other Architectural ramblings


  1. HI Debbie, my son (23 years, design student) is doing an internship in Hong-Kong. Do you know any young, creative people he could meet? He's seeing too many finance/business types (too boring) and is looking for some creative, art or music folks that he could meet, talk and party with. Any pointers will be highly appreciated. Note: Is your book still available? Will order it netxt month.

    1. I haven't spent very much time in HK (only visited it for a week when I was exhibiting a work there) but I could find out for you or forward on some recommendations of places or events! If you have an email/facebook - that might be easier for me to send you something in a private message or something?
      (And yes my book is still available! :-)

  2. The Gall story is fascinating! Good work!