Lemons Parking

For people of a certain age there is a news theme that evokes memories of days off of school ill so strongly it might as well be carbonated and wrapped in orange cellophane1.

The theme in question was Ken Elliot’s2 1972 theme to ITN’s First Report (in 1976 the programme was moved half an hour later in the afternoon and renamed News At One).

What made this theme really special was that it was completely performed on synthesisers. This made it really stand out from other news themes at the time3.

Ken’s synth theme is very characteristic of his style. All done on ARP2600 IIRC and probably at CF8 studios—where I had the pleasure of doing some rough mixes of some of the Seventh Wave tracks.

Richard G. Elen, Transdiffusion All Talk

There had been attempts at creating a synthesised television news themes before, most notably with the “plastic set” launch of the BBC Nine o’Clock News on 14th September 1970. The futuristic set went with a futuristic signature tune composed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Colour publicity photo for the first day of the BBC Nine o'Clock News on 14 September, 1970. Newsreader Robert Dougall is shown seated behind a desk, smiling. In the background there is a grey vacuum formed set with tesselated rhombi that echo the BBC Tv logo of the time. There is a large clock logo over Dougall's right shoulder showing the time of 9pm.
Robert Dougall and vacuum formed plastic set

On the first day, Robert Dougall said that he was rather startled by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s wobbulated bleeps and bloops as he had not heard them in advance. Neither the set nor the music went down very well.

The plastic set was very rapidly relegated to comedy programmes4 (replaced by a very strange CSO newsroom that remained static when the camera angles changed) and Peter Hope’s “Newsroom One” replaced the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s signature tune.

The First Report/News at One theme was arguably the first synthesised news theme that really worked. It lasted from 1972 until 1987, which was a fantastic innings given the chronic neophilia of television executives, and it still sounds just as fresh today as it did then. I also loved the green and blue typing hands which accompanied the stills in the title sequence.

How this title sequence was done with 1972 technology for First Report I haven’t got a clue but, fortunately, Gareth Randall does:

A while ago I tried to work out the most logical way the titles must have been done. The actual typing hands have obviously just had what we’d now call a solarisation effect applied, probably with a “Cox box”, one of the many analogue video processing devices made by Michael Cox Electronics—a Cox box was used to generate the colours for the BBC Noddy-era symbols.

The giveaway for how the stills were made to appear is that you can see in some off-air recordings that the photos aren’t exactly lined up in their little boxes and the edges of some overlap into an adjacent box.

That reveals that it’s a separate camera shot of a montage of photos (easy to make up and refresh on a daily basis) being revealed box-by-box using an animated matte, and the camera was often not lined up precisely with the matte.

The only question really is whether the sequence was done live every day, or pre-recorded once the day’s photo montage was ready. My feeling is they probably just did it live each day; the matte run could have part of the main titles tape, or run in sync using a separate VTR, or a series of slides cut up live.

Gareth Randall, Transdiffusion All Talk

Back in 2011, when my children were small, I recreated the News at One title sequence using footage of my daughters and places around the town where we lived at the time to make them laugh (and they did).

One of the things I always wondered as a child was what this theme would sound like played in a more conventional way. I didn’t and still don’t think it should have been played on conventional instruments. I love it exactly the way it is. However simply wondered what it would sound like if it was.

I began to sketch out the theme in MuseScore. I first worked out by tapping with a pencil and counting the beats that the theme was in 7/8. Needless to say, 7/8 time is well outside of my comfort zone5. The rule in Britain at the time seemed to be that no television news theme should ever be written in 4/4.

Beginning to sketch the theme

The theme was written in A major, which meant that Big Ben on E was the major fifth (or dominant) and in harmony with the melody.

I completed the sketch, which just meant I got all the notes out. I hadn’t “arranged” it yet, I just wrote down all the notes I could hear and put in the closest instrument to the synth Ken Elliott used for each part.

I then brought in all the instruments in the orchestra, and shared the existing parts in the sketch between them. I haven’t written anything new, just doubled up all the parts in the sketch with other instruments. Here’s the finished result:

Overall I was pleased with what I did, but unsurprisingly my arrangment was nowhere near as good as the original. I didn’t ever expect it to be. However, what was interesting for me was how conventionally written the score was. The piece had been originally composed as if an orchestra was going to play it. You could hear what would have been the brass part, and what would have been the string part.

In my memory News At One/First Report itself was an interminably boring programme, mainly made up of long, dull interviews with TUC and CBI members talking about inflation, deflation, stagflation and for all I know Terry Nation. However, if your mother wanted to watch The Sullivans she would have missed the news on the BBC; therefore, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen or The Spinners on Pebble Mill at One were reluctantly sacrificed in favour of the not inconsiderable charms of Leonard Parkin6.

Leonard Parkin, presenting News at One

After News At One, there were some wonderful synthesised themes that followed. ITN rolled another six with their wonderful News At 5:45 theme. BBC South West had an excellent BBC Radiophonic Workshop theme to Spotlight and Channel Four News had the wonderful “Best Endeavours” by Alan Hawkshaw.

If you enjoy this kind of rubbish, you might like to follow me on Mastodon, which as I use as a kind of notepad while I’m working so I can remember what the hell it was I was actually doing.

As always, any corrections or comments you have on this article are very welcome, and I will try and fix any factual errors within a day.

  1. Getting a bottle of Lucozade, wrapped in orange cellophane was what happened when you were ill in my childhood. It was revolting, and looked and tasted like Dettol, but nevertheless you believed that you had to drink it so you would “get better”. ↩︎
  2. I was intruiged when I found out that Ken Elliot had written the theme. I had heard of Seventh Wave as Woolly Wolstenholme (who, incidentally, was composer of another ITV lunchtime favourite, the theme to Cockleshell Bay) had said he admired their work. ↩︎
  3. To give anyone younger than me an idea why the First Report theme stood out so much, when I was young ITN was using “Non-Stop” by John Malcolm, BBC 1 were using “Newsroom 1” by Peter Hope, HTV West were using “Telegraph House” by Keith Papworth, Westward Television were using “Ticker Tape” by Sidney Torch and Dennis Rycoth and BBC 1 West were using “Big Beat” by John Cavacas for Points West. ↩︎
  4. Notably the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode Salad Days where it was the backdrop to Richard Baker asking “Lemon Curry?” ↩︎
  5. By a rather strange coincidence, when I was looking up 7/8 time, the top result was from Hertfordshire flautist Jade Bultitude. I wonder if she is a relative of @transdiffusion favourite Basil? ↩︎
  6. Yes, you guessed it: Lemons Parking is what I used to call Leonard Parkin when I was a toddler. ↩︎



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