The 20 Greatest British TV Title Sequences

This is how to make a good first impression, TV shows.

20. The Persuaders

“So you’re basically just going to have Tony Curtis and Roger Moore wondering around being cool in various glamorous locations?”
“That’s roughly the idea, yes.”
“And is the theme tune by John Barry?”
“Yep.”
“Okay, works for me.”

19. Countdown

Because for several generations of British students and senior citizens alike, this made such a profound impact that, as they draw their final breath and depart for the hearafter, the last noise they hear in this life will probably be “be-doop-be-doop bippityboop BONG.”

18. The Shadow Line

Hugo Blick’s smart, strange and superbly acted crime drama got perhaps the finest of the modern minimalist school of opening titles - nothing but a prowling red laser, dust, and a bullet in the darkness, all backed by Emily Barker’s haunting theme song.

17. Gladiators

Because this list wouldn’t be complete without a triangular spaceship flying through a television flesh tunnel to rescue a power ballad that’s being held hostage in the galaxy of floaty faces.

16. Bird Of Prey

Cutting edge computer game themed titles for this 1982, Richard Griffiths-starring paranoid techno-thriller. How good? So good.

15. Jaunty Cockney Singalong, Part I: Minder

Gives you all the character and plot set-up that you need to understand the show’s core relationship, with a great song over the top. Although, blimey, TV was a lot slower back then - just look at how long those meaningful glares between Dennis Waterman and George Cole last for. Steven Moffat would have jumped between three historical periods in the time it takes them to do one grimace.

…and not forgetting the longer version of the song over the closing credits.

Dennis Waterman, the patron saint of singing your own theme tune.

14. Spooks

DRAMA. SO MUCH DRAMA. INTENSE STARING. EVERYBODY IS DOING THEIR SERIOUS FACE.

Seriously, compare this to Minder’s opening sequence for an illustration of just how much faster TV’s got. Everything is urgent, all the time. And nobody did super-slick, gleefully ridiculous, breakneck urgency as well as Spooks, from the titles onwards.

13. Jazzy, art deco-styled ITV show titles from around 1990, Part I: Jeeves & Wooster

The crazily catchy theme tune was written by the great - indeed, Oscar-winning - soundtrack composer and Art Of Noise member Anne Dudley.

12. Jaunty Cockney Singalong, Part II: Only Fools & Horses

Recreating the the still-photos-turned-into-animation bit of the Only Fools titles is what “burst” mode on your camera was made for.

Only Fools didn’t just have one jaunty original song, of course. The closing credits song was just as memorable.

11. “You’re only here for your theme tune”, Part I: Ski Sunday

It’s just pictures of people skiing, and therefore pretty boring unless they fall over (which to be fair they do quite a lot), but what a theme tune - a Bach pastiche punningly called “Pop Looks Bach”, composed by Sam Fonteyn and plucked by the BBC from a music library. Here’s a video of Belle & Sebastian covering it, if that sounds like your sort of thing.

Ski Sunday narrowly beat Grandstand, Match of the Day, and the BBC cricket coverage for the “brilliant sports show theme tune” slot on this list, btw. Sorry, “Soul Limbo” fans.

10. “You’re only here for your theme tune”, Part II: The BBC’s Formula 1 coverage

Oh, okay, one more then. Because Fleetwood Mac.

9. Blackadders II, III and Forth

From the second series (when it got good), Blackadder’s title sequences did a brilliant job of evolving as the series hopped through history. Stylistically completely different, they still manage to simultaneously capture the show’s piss-takery perfectly, and reflect the subtle tonal differences between the seasons.

8. The Prisoner

A title sequence so long that it actually comes in two parts - something you simply couldn’t do today. The first segment is a classic “tell you the whole plot set-up in the titles” effort, part swinging sixties spy caper and part taut tale of betrayal. It’s classily done - although it doesn’t half take its time.

But that’s because it’s setting us all up for the disorienting, rug-pulling reveal of the second segment - this is actually tale of surrealist paranoia that’s far, far weirder than the opening lulled you into expecting.

7. Life On Mars

It’s easy to miss how smartly Life On Mars’s title sequence captured the show’s time hopping premise. As slick and modern as Spooks’ titles, but with classic period elements thrown in: from that deeply-unfashionable scene-setting narration, to that crowd-pleasing double punch at the end.

6. The Day Today & Brass Eye

As a reminder: Chris Morris’s pair of era-defining comedies were supposed to be satirising the overblown nature of news programmes, not providing a how-to guide. But all the best parodies become predictions with time. Today they actually look fairly understated compared to the output of some news channels.

5. “You’re only here for your theme tune”, Part III: The BBC News countdown

Not a traditional title sequence - instead, a series of interstitials set to David Lowe’s music - but it makes this list for a couple of reasons:

1) It extends across multiple international versions, evolving dynamically over time while retaining a consistent set of core brand values.

2) Genuinely sick bass.

(Of course, the whole thing was entirely recontextualised by Bill Bailey’s observation that it’s the music from an apocalyptic rave.)

4. Arena

The BBC’s influential art documentary strand has just the most soothing TV title sequence in history. Also the music’s by Brain Eno.

3. The South Bank Show

So it turns out that long-running arts series were where it was at in terms of title sequences. ITV’s cultural magazine series was consistently inventive, weird, fun and - as the compilation above shows - as good a guide to the aesthetics of the era as the show itself.

2. Jazzy, art deco-styled ITV show titles from around 1990, Part II: Poirot

Atmospheric, stylish, memorable and with a wonderfully evocative score - the Poirot titles were just sheer class.

1. Doctor Who

Oh, come on, was there ever going to be anything else at number one?

Now, please tell us all the great ones we missed. (Note: we didn’t include any children’s TV shows, because they’re probably a different list.)

UPDATE: oh god, we forgot the amazing Bladerunner-style titles for Blockbusters.

Should probably go in somewhere between Blackadder and The Prisoner.

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