Ronnie Hazlehurst

Ronnie Hazlehurst

An Unsung Hero (no pun intended) remembered by Brian Slade

In the history of British television, it’s not been uncommon for a show to defy the objections of critics to go on and be a success. However, there’s a connecting tissue between some of the most successful BBC comedies that garnered plenty of criticism and yet now reminds us of the golden days of the Corporation. The theme tunes to so many BBC hits came from one man – Ronnie Hazlehurst.

Hazlehurst was born in Manchester in 1928 and grew up possessing genuine musical credentials. His mother was a piano teacher and although he first went into an office job, his National Service was spent as a bandsman, studying at the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham.

Once his National Service was over, Ronnie spent a good deal of time scraping a living in dance bands in the 1940s and 1950s. Having worked with Peter Knight in these fields he eventually joined him at Granada Television, but when Knight left, Ronnie was soon out the door as well. It was a fortunate departure as in 1961, having spent some time merely selling records to make ends meet, he would land at his spiritual home, the BBC, initially as an arranger.

Ronnie would spend most of the 1960s expanding his repertoire on popular shows of the time, such as The Likely Lads, The Liver Birds and It’s A Knockout. Inevitably he would not become rich from his efforts, but he did get rewarded in 1968 when after years of arranging and conducting, he was promoted to Light Entertainment Musical Director.

Almost every hit sitcom or comedy sketch show was sent Ronnie’s way. Frustratingly, the budget he was offered was invariably tiny, primarily due to the fact that the music would come once the shows had been finished, meaning very little money was left to spare. Time would also be a factor, as was evidenced in 1973 when Last of the Summer Wine first arrived. His quiet, gentle theme was reportedly not comical enough for the BBC, but with time not permitting a rewrite, his first effort aired and would become one of the Corporation’s best-known comedy themes. A speedier more comical effort would not have been in keeping with the warmth and slow pace of the comedy the show offered.

Ronnie Hazlehurst

Ronnie powered through the shows brought to him. The Two Ronnies, Sorry!, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Yes, Minister were just some of the vast array of programmes that he penned the theme tune for. And whatever the BBC challenged him with, Ronnie responded accordingly. It was never more evident than when he was tasked with a minimalist approach to Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. He was apparently asked to spell out the name of the show in morse code for the theme, with only the piccolo permitted. People of a certain age will remember that theme with affection, with the closing credits clumsily rolling from side to side as a scene of carnage created by Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer closes the show, Ronnie’s theme tune providing a simplistic accompaniment befitting the unfortunate Frank. And despite the success of the theme tune and the show, Ronnie earned just £30 from his efforts!

The theme tune to Are You Being Served? is equally well-remembered. Behind the recorded noises of a shop floor, bells and till pings clanging together, Hazlehurst composed a violin and trumpet tune that caught on and added yet another success to his CV. But not all of his efforts are remembered so fondly. Blankety Blank was an ear worm that caused as much pain as the others caused pleasure, but it did nonetheless add to the recognition of the show.

Television wasn’t the sole focus of Ronnie Hazlehurst’s musical talents. He was called upon to join in the United Kingdom’s Eurovision efforts, firstly in 1974 for Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran’s Rock Bottom, which came second to Marie Myriam’s L’Oiseau et l’Enfant (come on, you must remember it!). The UK were hosting the event after Brotherhood of Man’s success in 1976 and reportedly gave very little support to Rock Bottom for fear of having to fund another contest in 1978.

Despite all the comedy shows Ronnie provided the music for, he had to keep a stiff upper lip when it came to the fun poked at his efforts. With so many programmes carrying his compositions, his light touch approach to his music was frequently mocked. He was even given the dubious honour of being mocked in Spitting Image. One assumes his sense of humour would have been duly engaged when a Wikipedia hoax suggested upon his passing in 2007 that he had co-written the S Club 7 hit Reach, something that he didn’t do, but that many of the heavy newspapers didn’t bother to fact-check before publishing as an unlikely truth.

Ronnie Hazlehurst

Ronnie Hazlehurst’s vast legacy of music was unjustly mocked. We now live in a world where good comedy is hard to find, and memorable accompanying music or credits even more scarce. ITV has of course long stopped bothering with unique end credits for its efforts, and so nostalgia brings us a warmth when looking back at shows long gone. For the BBC efforts, Ronnie Hazlehurst is probably the most frequently seen name on credits beyond all the great stars, writers and producers. Each show on his CV will invariably have us recalling its theme, so the mockery and criticisms are forgotten far more speedily than Ronnie’s creations…and rightly so.

Published on May 6th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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