Radio 4 UK Theme (1973–2006)

In the early hours of this morning, the UK Theme was played for the last time on BBC Radio 4. Like many people, I’m not awake at 5:30am. But despite the fact that it’s broadcast at such an unearthly hour, the announcement in January that the theme would scrapped caused an outcry that reached as far as Parliament.

For the benefit of anyone not familiar with British radio, I should explain that Radio 4 is purely a speech radio station. Whole pieces of music are never played on the station, and even on the famous programme “Desert Island Discs”, where a celebrity chooses his or her favourite music, only short excerpts are played. So for me, the appeal of the UK Theme lies in the fact that it was five minutes of uninterrupted music, a moment of calm before the usual business of the day.

Composer Fritz Spiegl (1926–2003) was born in Austria to a Jewish family, and escaped to Britain in 1939 after facing persecution by the Nazis. As a 13 year old boy in England, he didn’t speak a word of English. But as is often the case, he would eventually come to care more about the language and culture of his adopted country than most of the people who were born here. A true polymath, Spiegl became principal flautist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, but also wrote books and newspaper columns, usually about language. He found it difficult to understand how the English could know so little about their mother tongue.

The UK Theme is a medley of traditional British tunes that, though clever use of counterpoint, manages to squeeze many tunes into exactly five minutes – the length of the time-slot it occupied on radio. It begins with a brass fanfare of the first few bars of Early One Morning, and English folk song. This is followed by Rule Britannia. There is then a slight drop in tempo, but not enough to lose momentum, and a tender rendition of the Londonderry Air (representing Northern Ireland) on the cor anglais. After the first eight bars, this is joined by the violin playing the Scottish Annie Laurie. The side drum announces the start of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor? played on the piccolo, the inclusion of which perhaps showing that Spiegl was not without a sense of humour. After the first verse, this is then combined with Greensleeves played on the strings. Another drum roll introduces a brass rendition of Men of Harlech (now probably best known for being sung, with modified lyrics, by Welsh soldiers in the film Zulu). The woodwind then play Flower of Scotland in counterpoint. After this, Spiegl clearly decided Men of Harlech was too good to waste, so the chorus of the song continues alone. There is then a brief reprise of the opening fanfare, this time leading to a gentle version of Early One Morning played in full. Rule Britannia is then brought in one more time, starting on the strings and building up to the full orchestra. In the last few bars, a solo trumpet can be heard playing a phrase evocative of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary.

Spiegl’s music brings together the four home nations of the United Kingdom. It is quite patriotic in its tone, but not in an overbearing way. In the 1970s, it took a man born in Austria to write the music. Today, I can’t imagine it being commissioned at all. I only hope the nation Spiegl so loved doesn’t one day go the same way as his theme tune.

2 responses to “Radio 4 UK Theme (1973–2006)”

  1. Paris

    Wow! thank you very much for that article! Shame no one replied so I am just dropping a few lines to show some respect to the guy that composed that tune.

    I do not understand why the Radio 4 guys gave end to a classic tun. Politicalities I guess….

    Hm… Try though to axe the match of the day tune and the Nation will be on a weekly strike ( at least)

    Again thankn you for letting me know about the story of this gentleman, and let me in exchange tell you another story about an Irish lad that made a caused a major impoact to the revival of Cretan traditional Music.

    The Island of Crete is as Greek as Britain is Europe… Of course we do speak Greek language and we are Greeks but we have a different culture and a different dialect and generally we feel that we are first from Crete and then we are Greeks.
    We are very famous for the Minoan civilisation ( the world’s first plumbing system etc) and other great things… anyway to cut the long story short, ROSS DALY came to Crete to study the music of the Island and he fell in love with the energy of the place…

    Because of him we re-discovered our music although in his first years he was treated suspiciously by the idiot traditionalists that wanted their music “pure”.. ( my arse)

    Because of his extended research in Crete and Eastern Music we were lucky to be more in more in touch with our real culture because music is a part of our culture ( like the beautiful but very ignored British folk)

    In a strange way when you are foreigner you learn to appreciate the place that you expatriate more and treat it with more respect….

  2. John Miller

    Enjoyed the article. I’m quite an early riser and occasionally tuned in specifically to hear the Theme as I never tired of its clever interweaving of traditional tunes from these islands.

    Could I please make one correction? The tune which followed the start of “Men of Harlech” was “Scotland the Brave”. “Flower of Scotland” is a much more recent composition, dating from the late 1960s.

    Best wishes,
    John Miller
    (Greenock, Scotland)

Leave a comment

By browsing this site, you agree to its use of cookies. More information. OK