Matt Berry: Television Themes – Album Review

Matt Berry is probably one of the most enviable performers around at the moment. Not only is he well-known for his masterful comic turns in Garth Marenghi’s DarkplaceHouse Of FoolsThe IT Crowd and Toast Of London, but he also has an enviable vocal talent.

It’s something he’s put to good use in his time spent performing with his band The Maypoles. In July 2018, it was announced that their next project would be an album called Television Themes, which would be Berry’s attempt to capture some of the signature tunes from his youth, while also giving them his own inimitable twist.

As anyone who knows me (along with my creaking shelves) will attest to, I like to consider myself as being something of an aficionado when it comes to TV theme tune cover versions; having heard about Berry’s project, I was intrigued to see what new potential gems it might present.

The opening track is one which Berry and The Maypoles are known for doing in their live performances – a cover of Ronnie Hazlehurst’s iconic Are You Being Served? theme. It kicks off with the familiar loop of the cash register noises, before easing into a rather louche, lounge performance. The familiar lyrics only come in towards the end, giving perhaps a little bit too much of the instrumental version.

His take on The Good Life, however, is a far more faithful sounding rendition to start off with, before breaking things up with a fun middle section of funky guitar and drum riffs. There’s little which can be said about this, but it shouldn’t be seen as a criticism by any means: in fact, it’s a track which speaks for itself, and gives a feeling of joyful ebullience.

The third track – LWT – is only eight seconds long, but in that short space of time, it manages to give you a Proustian rush as the famous London Weekend Television chimes resonate, rounding off with the familiar trumpet fanfare. It’s a testament to how much power these old ITV themes still pack, heralding memories of much classic programming.

There’s also authenticity in spadefuls  to be found at the start of his performance of Blankety Blank, which sounds as though it could have come from the soundtrack of one of the actual shows of the period. He even manages to incorporate the tune which played while the contestants and celebrities were busy coming up with their answers, which is a fun little addition.

Berry’s take on Phil Lynott’s instrumental remix of Yellow Pearl, which graced Top Of The Pops between 1984 and 1986, is a veritable triumph of evoking a certain era, with its ’80s synths and vocoders in abundance. People of a certain age will get a certain buzz from hearing this; it certainly transported me back to the Thursday nights of my youth.

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The next track had a similar – if somewhat more chilling – effect, causing a prickling of the skin with only the first few notes. Lasry-Bachet’s Maneche was used as the theme for schools TV programme Picture Box, which can only be described as sounding like a haunted barrel organ, and Berry manages to capture the musique concrète style of the original, without being slavish. Certainly a few shivers down the spine.

The upbeat, chirpy “la-la-la-la”s from the tune to Carla Lane’s The Liver Birds manage to survive, as Berry chooses to go for an otherwise instrumental version. The very ’70s sounding electric organ, plus the lounge guitar riffs go a long way to capturing the era, although it does tend to go rather more off piste than most of the other tracks here; however, Berry should be forgiven for allowing himself a little leeway to flex his creative muscles now and again.

Thames Television is again another brief foray into the world of classic TV idents, but a worthy inclusion, and credit should be given for being perfectly placed in order to segue smoothly into the theme from Rainbow.

Given Geoffrey Hayes’ recent passing, this has a rather bittersweet quality. However, the real revelation is finding that there’s more than just the familiar verse, as a single version of the tune (on which this cover is based) runs for a full three minutes. Berry’s light vocals perfectly suit the track, particularly when the middle section turns into a rather unexpectedly psychedelic interlude.

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The track I was perhaps most invested in was Doctor Who, as it’s probably one of the most covered TV tunes; it’s also proved to be something of a curate’s egg, as it’s notoriously difficult to capture the sheer brilliance of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s original – and, arguably, best – take on Ron Grainer’s composition. Berry has a fair stab, but ends up falling somewhere between that, and some of the more ‘notorious’ tries by both Geoff Love and Eric Winstone, and their respective Orchestras.

Wildtrak (as it’s billed here, although the show’s actual name is spelled Wildtrack) is one of the most stripped-down tunes, with its minimal instrumentation, which perfectly captures the simplicity of the theme, as well as the period when the programme was made.

Mick Weaver and Shawn Phillips’ sombre World In Action title music, with its heavy organ, is lifted here by an uptempo drumbeat which carries it through what could have otherwise run the risk of being rather a heavy and daunting track. Wisely, Berry chooses not to take too many liberties here, and lets his group’s performance and arrangement skills do all the talking, without doing anything to the detriment of the original composition.

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Ronnie Hazlehurst often gets mistakenly credited for the theme from Sorry, whereas his work was in arranging the music written by Gaynor Colbourn and Hugh Wisdom. Berry chooses to start out with a faithful-sounding rendition to begin with, before taking a sidestep in the middle to bring a more Ska-influenced take, complete with appropriate change in tempo, which is an unexpected – but very amusing – diversion.

Rounding things out on the album is the Open University music, which lasts only thirty-seven seconds, and doesn’t give Berry much room to be playful. However, in its understated way, the track probably gives the most fitting possible close, as our programming comes to an end without any (figurative) fanfare, much as did the telly closedowns of bygone years.

The album can certainly be considered a success, in giving not us not only some new and impressive takes on what are generally classics of the medium, but also an insight into some of Berry’s personal influences. If nothing else, it’s left this listener intrigued to hear some of Berry’s original material, as if his covers alone can be so thoroughly captivating, then it bodes very well for the rest of his musical repertoire.

Television Themes was released on 5th October 2018.

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